By Rebecca Tinsley*
Twenty years after her family was murdered in the Rwandan genocide, Claudine (not her real name) faced the killer of her husband and three children in court. She did not expect him to apologize, but she did hope he would reveal where he had buried their bodies. Standing in the dock, his eyes flashing with anger, he exercised his only power: to withhold the truth forever, ensuring Claudine would never get closure.
This week, the United Nations marks the international day for the right to truth concerning gross human rights violations, and the dignity of victims (March 24th). Despite its inelegant name, its purpose is central to the UN’s mandate to promote global peace. History teaches us that conflict is unlikely to end without the acknowledgement that atrocities took place, coupled with the airing of long-lasting grievances. Diplomats might be keen to press on with photo opportunities of handshakes and ceasefire deal signings, but unless the experience of the victims is respected, there is much less chance that peace will last. There is a direct parallel with survivors of sexual abuse: there must be a public recognition that what they were subjected to was wrong.
In January, one of the conditions for restarting the devolved government at Stormont in Northern Ireland, after three years of deadlock, was including a mechanism for truth-telling about crimes that happened during the Troubles, decades ago.
In February, one of the main Sudanese rebel groups refused to support the transitional government of Sudan until the country’s new leaders promised that former president Omar al-Bashir, indicted for genocide, would appear before the International Criminal Court. The rebels maintain that there can be no viable or sustainable peace process without justice, and there can be no justice without the acknowledgement of the atrocities perpetrated against Sudan’s non-Arab ethnic minorities.
As the conflict in the English-speaking regions of Cameroon spirals out of control, its victims are bewildered that the world will not recognize their suffering beyond offering platitudes, or apply concerted pressure on the actors behind the slaughter. More than 3,000 lives have been lost, 656,000 people have fled their homes, and 800,000 children are unable to attend school for nearly four years running. Both the Cameroonian armed forces and the non-state armed separatist groups behave with impunity, posting evidence of their atrocities on social media. In other words, representatives of the international community cannot deny that they know about the disaster unfolding in Cameroon, as they disingenuously claimed during and after the Rwandan genocide.
Both the armed separatist groups and the government vow to keep fighting in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions until they achieve military victory. Anglophone civil society members and moderates, such as the Catholic church, are urging inclusive negotiations to find a sustainable constitutional settlement between the Anglophone minority and the ruling Francophone authorities. Their calls are unheeded, and there is no justice for the villagers whose homes have been destroyed or for the small businesses that have been forced to close.
In five years, will the nations who now stand by as atrocities occur be the ones lecturing Cameroon’s survivors on the need to heal and forgive, as they do in Rwanda? Will they send humanitarian aid, assuming everything can be fixed with food and medical supplies, technology and “trainings”? Will the international community again settle for political stability in the form of a ceasefire, rather than insisting on a genuine and durable peace?
If we wish to avoid the human and financial cost of helping to rebuild another African country suffering from wretched circumstances, then those with influence – the UN, the African Union, the Commonwealth, la Francophonie, and former colonial powers Britain and France – must apply sustained pressure on the Cameroon government to join the separatists at the inclusive talks being hosted by the Swiss-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. Those talks must involve truth-telling about the human rights abuses on all sides to the conflict, and the establishment of justice mechanisms. To move forward and heal the deepening wounds in Cameroonian society, Cameroonians must be able to air and share the pain of this conflict and publicly acknowledge their suffering, and are already discussing the possibility of a future truth, justice and reconciliation commission. To ignore the needs of the victims is to ensure that no peace deal would be worth the paper on which it is printed.