The cold-blooded video shows Cameroonian soldiers marching two women and two children down a road. The soldiers make the women kneel on the ground. One of the soldiers gestures to a young girl and says, “Yes. Little girl, come here,” directing her to stand next to her mother. He then pulls the girl’s shirt over her head, blindfolding her. Gunshots follow in fast succession.
The video, which circulated on social media in 2018 and was published in full by The Intercept, led to an investigation and trial that culminated last week with a military court in Cameroon sentencing four soldiers to 10 years in prison and another soldier to two years. “This is one of the very first times we have seen sentences of this kind in a country where it’s extremely rare for soldiers to go on trial for abuses,” said Ilaria Allegrozzi, the senior Central Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
The footage, of executions that occurred in 2015, was initially dismissed as “fake news” and “an unfortunate attempt to distort actual facts and intoxicate the public” by Cameroon’s communications minister. At the time, the Pentagon told The Intercept that Cameroon was a “vital partner” and continued to fully support its armed forces. Later, a forensic analysis established that the video was authentic and that the Cameroonian military was responsible for the executions.
While Allegrozzi noted that the closed-door nature of the trial undermined its potential impact in setting standards for accountability, she told The Intercept that the convictions did strike at Cameroon’s long-standing culture of military impunity. The sentences stand in sharp contrast to many atrocities committed by U.S. personnel who have regularly evaded meaningful punishments even in the face of overwhelming evidence of their crimes. From the slaughter of around 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho at Sand Creek, Colorado, in 1864 to the massacre of more than 500 Vietnamese at the village of My Lai in South Vietnam in 1968 to the mass killing of at least 24 civilians, including women and children, in Haditha, Iraq, in 2005, near-total impunity has often been the norm. Just last year, President Donald Trump granted clemency to three members of the armed forces who had been accused or convicted of committing war crimes in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Likewise, Cameroon has yet to take action in many other atrocity cases. A year before the video of the executions of the four women and children surfaced, an investigation conducted by The Intercept and the London-based research firm Forensic Architecture found a Cameroonian military base that was home to American personnel and drones was also the scene of illegal imprisonment, brutal torture, and even killings by local forces.
In August 2018, The Intercept also published graphic footage of a massacre carried out by Cameroonian troops. More than two years later, there is no evidence that Cameroon’s military has taken any action to hold its forces accountable for the crime. “No investigation was ever announced, despite clear evidence of the execution of a dozen civilians,” said Allegrozzi.
Cameroon’s embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to The Intercept’s requests for an interview or details about investigations into abuses against noncombatants by the country’s security forces.
“We welcomed the efforts by the Cameroonian government to bring perpetrators of this crime to justice,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson told The Intercept when asked about the five soldiers convicted in the executions. The spokesperson noted that while its military continues to receive U.S. aid through numerous programs, “security assistance to Cameroon has been reduced since 2017 because the government has not adequately responded to credible allegations of human rights violations.”
Much more needs to be done, according to Allegrozzi, including additional pressure from the United States to ensure Cameroon investigates other atrocity allegations. “Justice doesn’t end with these convictions,” she said. “This is a first step, but there are so many other cases that have been documented by human rights organizations that have not been brought to trial. The families of those victims are still awaiting justice. This is one small victory over impunity, but impunity is still widespread.”