Cameroon protests lack of protection of its embassy in Berlin

Published: 10 February 2020 Author: Tobias Weiss

Cameroon has been plagued by protests ever since the country’s presidential elections on 7 October 2018, when the 85-year-old Paul Biya became president for the seventh time in an election marred by low voter turnout and violence. Opposition leader Maurice Kamto from the Cameroon Renaissance Movement (CRM) who, according to the official results had achieved only 14% of the vote compared to Paul Biya’s 71%, alleged that the election was rigged.

While protests had been staged sporadically since the elections, a new round of protests broke out throughout the country on 26 January 2019. This time, the protests, however, were not limited to Cameroon. In the early hours of 27 January 2019, a small group of protesters forcefully entered the embassy of Cameroon in Berlin and occupied the building for several hours. They streamed their occupation, chanting “Vive la revolution!” The group said that by its action it was supporting the opposition movement in Cameroon. There was no police protection of the embassy at the time. After a call with the Cameroonian ambassador, the police entered the premises and removed the protesters. The embassy building suffered minor damages. No one was injured. The police took the protestors into custody and investigated charges of trespassing and damage to property. A similar event took place in Paris at roughly the same time.

At the daily press briefing on 29 January 2019, the spokesperson for the United Nations Secretary-General stated:

“We’ve been asked about the situation in Cameroon, and I can tell you that we are concerned about reports of violence and use of force by security forces during demonstrations in Douala in recent days.  We condemn incidents of violence at Cameroonian embassies in Paris and Berlin.”

On the same day, the Cameroonian Ministry of Communication responded to the incidents at the European embassies by issuing the following statement:

“Despite the smooth conduct of the October 7, 2018 presidential poll, leaders and militants of the political party, called ‘Cameroon Renaissance Movement’, abbreviated ‘CRM’, have in an uprising attitude, made recurring calls inviting Cameroonians to take to the streets to contest the election results.

Similarly, on January 26, 2019, militants of this party stormed certain diplomatic missions of Cameroon abroad, notably, in Paris and Berlin, ransacking everything in their path, causing significant material damage within these Embassies, including the destruction of symbols of the State, effigies of the President of the Republic, passports and various civil status records of Cameroonians. […]

Regarding abuses in Paris and Berlin Embassies, and mindful of the relevant provisions governing international conventions, notably, the Vienna conventions on diplomatic and consular relations, the Government of the Republic of Cameroon deeply regrets that such acts of violence and vandalism could have been committed for lack of adequate protection around these Embassies.

The Government of the Republic deplores the fact that Cameroon, for its part, has always fulfilled its duty to protect the premises of the diplomatic missions present in its territory, and in accordance with [the] principle of reciprocity, expects in return that the friendly countries should in their turn ensure the same treatment to its diplomatic missions that they host on their soil.

To this effect, the Ambassadors of the countries concerned have been summoned to the Ministry of External Relations to receive a strong protest from the Government of Cameroon.

Moreover, considering the seriousness of the acts perpetrated, the Government will take all necessary measures in Cameroon and abroad, against the sponsors and others responsible for these assaults, to be held accountable for their actions before competent courts.

The Government calls once again on the responsibility and patriotic sense of all in order to preserve the peace, unity and social cohesion so dear to our country.”

On 30 January 2019, the Ministry of External Relations summoned the German chargé d’ affaires ad interim to protest “violence and vandalism” during opposition demonstrations at the country’s embassy in Berlin. The Minister of External Relations criticised the lack of protection of the country’s embassy.

After the meeting, the German chargé d’affaires made a statement to the press condemning the acts and terming them criminal and illegal. He said security around the Embassy had been tightened given that it was the obligation of German authorities to provide protection to Cameroon’s accredited diplomatic representations according to the Vienna Conventions on diplomatic and consular relations. He also stated that the judiciary of his country would take legal action against individuals who had invaded the embassy.

The protection of the diplomatic embassies is a core principle of international law, Article 22 (2) of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations (VCDR) provides:

“The receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.”

The International Court of Justice held in the Tehran Hostages case that States are under an obligation – both under conventional and customary international law – to take steps either to prevent an attack on a diplomatic mission or to stop it before it reaches its completion and, in case a diplomatic mission has been occupied by protestors, to restore it to the control of the sending State. However, the obligation to protect embassy premises is not absolute and States are required only to make appropriate efforts.

Cameroon claimed “a lack of adequate protection” of its Berlin embassy but did not accuse Germany of a violation of its obligations under the VCDR. The fact that no police protection was stationed outside the embassy when the protests occurred did not automatically mean that the German Government violated its obligations under the VCDR. The Convention does not prescribe any specific means or establish any minimum standard of protection. On the contrary, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia held in Ignatiev v United States that “the Convention leaves what ‘steps’ are ‘appropriate’ to the discretion of the host State.” That discretion also extends to the “allocation of military and law enforcement resources.” The situation would only be different, if the German authorities had known, or should have known of the plans to storm the embassy building and had not provided any police protection.  However, while there were protests in Cameroon there were no prior protests in Germany or attempts at storming of Cameroonian embassies in Europe. As soon as the authorities learnt that protesters had broken into the embassy, German police entered the premises with the consent of the Cameroonian ambassador and removed the protesters from the building.

In his statement to the press on 29 January 2019, the German chargé d’affaires did not acknowledge any breach of international law. The statement therefore cannot be treated as an act of satisfaction in terms of Article 37 of the Articles on State Responsibility. It must rather be considered an act of diplomatic courtesy. Such statements are in line with Germany’s practice of making ex gratia payments in cases of damage to foreign diplomatic missions in Germany caused by persons acting for political motives. Any ex gratia payments, however, are made on the basis of reciprocity only.

Category: Diplomatic and consular relations

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  • Tobias Weiss is a student research assistant at the Institute for Public International Law. He studies law at the University of Bonn.

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