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“Look at the details of Eric Ohena Lembembe’s life and you will understand why he died.”
The International Justice Program doesn’t get to travel to Geneva very often, but thanks to the United Nations’ live webcasts, we can usually see and hear all the U.N.’s human rights action as it happens.
On Friday morning, I was eager to watch the U.N. Human Rights Council’s consideration of the Universal Periodic Review of Cameroon. I was especially moved when one of our colleagues from the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS (CAMFAIDS), [whom we’ll call François] took the floor to speak on behalf of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and Intersex Association and recounted his July 15 discovery of his tortured and murdered colleague, Eric Ohena Lembembe, who, before his death, was CAMFAIDS’ executive director.
François had a lot to say during his allocated one and a half minutes, in part because of what CAMFAIDS has been through since May 1. In May and June, there was a rash of break-ins and even arson at the offices of attorneys and organizations that work on behalf of LGBTI people in Cameroon. The attorneys and other activists have faced escalating anonymous threats.
On July 1, CAMFAIDS’ executive director, Eric Ohena Lembembe, spoke out about the increasingly dangerous situation facing human rights defenders in Cameroon working on behalf of LGBTI people. “There is no doubt: Anti-gay thugs are targeting those who support equal rights on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” he said. “Unfortunately, a climate of hatred and bigotry in Cameroon, which extends to high levels in government, reassures homophobes that they can get away with these crimes.”
The Advocates, volunteer attorneys, and partners in Cameroon working hard for change
Along with two volunteer attorneys from the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, we’ve been working intensely over the past two months with colleagues from CAMFAIDS, as well as two other Cameroonian NGOs, to write a report to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) people in Cameroon.
The pace of the Human Rights Council’s UPR process is slow. Governments around the world made recommendations to the Government of Cameroon during an “interactive dialogue” back on May 1. Many countries recommended that Cameroon repeal Article 347 bis, the law that subjects a person engaged in sexual conduct with someone of the same sex to up to five years in prison. Only on September 20, more than four and a half months later, did the Government of Cameroon have to state whether it accepts or rejects those recommendations. (In the end, it accepted only one recommendation that mentioned homosexuality: a recommendation from Belgium to investigate police violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation.) And Friday was the only step in the process in which NGOs get to take the microphone at the U.N. to speak on the record, directly to the government under review.
Human rights defender Eric Ohena Lembembe is tortured and murdered
At the Human Rights Council on Friday, François described what happened to Eric just two weeks after he had spoken out about the increased dangers human rights activists in Cameroon were facing:
On July 15 at 5:45pm in Yaounde, I discovered the dead body of my colleague, our colleague, with the Cameroonian Foundation for AIDS, CAMFAIDS. He was a friend and activist for health; a human rights defender for LGBTI persons, a journalist and a writer. His name was Eric Ohena Lembembe. He was locked in his room after having been tortured and killed.
This crime took place after a series of attacks, threats, and arrests made against members of the LGBTI community and their defenders. Eric Ohena Lembembe denounced in his articles and publications these attacks and the instigators of them. He was harassed verbally on the telephone, by email and by SMS. He was even arrested and placed in detention. But he didn’t take these threats into account, and it cost him his life.
Since this crime, the insecurity situation for the LGBTI community has continued to get worse. I would like to thank the Government of Cameroon for its participation in the UPR, but at the same time we would like to draw attention to the silence with respect to the situation of abuse of LGBTI persons and their defenders.
We urge the government to implement the recommendations it accepted to investigate violence and threats against HRDs and of the rights of LGBTI persons, but also the recommendations they rejected to defend LGBTI persons. We call for an investigation into the killing of Mr. Ohena Lembembe. We call for the perpetrators to be sought out, prosecuted, and convicted. We would like the government to investigate, prosecute, and convict those responsible for the series of threats and attacks against human rights defenders who work for human rights. We call for the government to condemn all manifestations which incite homophobia and crimes.
Human rights defenders around the world face threats and harassment from both private parties and the government. The Advocates has developed a toolkit of resources for human rights defenders to use to enhance their safety and security. But the plight of human rights defenders in Cameroon who work on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity is particularly dire.
In wake of Eric’s murder, the government of Cameroon sets its sights on human rights defenders, rather than Eric’s murderers
The government’s investigation into Eric’s death has been lackluster. Authorities have not released the results of the coroner’s autopsy report. The police have made no arrests. Instead, police detained several of Eric’s colleagues for three days interrogate them about their own sexual practices. And government officials have lashed out at Cameroonian human rights defenders for stirring up matters in the western media.
