Strengthening Rule of Law, Combating Impunity Main Challenges as Country Seeks to Make Fresh Start
Burundi had a real opportunity to make a fresh start, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Louise Arbour, told the Peacebuilding Commission today, adding that, although the road ahead would be anything but easy, "at no other time in its post-colonial history has the country had such an opportunity to leverage what it has learned from its often tragic experience".
Briefing the Commission upon her return from a five-day visit to the country from 19 to 23 May as part of a mission to the Great Lakes region, Ms. Arbour said that the only acceptable outcome was for Burundi, with the international community's help, to seize the present opportunity. After many years of conflict, Burundians had a legitimate aspiration to peace, justice and development.
She said that combating impunity and strengthening the rule of law remained great challenges for the newly elected Government. The strong political will and commitment of both the Government and the international community were key elements to assure progress towards lasting peace and security. In particular, the process for the establishment of a transitional justice mechanism in Burundi needed to be brought to the fore during the coming weeks.
Indeed, during her mission, gains had been made towards the establishment of a twin mechanism of a truth and reconciliation commission and a special tribunal, to which the Security Council and the transitional Government had agreed on 15 June 2005, she said. Impunity was perceived by the public as a rule rather than an exception, and there was a widespread perception that political authorities regularly influenced judicial processes. It was important that the international community continue to urge the Government to hold perpetrators of human rights violations to account and to support initiatives to strengthen the judicial independence and the establishment of a society based on the rule of law.
She noted a real determination among the population to participate actively in the ongoing democratic process, which, if properly channelled, should ensure lasting peace, justice and reconciliation. In Burundi, she said she had shared her observations on the following issues with the authorities, including at the highest level: transitional justice; impunity; violence against women and children; discrimination against women; and land issues in relation to refugees, internally displaced persons and the situation of the minority Batwa ethnic group.
In the ensuing discussion today with member delegations of the Peacebuilding Commission, Ms. Arbour was asked to provide her views on the specific role of human rights issues in the context of peacebuilding, specifically, what human rights could contribute to counteracting the re-emergence of conflicts, on the one hand, and what the risk that abuse of a human rights strategy could represent in terms of the increased threat of a return of violence, on the other hand.
Acknowledging the ongoing philosophical debate within the United Nations and elsewhere on the relationship between the pursuit of peace and of justice, the High Commissioner said that many saw those two as being in conflict. In her view, however, both should be pursued without one being given priority over the other. The question of sequencing was a very heated discussion in the context of peace settlements. In the context of the Peacebuilding Commission, that debate should be over by now. For peacebuilding, justice should be the priority; if the emphasis was on peace rather than justice in the peacebuilding context, that would suggest that there was no intention to have justice contribute to lasting peace and reconciliation. If she was to emphasize one specific area for the Commission, it would be the justice dimension, which so often occupied a secondary role.
Asked about the sequencing for the establishment in Burundi of a truth and reconciliation commission and a special tribunal, she said that both the Arusha courts and the Security Council resolution had envisaged the establishment of both, and she did not have a problem with whether their creation was concurrent or consecutive. Her office would be responsible for the commission, and the Office of Legal Affairs, for the tribunal. What was critical was that there is clarity between them at the outset. If the two bodies were to be consecutive, and if the commission began its work first, it must not bind the prosecutor of the tribunal; the Commission was not a criminal, investigative arm of justice. Once the tribunal was activated, the prosecutor should have full independence in determining what crimes would be prosecuted and against whom, and not be limited by any outcome of the commission. In terms of a timetable, Burundi's President felt that national consultations should begin in July, be inclusive, and wrap up within eight to 10 months.
Burundi's Permanent Representative to the United Nations, Joseph Ntakirutimana, stressed that it was not possible to fully understand the situation in Burundi unless one took the necessary time to see what created it, how it evolved and where it was going. In the 45 years since independence, there had been unspeakable horrors -- days when people's heads were lined up on the ground and trucks ran over them, people lined up in the street and told they were going to a meeting and disappearing forever. Burundi's President would like to know what happened. Burundians experienced a "horrible past, a macabre past and had to assume that history with wisdom". When it came to human rights, he said there would never be "a clean or perfect situation", but everyone wanted to know what happened, and they had a right to know; otherwise, it was not possible to talk about justice, he said.
Other speakers in the discussion included the representatives of Luxembourg, Egypt, Guinea Bissau, Belgium, United States and France. Also speaking today was Carolyn McAskie, Assistant Secretary-General for Peacebuilding Support. Most recently, she served as the Secretary-General's Envoy to Burundi and headed the United Nations peacekeeping operation in that country.
