Americans Were Nearby as Cameroonian Troops Tortured People
The United States could be liable for human-rights abuses
As a brutal video depicting grave human-rights violations by Cameroonian security forces make its rounds, it again is time to ask — why does the United States continue to support Cameroonian forces despite repeated allegations of abuse?
The question likely is going to grow only more urgent in coming years as U.S. troops increasingly deploy not to fight, but to train, equip and support local and regional forces who fight on America’s behalf.
International humanitarian law hasn’t quite caught up to this shift toward what we call “remote warfare.” But there’s risk that, in this era of proxy warfare, the United States could be held responsible for illegal conduct in operations its forces assist.
In the spring of 2015 in the city of Zelevet, Cameroonian troops blindfolded and beat two women and their two children and then shot them. This is not the first time Cameroonian security forces have been involved in human-rights violations. In 2017, Amnesty International documented 101 instances of Cameroonian forces torturing people they suspected of supporting militant group Boko Haram.
The alleged abusers included regular army troops and members of the Bataillon d’Intervention Rapide. Both are key local partners for the United States. The Pentagon has described Cameroon as “a vital partner in the fight against Boko Haram, ISIS-West Africa and other violent extremist organizations in the Lake Chad Basin region.”
Between 2015 and mid-2016, U.S. security assistance for Cameroons’s counterterrorism efforts totaled more than $130 million. In 2015 there were around 300 U.S. troops at Salek Base, where the majority of the torture and illegal detentions took place, according to Amnesty.
There are no witness testimonies or suggestions U.S. troops participated in the detention or torture themselves. Yet their collaboration with, and training of, Cameroonian forces — not to mention the Americans’ continued presence at the very base where so many were tortured — raises serious questions about U.S. responsibility.
U.S. liability depends somewhat on the level of knowledge the United States had of abuses by those it was training and supporting. In August 2017, U.S. Africa Command stated it had “not received any reports from U.S. forces of human-rights abuses by Cameroonian forces to this date.”
However, Amnesty raised questions about the degree to which international personnel “may have been aware of the widespread practices of illegal detention and torture at the base, and whether they took any measures to report it to their hierarchy and to the Cameroonian authorities.”
“The Americans are aware of every single thing happening in Salak,” a senior Cameroonian army official told reporters. “We have an understanding to share information with the American troops working there, and to give them full access to our facilities.”
In fact, several former detainees reported seeing white, English-speaking individuals right outside the windows of their cells. Photos on a U.S. contractor’s Facebook page show American troops playing football with their Cameroonian counterparts. The building where the torture took place clearly visible behind them.
Furthermore, the U.S. State Department itself warned of Cameroon’s abuses as far back as 2013. “The most important human-rights problems in the country were security force torture and abuse, particularly of detainees and prisoners,” the State Department reported that year.
The department accused Cameroon of “security-force killings, life-threatening prison conditions, arbitrary arrest and detention, prolonged and sometimes incommunicado pretrial detention and infringement on privacy rights.”
It’s hard to imagine U.S. troops deployed to Cameroon without any knowledge of the potential for human-rights abuses. It’s equally hard to imagine the Cameroonians tortured people at the same base where American forces resided, without the Americans at least suspecting something was amiss.
As the United States more often partners with proxy forces, it must be clear about the risks of doing so. Courts might some day hold U.S. troops responsible for their partners’ actions.
Megan Karlshoej-Pedersen is a research and policy officer at the Remote Warfare Program, a U.K.-based policy institute examining changes in military engagement, specifically the shift away from large-scale Western military operations toward light-footprint interventions.