Excerpt of a speech by US ambassador to Cameroon, Robert P. Jackson, to a gathering of Cameroonian civil society leaders.
"Perhaps it’s a somewhat banal notion, but in the end human rights is not much more than a fancy term for the kind of relationships we’d like to have with our neighbors: When we do wrong, we must make amends and treat each other fairly; when we disagree, we each speak our mind; when we’re different, we must live and let live."
In the end, however, my role, and the role of the U.S. Embassy, in the promotion and maintenance of human rights is limited. For there is no amount of advocacy or support the United States can offer that is more potent or more fundamental for the respect of human rights than grassroots mobilization. We can talk until we’re blue in the face (trust me, we can, we’re diplomats), but we cannot make changes in this society from the top down. We can suggest and we can cajole, but only you are capable of truly persuading those around you to be the change they want to see. Contrary to what conspiracy theorists might tell you, change doesn’t start in my Embassy, it starts in your neighborhoods, your villages, your towns, and your regions.
Since I am afforded the opportunity to address you, the change-makers, I would like to draw attention to some pressing human rights issues. These are areas very familiar to all, where I have had the pleasure of working shoulder to shoulder with many of you, but where we still have much to accomplish. I am proud to say that these topics are also the areas that we have called the world’s attention to at the United Nations Human Rights Council during Cameroon’s second Universal Periodic Review last week, alongside you, our civil society colleagues.
First and foremost, Cameroon must cease its arbitrary arrests and detentions and limit how long the accused are detained while awaiting trial. The new draft Penal Code limits pre-trial detention to 365 days, and we need to advocate for its immediate adoption. This is an issue that I am sure has affected the work of everyone in this room. It lends security forces undue power over the citizenry, undermines the faith of the average person in the judicial system, and leaves an overcrowded penal system in deplorable conditions. I encourage you to consider creative ways to hold the government accountable and to convince your fellow citizens to do the same.
Secondly, and once again this is an issue I’m sure many of you have experienced personally, the government must respect its laws ensuring the freedom of assembly and speech. Last Friday was World Press Freedom Day, but the Government closed a Bamenda radio station the week before. Too often, groups spend days navigating the byzantine approval process for a public event, only to have everything fall apart at the last moment. The only explanations are vague technicalities hastily cited to mask the unease of a bureaucrat who mistakenly equates civilized, peaceful freedom of expression with civil instability. This pernicious threat to the freedom of assembly does not preserve Cameroon’s stability; it stifles the criticism and creativity already present in society and necessary for the county’s emergence. I encourage you to not only take your government to task for abuses of legal provisions governing freedom of assembly and speech, but also to explain the importance of free expression to your local leaders.
Finally, I’d like to talk about privacy. Mindful and respectful of the ties that bind us as family, tribe, citizens, and people, Cameroonian Government and society should accord greater respect to the right of an individual to their privacy, a right enshrined in Cameroon’s Constitution. The right to privacy is nothing more than the right of someone to be themselves, to think what they want, believe what they want, and love who they want. It is a basic right, but one whose absence is sorely felt by the human rights defender who receives anonymous threatening messages, by the men and women whose homes are invaded because of their sexual orientation, and by the average citizen whose ballots are treated as commodities to be bought and sold. Cameroon has shown great respect for the individual by defending the right of all to worship as they please, and I believe it can show the same respect for people’s basic privacy. Goodness knows how much privacy is accorded to the personal assets of public servants. I encourage you to press your Government, and as importantly your fellow citizens, to respect the privacy of all individuals.