U.S. Supported Cameroonian Military Unit Accused of Abuse

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Sub-Saharan Africa

Amnesty International’s new report entitled “Right Cause, Wrong Means: Human Rights Violated and Justice Denied in Cameroon’s Fight Against Boko Haram” poses serious questions about the U.S. government’s ongoing support for Cameroon’s elite Rapid Intervention Battalion (BIR). Recently hailed by the U.S. Ambassador to Cameroon as showing “all of the values we expect in our own armed forces,” the report paints a starkly different picture of the elite fighting force and raises concerns about the U.S. vetting of potential military aid recipients.

According to the Amnesty International report, the BIR has been engaged in a systematic practice of unlawfully detaining civilians that it suspects to have ties to Boko Haram. It’s also using unofficial military detention sites in lieu of sanctioned civilian prisons as a way to mask human rights violations. One such base, just outside of the city of Maroua in Cameroon’s Far North Region, was the site of at least 25 documented cases of torture—a number of which resulted in the death of the inmate being detained. These examples are similar to what Freedom House observed about the Cameroonian security forces, indicating that such forces acted with impunity for human rights violations such as torture and excessive use of force. 

U.S. military aid to the BIR, which was established in 2001 to address piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and banditry on Cameroonian roadways, initially took of the form of several million dollars to train the BIR in both advanced anti-piracy tactics and human rights. These funds were disbursed as part of the Combating Terrorism Fellowship Program and the International Military Education and Training program, two U.S. programs aimed at strengthening military professionalism and capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa.

This appears to have changed with the increasing concern about Boko Haram. In 2013, the U.S. government’s relationship with BIR continued to grow when the BIR was incorporated into the annual Silent Warrior exercise – where BIR soldiers were taught the finer points of urban warfare by U.S. troops. In FY 2015, the Defense Department allocated $15.9 million to the BIR to support their fight against Boko Haram. As recently as Spring 2016, United States Ambassador to Cameroon Michael Hoza claimed that the BIR was characterized by “professionalism, protection of the civilian population, and respect for human rights.”

While Amnesty’s newest revelations concerning the BIR are certainly the most startling to date, they aren’t the first accusations of human rights violations leveled against the BIR. Going back to 2008, reports of the BIR being deployed by President Paul Biya to suppress riots across Cameroon surfaced, noting that these operations took the lives of up to 100 civilians. The BIR’s human rights record has also previously attracted the attention of the State Department, and it has been specifically mentioned as a source of human rights violations and abuse of civilians dating back to at least 2012.

Given these ongoing human rights concerns, it’s unclear why the U.S. Ambassador supported the BIR so strongly. BIR has been praised as the “most effective security force” in a country that is increasingly important in combatting Boko Haram. However, ongoing human rights allegations against BIR raise questions about U.S. support and the long-term effectiveness of the BIR in light of the fact that abuses by Cameroonian security forces may actually drive Cameroonians toward extremism and distrust of the government.

It’s also unclear whether the U.S. government has taken any action privately to address these alleged human rights violations According to the U.S. law known as the Leahy Law, the U.S. government may not provide military aid to foreign security units where there is credible evidence of gross human rights violations. The law is aimed at not only preventing the United States from being connected with human rights violations but also ensuring forces supported by the United States do not fuel mistrust and anger in the their own countries.

Documents detailed in a recent report published by The Intercept show that in some instances, State Department employees spend approximately two and a half minutes vetting each potential recipient of security assistance. While the State Department likely spends more time on more risky recipients, it’s possible that they didn’t have the opportunity to thoroughly vet the BIR because of a lack of resources. This is illustrated by the fact that individuals in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor were charged with conducting Leahy vetting for more than $15 billion of security assistance while operating on a budget of only $2.5 million in 2014.

If the United States has not previously curbed U.S. military aid to BIR out of human rights concerns, Amnesty International’s new report will likely increase scrutiny on U.S. support for the elite fighting force. This increased scrutiny is needed to ensure that U.S. security aid is going to be effective in building security and stability in the long-term and not inadvertently undermining the rule of law and respect for human rights. 

Jared Thompson is an intern at the Security Assistance Monitor where he covers security issues in Sub-Sahran Africa