One of the most disturbing statements came from a commissioner on Cameroon’s National Commission for Human Rights and Freedoms. François heard her speak on a radio broadcast on September 4, just days before François was set to travel to Geneva to speak before the Human Rights Council. First, she defended Article 347 bis, asserting that it “reflects the opinion of the Cameroonian society.” Then, she issued a warning to human rights defenders like François who work on LGBTI issues:
Cameroonians who denigrate their country abroad in international bodies and then complain that they are insecure when they return to their home country — they themselves are responsible for what happens. They know they will be put down.
Her ominous words echoed in my head as I saw François bravely take the microphone September 20, facing a delegation from the Government of Cameroon and wearing a patriotic red, yellow, and green suit that made him look like Cameroon’s answer to Uncle Sam.
At the UPR, Government of Cameroon attempts to sully Eric’s memory
Many other NGOs made statements on a variety of topics, but in response, the Government of Cameroon’s ambassador to the U.N. spoke only in an attempt to deny the realities facing human rights defenders and to sully Eric’s memory:
If you look at statistics, well, we speak about one person who allegedly was a victim of violations because of his homosexuality. But there’s no proof that this gentleman was a victim because of his sexual orientation. He is a man like any other. He might have committed crimes and he was the victim of a settlement of scores which was all too quickly attributed to the Cameroon government.
What would be the advantage, the interest in killing somebody who is a homosexual? There would be no point. No one witnessed him having sexual relations. The government in Cameroon, the armed forces, the police, the security forces, has no power, no ability to go and investigate and inquire about what people do in the privacy of their own bedroom . . . .
So I reject this alleged case of this young man who allegedly was found dead as a result of his homosexuality. Distinguished Ambassadors, ladies and gentlemen, these are just things that have been made up. Look at the details of this person’s life and you will understand why he died.
Inadvertently, this government representative may have stumbled upon a nugget of truth at the end of his statement.
Eric tortured and killed because he worked courageously as a human rights defender
The details of Eric’s life show that he was a courageous human rights defender. He was a fierce advocate who fought to end government-sanctioned discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
If the Government of Cameroon ever conducts a thorough investigation into the circumstances of Eric’s torture and murder, it will likely find that he was targeted not because he was gay, but because he publicly spoke out against homophobia and criticized the Government of Cameroon for condoning threats and violence against human rights defenders of the LGBTI community in Cameroon.
What’s next for human rights defenders working with and on behalf of LGBTI Cameroonians?
Since Eric’s murder, threats against human rights defenders like François have escalated. Some anonymous messages state simply, “You’re next.” But as François’s bold statement before the Human Rights Council confirms, the movement to end persecution based on gender identity and sexual orientation in Cameroon will not be silenced. “It has become more difficult; I must die, and I will,” said Alice Nkom, one of only two lawyers in Cameroon who will defend people charged under Article 347 bis. “Because many died for us to be free today–free to be a woman, to be a black woman, to do what I do. So we must continue.”
The movement’s next step, if funding allows, is to take its case to the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which will review Cameroon’s human rights record October 22-25 in the Gambia. There, our colleagues from Cameroon hope to press Africans to stand up for the rights of LGBTI Africans
Our comprehensive report to the African Commission about LGBTI rights in Cameroon reaches the following conclusions:
- Human rights defenders in Cameroon who serve and support people who are LGBTI are increasingly vulnerable and insecure, and the Government of Cameroon plays an active role in creating a climate of impunity for people who endanger and harass these human rights defenders.
- Enforcement of Article 347 bis (the law that criminalizes same-sex conduct) violates prohibitions on arbitrary arrest, torture, and ill-treatment, and violates individuals’ rights to privacy and security, as well as their right to be free from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
- Criminalization, discrimination, and stigmatization of same-sex sexual conduct in Cameroon undermine efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS.
- Private parties and non-governmental organizations perpetrate acts of violence and harassment directed toward sexual minorities, and government officials at all levels foster a climate that contributes to such persecution.
- Cameroon’s criminalization of consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults is a colonial legacy steeped in European ethnocentric views of African sexuality.
Get engaged; get involved
To read the full report, coauthored by The Advocates, CAMFAIDS, the St. Paul’s Foundation for International Reconciliation, Le Réseau des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Afrique Centrale (REDHAC), and L’Association pour la Défense des Droits des Homosexuels (ADEFHO), click here. The report notes that in September 2012 men in security force uniforms kidnapped and raped the niece of REDHAC executive director Mrs. Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, in an attack she believes was intended to punish her for her human rights work. In April 2013, unidentified assailants attempted to kidnap her son from his school. Mrs. Ngo Mbe has received death threats by text message.
If you are interested in assisting with translating parts of the report into French, please contact Amy Bergquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Amy Bergquist is a staff attorney with The Advocates’ International Justice Program.