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This study examines state responsibility in the protection of civilians in armed conflict: The case of Anglophone Cameroon. The study considers the laws, principles, and customs that safeguard people and or civilian property during times of armed conflict,. The goal of the study is to determine the extent to which belligerents have broken international laws, norms, and customs in the conduct of hostilities in terms of civilian protection and property. It also entails a review of the historical events that led to protracted armed engagements between government forces and a developing loosely connected network of non-state armed organizations known as the Amba boys, which began as peaceful protests by lawyers and teachers in 2016.

Thousands of lives have been lost, people have been injured, populations have been displaced, property has been destroyed, and countless human rights violations have occurred as a result of the conflict between government troops and the Amba boys. The study’s data was gathered from both primary and secondary sources and evaluated descriptively. It was discovered that the commitment to safeguard civilians and non-combatants in Cameroon’s North West and South West areas falls short of what is required by international human rights and humanitarian law. While some of the destruction done to civilians by both sides appears to be deliberate, there is no doubt that many more lives and property are being lost unintentionally. Therefore, it is mandated in humanitarian law among other things that, civilians should be distinguished from combatants and protection of civilians and/or civilian property should be primordial to belligerents in the conduct of hostilities.

Keywords:  State Responsibility, Protection of civilians, Anglophone crisis, armed conflict



1.1 Background to the study

Throughout history ways have been sought to limit the effects of conflicts and protect civilians by regulating how wars are fought. Yet one need only look at the conflicts in Syria, the Central African Republic, South Sudan, Libya, Yemen and above all the Anglophone conflict to see the challenges these efforts continue to face.

Conflicts such as these and the loss of life, dignity and  livelihoods that they cause compel us to ask what tangible progress has been made in enhancing the protection of civilians in armed conflict. Since the end of the Second World War there have been significant normative developments.

Today, belligerents are subject to far more limitations on how they fight. But do they abide by them? Lack of compliance with international humanitarian law (IHL) exacts a heavy price on civilians Eva Svoboda & Emanuela-Chiara Gillard, (2015).

It would be simplistic and historically incorrect to say that there was ever a time when compliance was particularly good, let alone perfect. That said, systematic violations of IHL by parties to armed conflict must not be seen as inevitable or insurmountable.

While armed non-state actors (ANSAs) are not formally parties to international treaties, the rules of IHL applicable in non-international armed conflict are nevertheless binding on them. Violations of IHL by ANSAs are as much of a problem, and pose as much of a threat to civilians, as violations by states Eva Svoboda & Emanuela-Chiara Gillard, (2015).

A civilian is a person who is not a member of the police or the armed forces. Civilian population consists of people who are neither combatants nor members of the armed force.

The protection of civilian population and of individual civilians during armed conflict under International Humanitarian Law can be viewed in two groups: firstly, the rules providing protection to the civilian population or individual persons under the control of the adversary against violence; and secondly the rules providing protection of the civilian population against direct effects of military operations and other acts of hostility (ICRC 2005).

The first group relates to the legal protection of human beings against violence and abuse of power. These rules are often called the Law of Geneva or Red Cross Law as they were essentially codified in the Geneva Conventions.

The second group of rules set limit to the conduct of military operation itself. This law is called the Law of The Hague, that is, the 1907 Hague Regulations annexed to Hague Convention (IV) on War on Land was the first comprehensive codification in this area.

Non-state armed groups (NSAGs) have become an essential topic of analysis and discussion in order to better understand international humanitarian law (IHL) dynamics. Although certain commentators still consider contemporary public international law to be predominantly State-oriented (Martti Koskenniemi (2003). 

it is undeniable that over the last three decades a variety of different NSAGs have played important roles within the international realm

Protection of civilians is the quintessence of international humanitarian law (IHL), also known as the law of armed conflicts, the law of war or simply, humanitarian law. It is a core component of public international law which comprises of rules that seek to restrict the means and method of warfare and as well protect people who are not or no longer taking part in hostilities such as prisoners of war (POW), camp workers, former combatants or wounded/sick combatants who are categorized to be hors de combat Fangmbung et al, (2020, p.1).

The use of force generally has been banned according to article 2(4) of the UN charter: All members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.

The use of force can only be applied as the last resort when all other mechanisms to resolve crisis must have failed. Fangmbung et al, (2020)

International humanitarian law is often confused with international human rights law, this should not be because, the latter applies at all times whereas the former applies only in situations of armed conflicts.

Both laws complement each other since it is aspects of human rights that when breached in situations of armed conflict, will amount to crimes against humanity, the crime of genocide or war crimes. Belligerents tend to ignore the protection of civilians, and at times civilians and/or civilian property are deliberately targeted in order to achieve their aims against the laws of war. State Armed groups (SAGs) may justify offensive on the civilian population as self-defense, pre-emptive action, enforcement  of the role of law or defending the territorial integrity of the state; these being justifiable reasons for which a country can resort to armed conflict according to the principle of jus ad bellum.

