By Waceke Njoroge
The United Nations and the international community have been urged to ensure that monitoring of the human rights situation in Burundi continues.
UK International Ambassador for Human Rights Rita French said that although there had been encouraging developments in Burundi over the past year, her country was concerned by reports of violations and abuses against political opposition and critical voices.
“Such breaches of human rights, coupled with impunity for perpetrators, compromise gains made towards long-term stability in Burundi,” she said after the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi presented its final report this year to the United Nations Human Rights Council (HRC) in Geneva.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) echoed the sentiments, pointing out that President Évariste Ndayishimiye’s had failed to honour his initial promises for structural reforms needed to address the “dire rights situation” in Burundi.
“Since the last dialogue, Burundian media and civil society groups – most of whom still operate from exile – and Human Rights Watch have documented how Burundian national intelligence, security forces, and Imbonerakure members have continued to commit grave human rights violations, including killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary detention,” the HRW statement said.
The organisation pointed to several grenade attacks reported in Bujumbura and Gitega in recent days, saying they were worrying signs of growing insecurity and violence, “and a sombre reminder that the situation in Burundi remains fragile”.
The Commission of Inquiry on Burundi was established by the Human Rights Council’s Resolution 33/24 and was adopted on September 30, 2016. Its mandate was to conduct a thorough investigation into human rights violations and abuses committed in Burundi since April 2015, determine whether any of them may constitute international crimes, identify their alleged perpetrators, and formulate recommendations for ensuring that the perpetrators are held accountable for their acts. The commission has received four one-year renewals of the its mandate.
This year’s report covers human rights violations and abuses committed in the new regime of President Ndayishimiye, who took office on June 18, 2020 following the sudden death of former President Pierre Nkurunziza. The commission examines notable developments in the areas of human rights, the fight against impunity and corruption, and the rule of law.
The report noted that on December 4, 2020, the United Nations Security Council removed Burundi from its programme of work and decided that the country would be covered in the Secretary-General’s regular reports on the Great Lakes region and Central Africa. It based its decision on the assumption that the country would improve under the new leadership.
It said that despite President Ndayishimiye’s pledge to address the situation in the country after years of violent repression, crimes, including arbitrary detention and execution, and torture and intimidation, had not stopped.
“Not only have grave human rights violations continued to occur, but in some respects the situation has deteriorated since President Ndayishimiye took office in June last year,” the commission’s chairman, Doudou Diene, told journalists in Geneva when the report was released on September 16.
The report said the abuses happened against a backdrop of multiple armed attacks on government opponents since August 2020. It explained that while seeking persons allegedly involved in armed attacks or collaborating with rebel groups, the security forces targeted mainly members from the main opposition party, Congrès National pour la Liberté – National Congress for Liberty (CNL), former members of the Tutsi-dominated Burundian Armed Forces (ex-FAB), and returnees and some of their family members.
“Some were executed, others disappeared or were tortured while detained arbitrarily,” Diène stated.
Nkurunziza was president for 15 years. He came to power first as a parliamentary nominee in 2005, then later won two controversial popular elections. He ruled with an iron fist, making few compromises, and oversaw the rise of the much-dreaded Imbonerakure militias, who terrorised any real and perceived opponents. His decision to stand for a controversial third term in 2015 by changing the constitution plunged Burundi into unrest of near civil war proportions. Thousands died and many fled the country. This prompted the establishing of the commission in 2016.
Many security officers and others linked to the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, continued to go unpunished for their crimes. The Imbonerakure youth league and other security agents, whose brutality had been documented in previous Commission of Inquiry reports, continue to enjoy impunity, the statement read.
Lack of promised structural reforms to promote accountability has led to the detrition of the rule of law in the country. “Rule of law in Burundi continues to erode despite the stated intention of President Ndayishimiye to restore it,” said commissioner Françoise Hampson.
Urging the government to deliver further progress, French said, “We welcome the closer cooperation by the government of Burundi with the international community and the steps it has taken which demonstrate greater commitment to human rights, including prisoner releases.”
In common with the commission’s previous findings, Hampson noted how testimonies gathered for the latest report pointed to an organised campaign “against those elements of the civilian population that were seen as or thought to be hostile to the government in power”, a potential crime against humanity.
She said the judicial system could not be relied upon to curb or remedy human rights violations and warned that the newly elected government “has only been strengthening its control over the judiciary”.
The UK also urge the international community to continue to follow developments in Burundi and play its role in ensuring the government promotes and protects the rights and freedoms of the people.
HRW said Burundian civil society and media are still heavily restricted, as are international organisations, and that the government continues to block independent scrutiny by international monitors. It pointed out the fact that the government had yet to authorise the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) to reopen its country office.
“Change in the Human Rights Council’s approach to Burundi should only come in response to concrete commitments by Burundi to cooperate with any mechanism, to allow international access, to re-establish an OHCHR presence, and to implement human rights reforms within a clear timeframe, measured against specific benchmarks.”
The commission noted that it had faced several challenges during the preparation of its report, adding that its work was adversely affected by the liquidity crisis at the United Nations, and that the ensuing staff reductions and recruitment freeze delayed the establishment of its secretariat. These factors, together with the travel restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, had an impact on the conduct of investigations in the field, especially those related to the economic underpinnings of the state and to gender-based and sexual violence.