Start of Main Content

Applying Tools for Atrocity Prevention in Cameroon

May 11, 2019: A mother and child walk past a destroyed car in a small town on the main highway near Buea in Southwest Cameroon. —Giles Clarke/UNOCHA via Getty Images

The situation remains dire in Cameroon’s Anglophone Northwest and Southwest regions. Since 2017, the crisis has resulted in over 6,000 people killed and over 600,000 people internally displaced. 

In May 2023, the Simon-Skjodt Center released a brief (available in English and French) summarizing previous policy responses and identifying policy options to help prevent and mitigate mass atrocities in Cameroon’s Northwest and Southwest regions.

The brief underscores the major impediments to resolution of the crisis, necessitating re-energized US and international policy action to halt atrocities. 

Drawing on the crisis in Cameroon as an example, this blog discusses how practitioners—especially policy makers and non-governmental advocates—can use the Simon-Skjodt Center’s Tools for Atrocity Prevention resource to inform and strengthen policy responses to specific cases. 

Background on the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon

In October 2016, Anglophone teachers and lawyers launched protests over the imposition of French-speaking teachers in Anglophone schools and the “francization” of the Anglophone common law system. Security forces responded to the growing protests with violence. By 2017, armed Anglophone separatists had begun fighting for independence for the territory they refer to as Southern Cameroons, or Ambazonia. Violent conflict, primarily between armed separatists and state security forces, continues to date.  Experts have stated that abuses by state security forces and armed separatist groups may amount to crimes against humanity. 

Using the Tools for Atrocity Prevention resource

International actors have taken some actions in response to the Anglophone crisis, but violence has persisted. In light of this ongoing violence, policy makers and atrocity prevention advocates can use Tools for Atrocity Prevention to help address two central questions: 

  1. How can ongoing actions be made more effective? 

  2. What additional actions could be taken to help prevent/mitigate atrocities? 

How can ongoing actions be made more effective? 

As a starting point, the Tools for Atrocity Prevention resource encourages practitioners to think more systematically about the atrocity prevention “strategies” to use in a particular case.

Whereas “tools” describe different types of actions, “strategies” describe different ways in which actions lead to expected outcomes.

In the Cameroon case, dissuading potential perpetrators from committing mass atrocities appears to be one of the key strategies guiding current policy recommendations. This strategy seeks to alter the decision calculus of potential perpetrators by shaping their perceptions of the costs and benefits of large-scale attacks against civilians. Focusing attention on this strategy can help strengthen decisions on which tools should be used and how they should be designed and implemented.

The international community has encountered obstacles in multiple mediation efforts, the direct attempts at resolving this crisis through dissuasion. In September 2022, the Cameroonian government ended the Swiss-mediated peace talks that began in 2019 and had since stalled. In January 2023, the government of Canada announced it would facilitate a peace process between and agreed to by the Cameroon government and several separatist groups. While new talks may signal hope, uncertainty remains surrounding the Cameroon government’s official participation in the mediation process.

Based on a review of nearly 400 research reports about selected atrocity prevention tools, the Tools for Atrocity Prevention resource identifies characteristics (or “success factors”) associated with more effective use of the tools in helping prevent mass atrocities. For mediation, the success factors for which there is a relatively strong body of evidence are:

  • International support or coordination

  • Implementer (mediator) has strong leverage

Thinking about how these factors could be bolstered led us to recommend that foreign governments and multilateral organizations consider:

  • Supporting and pursuing creative options to re-energize and expand an independent mediation effort led by an international third-party, such as the current Canada-led effort.

  • Ensuring international support and coordination for the mediation process and involving actors with leverage over the conflict parties.

  • Expanding multilateral actor involvement with groups such as other African governments, local mediation efforts such as those pursued by the Coalition for Dialogue and Negotiation, and international governments such as the United States and France, which could help press President Biya to take a more serious role in negotiations.

What additional actions could be taken to help prevent/mitigate atrocities? 

By highlighting nearly two dozen atrocity prevention tools, Tools for Atrocity Prevention can also help practitioners think through additional actions that could help dissuade potential perpetrators from committing mass atrocities.

Deploying multiple tools that operate through the same strategy should increase their effectiveness. After consulting the list of tools that can support a dissuasion strategy, we recommended that foreign governments and multilateral organizations consider:

  • Engaging in multilateral diplomacy, such as by adding Cameroon to the agenda of the African Union Peace and Security Council and demonstrating sustained attention from the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, including a potential visit to Cameroon.

  • Supporting fact-finding efforts, such as by launching an independent investigation into abuses committed by all parties and appointing a UN Special Envoy for Cameroon or a Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Cameroon to investigate mass atrocities and advance justice and accountability.

  • Providing support to self-protection efforts for local civil society organizations (CSOs) and other actors advancing atrocity prevention in Cameroon, such as through financial assistance and protection when appropriate, as CSOs in Cameroon have faced significant threats and intimidation as they carry out their work. 

While our resource does not yet include complete research reviews for these particular tools, the information we have collected on these tools—such as corresponding strategies and theories of change—can help practitioners think about what could conceivably be done to help prevent atrocities.


No review of lessons or evidence will provide a guide of exactly what to do in a specific situation. However, these resources can help inform decisions to maximize their chance of success, even if uncertainty remains.

The policy response to the Anglophone crisis in Cameroon suggests evidence and information can be useful for (1) focusing attention on how tools that are already in process can be used most effectively; and (2) stimulating thinking about tools that might conceivably be useful. Addressing the ongoing atrocity risks in Cameroon will require not just good analysis of policy options but coordinated, sustained, and calibrated US and international efforts to turn these ideas into action.