Underlying the aforementioned justifications for intervention by the SAGs, the Cameroon Law No 2014/028 of 23rd December 2014 passed to check acts of terrorism within Cameroon has made the scope for military action more expansive and elastic.

In particular, the loose definition of terrorism under this law may curtail the population’s freedom of expression, freedom to participate in protest, freedom of opinion, and freedom of association (Agbor-Balla, personal communication, August 24, 2018). So far, many persons have been arrested and charged with terrorism based on the tenets of this law since the start of the Anglophone crisis cited in Fangmbung et al, (2020).

War is the total breakdown of law and order synonymous to a climax of hostilities between two or more opposing groups. Usually, civilians are caught in the midst of hostilities but are entitled to protection from their state at all times unless in situations where a state fails or is unable to provide the required protection.

The effects of war are more on the civilian population and their property when the conflict is asymmetric in nature (involving opposing camps of unequal strength such as a state‟s army and a non state armed group) where communities have members of the Non-State Armed Groups living within their fold.

Civilians are vulnerable and usually suffer great loss during surprise confrontations or counter-reprisals by the SAGs who often see elements within the civilian population as saboteurs, sympathizer or enablers (Boutrous-Ghali, 1992)

Recent experiences in many Sub-Saharan African countries prove that the use of force to crush revolts without necessarily addressing the grievances or attempting to treat the issues at stake usually aggravate the problem.

In particular, continued denial of the „Anglophone problem‟ by the government of Cameroon and its determination to defend the unitary state through denial, disregard, intimidation, and repression has escalated the problem further (CRISIS GROUP, 2017).

The two Anglophone administrative regions present a lot of diversity in their physical features but they have a common linguistic heritage, the English language acquired from their former colonial master Britain. The cultural background inherited from Britain gave grounds to what is today known as the Anglophone cultural identity.

The Anglophone cultural identity identifies with civility, broad- mindedness, hard work, moral integrity, accountability, forthrightness, duty consciousness and above all, the assertive, fearless ability to stand up for one’s rights, and convictions in the face of adversity.

One can rightly say that the British colonial history has a lot to do with the evolution of what may be described as an Anglophone culture although the ethnicities of the North West Region and the South West Region are broadly diverse (Nfi, 2014).

The GOC has, however, not been adamant to the events surrounding the crisis from the onset in different occasions providing solutions which have been judged to be short of providing solutions to the Anglophone crisis.

The GOC has applied several strategies from the start of the crisis in November 2016 amongst which are; the creation of a National Commission for Bilingualism and Multiculturalism; the implementation of a new bench for Common Law at the Supreme Court; the creation of a Common Law Department at the National School of Administration and Magistracy (ENAM).

The recruitment of 1,000 Bilingual Technical Teachers to increase the staff strength of Anglophone technical colleges, the reconnection of internet services in the two Anglophone regions in Cameroon after a 92-day disconnection (CRISIS GROUP, 2017).

These measures have not proven to solutions to the crisis as the steps are considered by Anglophones and leaders of the Anglophone movement to have come a little too late after the conflict dynamics have changed (Human Rights Watch, 2018).

The progressive changing demands of the activists from a protest to demand for a return to the federal system, a demand for cessation and finally, from mere protests, they have resorted to the use of arms in a bid to restore the independence of Southern Cameroons (Bisong, 2019). Today, the two Anglophone regions are experiencing armed conflict situation which has led to the loss of lives and property with thousands of internally displaced and others in the bushes in search of safety.

Undoubtedly protection of civilian is problematic in intra-state armed conflicts which are most often asymmetric. It is difficult to distinguish enemies from the surrounding population, especially when opponents use civilians as human shields or occupy their places of worship, homes, and other private locations.

Civilians are bound to come under danger whenever there is crossfire since the NSAGs especially do not always use conventional means and methods of warfare when attacking the SAGs.

Notwithstanding, humanitarian law requires belligerents to abide by the rules of armed conflict whether or not they are signatories to relevant agreements or protocols relating to the conduct of hostilities vis-à-vis their opponents or civilians.

Belligerents are expected to conduct hostilities according to the criteria of Jus in Bello in accordance with the Principle of Necessity which states that actions must fulfill a legitimate military objective, the principle of distinction which stipulates that actions must target only combatants and not civilians, the principle of proportionality which holds that actions must not cause excessive incidental civilian harm in relation to the anticipated gain in military advantage, and lastly, the principle of humanity whereby, actors must not use means that cause unnecessary suffering (Engle, 2009).

Insecurity has taken sway as belligerents kill civilians, burn homes, neighborhoods and sometimes even entire villages as well as public buildings such as schools, markets, bridges, administrative buildings and hospitals (Ngum, 2019).

