United States Permanent Representative to the United Nations Ambassador Samantha Power spoke with reporters at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Yaounde, the capital of Cameroon on Tuesday about Boko Haram and sundry issues.
Boko Haram menace
Let me turn to the issue of Boko Haram, which is the focus of my – and my delegation’s – five-day trip. I visited the far north yesterday (Monday) and saw first-hand the devastating toll that Boko Haram’s attacks have inflicted on innocent civilians. There are nearly 170,000 internally displaced Cameroonians, and 58,000 Nigerian refugees in the far north. Amid those huge numbers, there are 2,000 unaccompanied children – children who have not seen their parents since the Boko Haram attacks occurred. I met one young boy yesterday who was 10 years-old, and at age 8, when he was studying in a madrassa, he heard the sound of Boko Haram’s gunfire and fled, and has not seen his parents since.
Today, in Cameroon’s capital, I met and had unusually productive and constructive conversations with President Paul Biya, Prime Minister Philemon Yang, and Defence Minister Joseph Beti Assomo. In these meetings, I had the opportunity to extend, on behalf of my delegation and the American people, our deepest condolences to the people of Cameroon and particularly to the family of the young boy who was killed yesterday in a traffic accident that involved our convoy. All of the members of our delegation are heartbroken by this tragedy.
When it came to our discussions on Boko Haram, I underscored to these leaders that the United States is committed to partnering with Cameroon to defeat Boko Haram. Defeating Boko Haram and neutralising its impact so that civilians feel safe requires work on multiple fronts, and we are working on multiple fronts here in Cameroon and also in the broader Lake Chad Basin region. We are training and equipping regional militaries and we are sharing intelligence with those forces to strengthen the region’s capacity to mount a coordinated fight against Boko Haram. The United States will stand with Cameroon until Boko Haram is vanquished.
Lessons in fight
I also shared with these important officials, including the president, the critical lessons that the United States has learned in our fight against terrorism. The critical lesson is that Boko Haram cannot be defeated by military means alone. I urged all the officials that I met with – and my military colleagues, the deputy commander of AFRICOM and Brigadier General Bolduc, delivered the same message – which is that grievances of the population in the north need to be addressed; inclusive governance needs to be promoted; human rights need to be respected and protected. These, along with military weapons, are the critical tools in the fight against Boko Haram.
$40m in new humanitarian
assistance to countries in
the Lake Chad Basin region
We now have a situation where millions of people have suffered the effects of Boko Haram’s terror. And while we collectively wage this comprehensive, multi-sectoral, political, economic, and military campaign against Boko Haram, we of course have to deal with those who are suffering in the present. And in this regard, I am very pleased to announce that the United States will provide nearly $40 million in new humanitarian assistance to countries in the Lake Chad Basin region to support the approximately 7 million people whose lives have been affected by Boko Haram violence. These funds will be used to support the aid organizations who are providing essential protection and assistance to the most vulnerable. This new funding brings the total U.S. humanitarian contribution for the Lake Chad Basin region in the past two years to $237 million.
I also shared another lesson that the United States has learned over our many years of fighting terrorism; it is extremely important that as we fight Boko Haram, or any terrorist organisation, that we do so in a manner that doesn’t alienate the local population on whom our long-term success depends. In a climate where terror has taken hold, suspicion also tends to take root. When one is afraid and when one is suspicious, sometimes one makes mistakes. And we heard stories from very brave members of civil society from the north who said that at times people are being accused of being Boko Haram, who are simply innocent civilians going about their day.
Some individuals described being afraid to come forward, and even describe Boko Haram attacks, because the very act of having survived a Boko Haram attack may generate suspicion that that individual survived only because they are somehow an ally of Boko Haram.
The environment in an area where terrorists are operating is extremely complex, and making sure that human dignity and human rights are respected can be immensely challenging. But it was heartening to hear the president commit to doing everything in his power to ensuring that checks and balances existed, to ensure that anybody who carries out attacks against civilians will be held accountable. Human rights, respect, and protection are not a luxury that one can begin to consider after one defeats Boko Haram, they are critical to maintaining legitimacy and support from the population so as to defeat Boko Haram.
Since you referenced security forces need to respect civilians and building your upcoming trip to Chad, particularly Nigeria, tell me: what level do the abuses and atrocities have to reach for the U.S. to cut off military assistance? And does the gravity of Boko Haram’s threat lead to that decision or has the U.S. made such an assessment solely on human rights?
First of all, I think one of the most important pieces of American legislation in history is the Leahy Law. And the Leahy Law requires us, in the U.S. government, to look at any unit that is being proposed to receive equipment or training and assess whether or not it has been implicated in systematic human rights abuses. And as you know, probably, over the last – I’ve got to get the timing right – in 2014 and for much of 2015, this proved a significant impediment to a deepened military relationship with certain Nigerian units that had been active in the Northern part of the country.
Our message to the leadership in the countries involved in Boko Haram, as I stressed earlier, is that they and we – humanity – will not win the fight against terror if we are committing gross violations against human rights and alienating a population who need to be our partner in the fight against terror. I should stress that the most vocal purveyor of this message to our military counterparts in the region is not merely me – a diplomat – but it is the U.S. military trainers and special forces who are here to help these militaries succeed on the battlefield.
And in all of my meetings here with senior officials we discussed this very issue and I stressed, as my military counterparts did as well, the importance of thorough and swift investigations into credible allegations of violations of human rights by security forces. And then, very importantly, making sure that whatever the results of those investigations are, are made public. Because since I’ve travelled to Cameroon, I’ve actually learned of specific units that were involved in abuses for which there were legal proceedings within the military but that information is not broadly known outside of military channels or outside of Cameroon. So it is very important to carry out investigations of credible allegations and it is very important that those proceedings be as transparent as possible.
Lately, we’ve had a series of reports on CNN regarding the Chibok children in Nigeria and I want to find out what kind of surveillance training you are giving to our military in Cameroon so we don’t have a similar situation in Cameroon, especially protection not only to the population, but also the military who are risking their lives on the war zone.
With regard to your question about Boko Haram’s kidnapping of the Chibok girls, I would start by noting that we just passed the two-year anniversary of their abduction and as a parent I can’t even conceive of what the parents of those girls have gone through every minute of every day for those two years. I would also note, tragically, that those girls are only a small fraction of the number of girls and boys who have been abducted by Boko Haram, particularly in northern Nigeria.
As you know, President Obama decided to set up a platform in partnership with President Biya, here in Cameroon, a platform for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance. This is a critical part of supporting the Multinational Joint Task Force, of which Cameroon is one member. So, we have information gathered from this platform on Boko Haram troop movements, or information on kidnappings, or even imminent attacks. This is information we are able to get quickly to the multinational task force so whichever country in the Lake Chad Basin region is better able to respond, has that information in a timely manner. And we are very appreciative to Cameroon for welcoming that presence here in this country. It is going to significantly increase over time the effectiveness, I think, of our regional partners.
And I want to assure the parents of the Chibok girls and the parents of any children who have gone missing that, again, the United States is in this for the long haul. We will support the multinational task force and all of the economic development, humanitarian, and political efforts aimed at bringing home those children to the families of which they belong.