The International Human Rights Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
Cameroon is a State Party to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 21 governs the right of peaceful assembly, providing that:
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
Cameroon is also a State Party to the First Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, which allows individuals to petition the Human Rights Committee if they believe the State has violated their human rights as protected under the Covenant.
At regional level, Cameroon is a State Party to the 1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights. Article 11 provides as follows:
Every individual shall have the right to assemble freely with others. The exercise of this right shall be subject only to necessary restrictions provided for by law in particular those enacted in the interest of national security, the safety, health, ethics and rights and freedoms of others.
Cameroon is also a State Party to the 1998 Protocol on the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights, but has not allowed the right of petition to the Court by individuals and non-governmental organisations.
The Domestic Legal Framework on the Right of Peaceful Assembly
The Preamble of the 1972 Constitution of Cameroon guarantees freedom of assembly "under the conditions fixed by law".Preamble, §16, to the 1972 Constitution (as amended through 2008).
The principal legislation governing assemblies is Law No. 90/55 of 1990. Articles 3 and 4 of the Law require that assemblies in a public place must be notified three clear days in advance to the District Head or Sub-Divisional Officer with jurisdiction over where the assembly is planned. The notification must state the names and residence of organisers, the purpose of the meeting, venue, date, and time, and the notification must be signed. A public assembly must have an "Executive" comprising of three persons responsible for keeping the peace. They must prevent any violation of the law and prohibit speeches that conflict with public policy or are likely to incite people to commit crimes or misdemeanors.
Articles 6 and 7 of the Law require that demonstrations on public highways be notified seven clear days in advance. They must be detailed and must be signed by one of the organisers. If the District Head or Sub-Divisional Officer deems the demonstration is likely to seriously disturb the peace, they may require that another venue or route be used or prohibit the demonstration altogether. If a demonstration is prohibited, the organisers can appeal to the President of the High Court within eight days.
Any person who takes part in the organisation of a public assembly that has not been subject to a prior declaration, or where false information has been given commits a criminal offence punishable with between fifteen days' and six months' imprisonment and fines of between 5,000 and 10,000 francs. Section 234 of the Penal Code states that when an offence is of a political nature, the penalty shall be detention in a place of imprisonment.
Cameroon's 2014 Anti-Terrorism law is extremely broad and could be used to prevent the exercise of peaceful assembly.
In its 2018 submission in the context of its Universal Periodic Review under the UN Human Rights Council, Cameroon stated that: "During the second biannual conference of regional governors for 2016, guidance was provided on how to manage demonstrations in order to strike a balance between respect for the freedom to demonstrate and considerations of public order."
The Legal Framework on Use of Force During Assemblies
The Use of Force
International Legal Rules
Under international law, the duty on the State and its law enforcement agencies is to facilitate the enjoyment of the right of peaceful assembly. According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials:
In the dispersal of assemblies that are unlawful but non-violent, law enforcement officials shall avoid the use of force or, where that is not practicable, shall restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
All force used by police and other law enforcement agencies must be necessary for a legitimate law enforcement purpose and prioportionate to that purpose.
According to the 2005 Code of Criminal Procedure, a law enforcement official may use "reasonable force necessary" to effect an arrest:S. 30(2), 2005 Code of Criminal Procedure.
The Use of Firearms
International Legal Rules
According to the 1990 United Nations Basic Principles, in the dispersal of violent assemblies, a law enforcement official may only use a firearm against a specific individual where this is necessary to confront an imminent threat of death or serious injury or a grave and proximate threat to life.
Law No. 90/054 of 19 December 1990 relating to Maintenance of Law and Order authorises the administrative authorities to use firearms when serious and widespread violence occur or firearms are used against law enforcement officials. The use of firearms is allowed only if law enforcement officials cannot otherwise defend themselves and only after several warnings have been made, for instance by means of a loudhailer. Otherwise officers must use tear gas and batons to police assemblies.
State Compliance with its Legal Obligations
Views of United Nations Treaty Bodies
In its 2017 Concluding Observations on Cameroon, the Human Rights Committee expressed concern
at reports of infringements of the freedom of assembly, especially in the context of the crisis in English-speaking parts of the country, and of the excessive use of force by police to disperse demonstrations, which led to deaths and injuries during the events of 1 October 2017....
The Committee called on Cameroon to "lift any unnecessary restrictions on the freedom of assembly and the freedom to demonstrate, in particular for members of the country’s English-speaking minority; and ... carry out prompt, impartial and effective investigations of all cases involving the excessive use of force to disperse demonstrations, and bring the perpetrators to justice".
In the 2018 Working Group report on Cameroon in its Universal Periodic Review under the UN Human Rights Council, several states expressed concern at restrictions on the right of peaceful assembly.
Kevin Mgwanga Gunme and others v. Cameroon (2009)
The case before the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights concerned alleged violations of rights protected in the Banjul Charter, including the right of peaceful assembly, against Anglophone protesters in "Southern Cameroon".
In its decision, the Commission noted the cases of suppression of demonstrations, including the use of force against, the arrest and detention of people taking part in such
demonstrations. The Complainant stated that
several victims were arrested and held in detention for long periods, for exercising their right to freedom of assembly. Some of the detained persons were acquitted. There were others who died at the hands of security forces or in detention, after being accused of participation in "unlawful political rallies." The victims who died, or had been detained suffered while exercising their exercise of the right to freedom of assembly.
While the Commission noted that it does not condone unlawful acts by individuals or organisations to advance political objectives, because such actions or their consequences are likely to violate the African Charter, States Parties remain duty bound "to guarantee the rights to freedom of assembly, while maintaining law and order". Cameroon admitted that it had detained demonstrators, applied excessive force to enforce law and order, and that, in some cases, lives were lost. The Commission concluded therefore that Article 11 of the Banjul Charter on the right to peaceful assembly was violated.
In its 2014 Concluding Observations on Cameroon, the African Commission on Human and Peoples' Rights did not address the right of peaceful assembly.
Views of Civil Society
In early 2021, CIVICUS noted the report by Human Rights Watch that 136 people, arrested in relation to opposition protests on 22 September 2020, remained in prison. More than 500 people, mainly supporters and members of opposition party Mouvement pour la renaissance du Cameroun (MRC), were arrested. Amnesty International stated in December 2020 that several people had been tried or prosecuted, either before civilian courts or military courts.
In its 2020 report on Cameroon, Freedom House stated that:
Freedom of assembly is subject to significant restrictions, and the authorities have consistently targeted events held by the opposition CRM in 2019. Police responded with force when the party held nationwide rallies in late January, using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds and arresting over 200 participants. Several participants were wounded, including Michelle Ndoki, a lawyer affiliated with Maurice Kamto.
In June, the CRM held nationwide rallies calling for the release of Kamto and other party officials who were arrested in late January. Authorities resorted to similar tactics to disperse the rallies, injuring at least two participants and arresting over 350 others throughout the country. In November, the government banned meetings scheduled in the cities of Yaoundé, Douala, and Ebolowa. Police assaulted at least 10 demonstrators and arrested a total of 33 people who defied the ban in Yaoundé.
In 2014, Cameroon adopted an anti-terrorism Law. Amnesty International and the Committee to Protect Journalists pointed out that the law infringes the rights to freedom of association and assembly.