Abuses on civilians continue to put lives at risk and raise concerns over the non-compliance with the internationally accepted norms of war. There are evidences of the application of the banned „scorched earth‟ tactics in warfare after the Second World War for its devastating effects on human beings and to biodiversity in several communities (Moma, 2019).

From the onset of the crisis in 2016, schools have been closed with some school campuses and health facilities turned into camps by belligerents (Animbom, 2019). School children and teachers alike are perpetually being kidnapped for ransom demands or killed for violating the „no school‟ policy instituted by the Amba boys. Civil servants, the clergy (Imams, priests, Nuns, Monks, Pastors, and Bishops), politicians, businesspeople and the elites are also not spared from the kidnappings, torture and sometimes even killed.

Faced with this deteriorating situation, the safety of civilians has become an issue of great concern to individuals, the community, and the international community resulting in widespread condemnations. It is in the light of the fast deteriorating human rights and humanitarian crisis that the study examines in detail the activities of the protection of civilians during armed conflict.

As of August 2018, a total of 122 villages have been raided with 82 severely devastated (CHRDA, 2018). Coupled with arbitrary arrests, rape, looting and indiscriminate extra- judicial killings, this situation has forced villagers to seek refuge in bushes.

Wounded combatants have been pulled out of hospital beds and killed; human decapitation, attacks on civilians including girls, women and the elderly is now commonplace; nursing mothers are pulled out of healthcare facilities and raped; women and children have been shot at indiscriminately (CHRDA, 2018). Incidences of kidnapping, abduction, torture, arbitrary arrest and detentions, looting, students and teachers forced out of schools with schools, hospitals, homes, markets and entire villages burned down indiscriminately, kidnapping for ransom demand are on the increase (Ngum, 2019).

According to the law of armed conflict, civilians must never be a target of attack and must not only be spared but equally protected from direct abuses or collateral damages. Collateral damages are incidental damage to persons or objects that are not lawful military targets in the circumstances ruling at the time.

Such destruction is not unlawful if it is not excessive in the light of the overall military advantage anticipated. It is in the light of these preceding that this study evaluates the responsibility of belligerents towards protecting civilians and/or civilian property.

1.2 Statement of the Problem

It has been demonstrated that civilians are protected under International Humanitarian Law. However, enforcement of these laws relating to the protection of civilians during armed conflict is problematic. For instance, enforcement of judgments of the International Criminal Court which is the major court for the enforcement of the laws against atrocities committed against civilians during armed conflict is not a “bed of roses” owing to the fact that the states sometimes fail to cooperate as required by the Rome Statute

The various states do not fulfill their responsibility of protecting civilian rights. It should be noted that protection of civilians guarantees stability efforts which build the capacity of a nation to achieve long-term sustainability and incorporates such essential considerations such as civilian casualty mitigation.

These are the measures to avoid or mitigate civilian casualties and reduce the adverse effect of those that occur. Belligerents are required by international law to prevent or halt mass atrocities, and conflict-related sexual violence and abuses, including rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, mutilation, indecent assault, trafficking, inappropriate medical examinations, and strip searches.

The mechanism put in place of the protection of civilian rights are not being properly implemented by states. Protection of civilians under international law is vital in the outbreak of every arm conflict whether it is domestic or international.

This is because the Geneva Convention of 1949 requires that both parties to the conflict respect the rules of warfare in the course of the battle that erupt. Civilian protection becomes a more vital subject as there is a need to ensure the needs of certain members of certain groups of women, children, diplomatic agents, the injured etc.

It is based on the foregoing that this researcher has embarked on this research to discover the causes of the violation of the rights of civilians during war tines and to make policy recommendations which shall help in solving the problems highlighted.

Looking at the Anglophone conflict, some questions are left unanswered; are civilian rights being protected by state parties, what strategies do civilians used to protect themselves

1.3 Research Questions

This study revolved around the following main research question and Specific research question:

1.3.1 Main Research Question

  • What are state responsibility in the protection of civilians in armed conflict

1.3.2 Specific Research Question

  1. What are the laws put in place by the Cameroonian government to protect civilians in the Anglophone Conflict?

  2. To what extent are the laws respected by the belligerents?

  3. What are the strategies put in place to hold belligerents accountable for not respecting the rights in armed?

1.4 Objectives of the study

1.4.1 Main objectives

The main objective of the study is to look at the protection of civilians in the Cameroon Anglophone conflict looking at responsibilities of state and non state armed groups

1.4.2 Specific Objectives

  • To investigate laws put in place by the Cameroonian government to protect civilians in the Anglophone Conflict

  • To bring out the extent to which the laws are respected by the belligerents?

  • To examine the strategies put in place to hold belligerents accountable for not respecting the rights in armed


Further reading:The protection of civilians in crisis situations. case study northwest and southwest regions of Cameroon

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