Overlooking Africa, Again

By Rebecca Tinsley

This has been a bitter year for Africa. Throughout 2022, the world’s attention has been on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while devastating conflict in Africa has not made the headlines. Sadly, this is nothing new, but it reminds the continent that the international community rarely focuses on more than one war at a time. Worse, that white victims command the greatest media interest.

Violence and atrocities have been going on for five years in an armed conflict in Anglophone Cameroon, seemingly unnoticed by the rest of the world; millions are displaced, living in daily terror in South Sudan’s conflict; minorities continue to be persecuted in Sudan as its democratic transition is on life support; the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is once more the scene of massive civilian casualties;  and researchers say half a million people may have died in Ethiopia in the war between Addis and the Tigray region

Following the Rwandan genocide, the United Nations adopted the 2005 Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine which committed all nations to respond proactively in the face of identity-based targeted killings wherever they occur. It isn’t enough to send aid to the survivors of massacres: states have a duty to intervene before conflicts escalate to genocide. Yet, R2P remains on the shelf, gathering dust, along with the 1948 Genocide Convention and numerous Geneva protocols.

What can be done about the failure to enforce international laws and conventions against genocide and crimes against humanity? What will powerful violators like Russia’s Vladimir Putin conclude when they see small scale warlords and tinpot autocrats in Africa and elsewhere enact massive destruction of lives and property with total impunity?

This week, at a meeting in The Netherlands around the 21st Assembly of States Parties to the International Criminal Court, an attempt will be made to give these worthy laws some meaning beyond platitudes. Specifically, the duty to prevent genocide will be emphasized.

The ICC’s Assembly of State Parties will hear from Professor Hannah Garry of the University of Southern California and other high level experts including UN Special Adviser to Prevent Genocide, Alice Nderitu. Garry will bring attention to neglected conflicts in Ethiopia, Cameroon and Armenia, urging the UN Human Rights Commission to send a fact-finding mission to gather evidence in these countries, an essential step on the road to securing justice for the victims of conflicts.

Garry, together with other international legal experts, has also filed a legal brief with the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court calling for a preliminary investigation into Cameroon. Her legal brief contains comprehensive evidence of crimes against humanity against civilians in Cameroon’s Anglophone regions. She will draw attention to this preliminary examination as an important step for prevention of genocide.

What is unique about Professor Garry’s efforts in The Netherlands this week is her focus on the duty to prevent genocide before it happens. The international community has mechanisms to prosecute the architects of genocide after it has occurred.

“While States and the international community have grown increasingly sophisticated at implementing the legal obligation to prosecute after the fact under the Genocide Convention, they continue to fail to fully implement the duty to prevent resulting in the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives,” Garry said.

According to Garry, we must hold governments to their legal responsibility to respond to the signs that genocide is likely to happen before the killing begins. Such signs, as documented by the NGO Genocide Watch, include hate speech that dehumanizes minorities and laws that discriminate.

Meanwhile in the UK, parliamentarian Lord Alton is pushing the British Foreign Office to formally assess the level of violence in Anglophone Cameroon, a former British Trust Territory. Alton says the UK government’s Joint Assessment of Conflict and Stability section of the Stabilization Unit must take the first steps on the road to referring Cameroon to the ICC.

This week the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide published its annual assessment of countries most at risk of mass killing. Of the 30 most at risk countries, 16 are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Africans living in conflict zones are justified in feeling neglected by the world’s media. However, there is also disappointment that the African Union has often failed to condemn human rights abuses, despite its founding charter commitments, and its frequent refrain of “African solutions to African problems.”.

African expert and native, Dr Christopher Fomunyoh of the NDI in Washington, says referring the Anglophone Cameroon conflict to the ICC might prompt the Cameroon government and armed groups to finally enter inclusive negotiations about a new constitutional settlement, mediated by an impartial third party.

“After five long and painful years, the international community must not wait until after the fact to address the continuing violence in the former British Southern Cameroons. Its engagement on multiple fronts could spur a political solution now and not a day later, so we can salvage what’s left of a perishing Anglophone minority population.”


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