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Register, Vote, Protect Your Vote – UN Legal Adviser 

Interviewed By Bouddih Adams

Barrister Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla, Legal Adviser, UN Police in DR Congo, Founder and Executive Director of the Centre for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa, CHRDA,  in the following interview, talks about crimes against humanity and impunity and how he is impacting his experience in monitoring elections on his own country, Cameroon. Has been Legal Adviser – International Criminal Tribunal; Human Rights Officer – UN Mission in Afganistan and recently monitored elections in Afghanistan. Read on:

The Post: How far has CHRDA come and how far will it go?

Barrister Felix Nkongho Agbor Balla: We have achieved a lot but we still have much to do. Currently, we are sensitising people to register for elections. We have done projects like harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation and forced marriages on women and girls in some parts of the Southwest, Northwest and the North. We want to present these to our law makers to put them into law so that the practices should be stopped and those who perpetrate that should be punished.

We do other things like assistance to the under-privileged; arbitration in cases brought to out office; human rights doctrine in prisons. As a research centre, we are currently working on a handbook for secondary schools in Cameroon because there are no textbooks on human rights that can be used. We also build capacities, sensitise and educate Cameroonians on human rights.

CHRDA hasn’t any funding; how do you remunerate your staff?

For the time being, I run and fund the organisation from my pocket. But I am happy because it is a way of giving back to the community. That notwithstanding, we are hoping that sometime in the future we may have funding, if we want to do a big project or research.

Cameroonians are reluctant to register due to elections rigged in the past…?

Voter apathy is not only because of elections rigging. The people are disillusioned with the whole political process, even the opposition and the civil society. The people don’t have a credible alternative.

That is why we are working on the human rights dimension of monitoring elections, based on principles like; were the candidates given the freedom to express their views, could rallies be organised without the DOs or SDOs banning them? So, opposition leaders and civil society must encourage their citizens to register. After voting, they have to stay and watch. But once it is announced that a particular party has won at a particular polling station, people jubilate and leave.

Then, whosoever represents the Government can sign anything on the result sheets. You should be there to ensure that the result sheets are signed, to protect your vote. Let’s give ELECAM the benefit that they will live up to their responsibilities but that we might hold them responsible for rigging of elections. Some people have even argued that rigging could amount to crimes against humanity.

You recently monitored elections in Afghanistan; how did the elections go and what lessons thereof do you have for Cameroon?

Afghanistan is a very complicated country because of the ongoing conflict, the role of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But, surprisingly, the elections were, in my own estimation, free and fair. I am also sure it was because of the immense presence of the UN and the international community that have an interest in ensuring that the elections should be free and fair.

The registration process was open; Afghans were encouraged to register; there were programmes on TV, radio and in the newspapers calling on people to register. They went to universities and encouraged students to register. Here, no political party or civil society has gone to the University of Buea, for instance, that has a population of above 12,000; those are 12,000 votes to grab.

In Afghanistan, we also encouraged political parties to be represented and had meetings with the government as the biggest stakeholder. They need to be cautioned that they can avoid violence if elections are free and fair. Cameroonians should know that.

Youth in other countries are shaping the destiny of their nations; as a youth, what would you tell your Cameroonian peers?

When you talk to youth at the universities, to people who are out of jobs, people looking for jobs, those working, most of them are only trying to get a government job or go to professional schools so that they can end up getting kick-backs. They are not involved in politics and we have people of above 65 or 75, 80 still running the show. We, the youth, constitute the larger majority in this country; we need to get involved, register and vote, get into parliament, into councils.

Also, we have social media which is the new phase of the political revolution in Africa. Egypt and Tunisia have shown us that. Use facebook, twitter, send messages, encourage your friends, ex-students associations, tribal groups to get involved. Our change might not be in the Tunisia-Egypt model, but we might have our own change á la Camerounaise.

What human rights issues can you deduce from what is happening in Ivory Coast and Libya?

In Libya today, there are unlawful killings, especially the civilian population. You have mass graves in Ivory Coast, disappearances, unlawful imprisonment same as in Libya. There is gross and systematic violation of human rights by the Gaddafi regime. That is why the UN had to intervene. If you look at the reasons that the Security Council gave, protection of civilians is at the heart of the UN.

A government owes a duty to protect its citizens, but where the government fails to protect its citizens in the face of gross systematic human rights violation, the international community has the duty to intervene. In Ivory Coast, there was looting, burning people alive, amputation like what happened in Sierra Leone, victimising people by dint of the fact that they are from a particular tribe or a particular political leaning. That could amount to crimes against humanity and even war crimes. In Libya several hundreds of people have died from attacks by the Gaddafi regime.

The civilians were unarmed when the protest started, but the Gaddafi regime used heavy weapons on them. We need to stop that to send a signal to all African leaders that; if your people want to protest, you should allow them protest, but when you start killing them, the international community cannot sit by and watch under the guise of national integrity and sovereignty.

When the UN backs one party in a conflict and civilians die in the crossfire; the UN should also take the blame…

It is true that when there is a conflict, there are casualties on both ends, but I rest the blame in the conflict in Libya solely on Gaddafi. After being in power for 42 years, you are grooming your sons to take over… Libya is not a kingdom. It is criminal; it is a crime against the people to rule them for 42 years and deprive them of the right to protest…

In Cameroon, the regime turned the army against protestors in February 2008 like in Ivory Coast; in Libya there’s systematic use of heavy weapons on civilians; where do you situate impunity, crimes against humanity and genocide?

Impunity runs riot in Africa; impunity from the government to the man in the street. There are people in Cameroon or Libya who commit crimes because they belong to the ruling party and they are not punished. Crime against humanity was committed in Ivory Coast; the mass graves, unlawful killings, looting… In crimes against humanity, there must be an attack on civilian population and the attack must be widespread or systematic.

Do mass killings not amount to genocide?

No. Genocide is when one has the intent to eliminate a people in whole or in part; like the elimination of Jews by Hitler or what the Hutus did to the Tutsis in Rwanda. Even in Darfur, I know George Bush was on record as saying it was genocide, but in the case against El Bashir there is no charge on genocide. In Ivory Coast and Libya, there are war crimes and crimes against humanity, but they will not amount to genocide.

What advice would you have for Cameroon and other countries that want change?

We want change in this country and change for the better not change for the sake of change. We need to be committed, serious, focused; we need to know what we want. Even those who are calling for change are calling for change of personalities: for those who are in power to leave for them to take over power so that they continue to plunder the economy.

We want a veritable change: change wherein the government can be accountable to the people; wherein the constitution can be amended to reduce the powers and mandate of the president; where Article 66 on the declaration of assets would be implemented; where if somebody commits a crime, justice should not only be done but be seen as done; where it is not who you know but meritocracy that qualifies you for a job. Nobody expected what happened in Tunisia or in Egypt. In the 90s, sub-Saharan Africa had their part; there were public demonstrations, national conferences, elections – some were free and fair. Nobody can hold change.

What other message would you have for Cameroonians?

Permit me react to a debate on the net about people in the Diaspora or UN servants talking politics when they don’t pay taxes. UN workers contribute financially to their countries through what is called tax assessment. Cameroonians should register; I came back to also register. Do you think that if 10 or 12 million people were to register and vote, ELECAM or whoever would be able to rig? Just the pressure from voters – the number of votes – will make rigging difficult.

 

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