Having just spent five days in Burundi from 19 to 23 May as part of a mission to the Great Lakes region of Africa, LOUISE ARBOUR, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said she hoped her observations on human rights challenges in the country would actively contribute to informing the peacebuilding efforts and ensure a coherent and coordinated approach to United Nations activities on the ground in Burundi.
She said that the mission's overall objective was to reaffirm the readiness of her office to accompany Burundi in its post-conflict reconstruction efforts in the areas of peace, justice and respect of human rights for all Burundians. Through several high-level meetings, including with President Nkurunziza and the two Vice-Presidents, she noted a general concern over a lack of independence of the judiciary, a culture of impunity and continued violence perpetrated by State agents and armed groups throughout the country.
However, there was a real determination in all sectors of society to participate actively in the ongoing democratic process, which, if properly channelled, should ensure lasting peace, justice and reconciliation. She had shared her conclusions and observations on the following issues with the authorities, including at the highest level: transitional justice; impunity; violence against women and children; discrimination against women; and land issues in relation to refugees, internally displaced persons and the situation of the minority Batwa ethnic group.
Among her main points today in the area of transitional justice, she reminded the Commission that most parties to the conflict in Burundi signed a cornerstone agreement on peace and national reconciliation on 28 August 2000 in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania. The transitional Government that followed the Arusha agreement ended with democratically-elected institutions at both the central and local levels. The Security Council and the transitional Government agreed on 15 June 2005 to establish the twin mechanism of a truth and reconciliation commission and a special tribunal.
She noted that two rounds of talks in Burundi, however, failed to reach a clear understanding on the nature of the national consultation process that would provide for the establishment of the truth and reconciliation commission; the non-applicability of amnesties for the crime of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes; and the relationship between the truth and reconciliation commission and the tribunal, including the principle of the independence of the prosecutor.
Following her talks with the concerned parties, she was happy to announce that an "unequivocal consensus" had been reached on the first two fundamental issues. She was further encouraged by the agreement reached with the President of Burundi regarding the composition of the steering committee to be put in place to guide the national consultations, namely, one nominee each by the Government, the United Nations and civil society. That formula would go far in guaranteeing the independence and impartiality of the steering committee, as well as earning the confidence of Burundians, in general. An understanding was also reached that, while the national consultation process should begin as soon as possible, discussions should continue between the Government and the United Nations to determine the relationship between the truth and reconciliation commission and the special tribunal. The United Nations strongly believed that the special tribunal's prosecutor should operate independently of the Commission.
Impunity, she stated, was a major concern and was perceived in public opinion as a rule rather than an exception. There was a widespread perception that political authorities regularly influenced judicial processes. She had raised two key cases with authorities, which reflected that concern: the Muyinga massacre that took place in August 2006 and the Gatumba massacre that took place outside Bujumbura in 2004. Official investigations of both cases were conducted without transparency or public report, strengthening the perception of a lack of political will to overcome the culture of impunity, which put those in power above the reach of the law. It was important that the international community continue to urge the Government to hold perpetrators of human rights violations to account and to support initiatives to strengthen the independence of the judiciary and establishment of a society based on the rule of law.
Turning to gender-based violence, she said that women and children were often the main victims of abuses. Burundian authorities should resolutely combat sexual and other forms of violence against women and children, which, according to the information she received on mission, were a daily occurrence in most of the country. Her visit to the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detainees in Bujumbura provided her with deep insight into the magnitude of the problem and graphically portrayed the lack of adequate means to address the social, economic and psychological consequences of rape, torture and other forms of violence against women and children. There again, a responsive justice system would be central to bringing perpetrators to account, redress to victims and deter future violations.
She urged the Government to act now in a manner commensurate with the level of confidence that was reposed on it by the electorate. It should show its capacity to protect all those within its territory without any distinction. Equal focus should also be placed on the perpetrators, stigmatizing them, rather than the women victims that were often ostracized after being raped. Everyone knew that sexual violence against women was often used as a weapon in conflict situations. The peacebuilding efforts, therefore, should help to identify war criminals and facilitate the process of bringing them to justice. The countries benefiting from peacebuilding funds should include in their projects a clear strategy to combat rape and violence against women and measures to assist victims to rebuild their lives. Burundi provided an important case for that strategy.
The issue of violence against women should not be viewed in isolation, she said. Despite the welcome presence of women in government, there was abundant evidence in Burundi of discrimination against women in a society that was highly dominated by men. Most of her interlocutors from civil society were very sceptical about the outcome of ongoing initiatives to adopt new laws to address statutory discrimination against women. They believed that the draft law on succession and the draft penal code, for instance, which were the most important current initiatives before the newly elected institutions, might face a number of hurdles that would postpone their adoption. She recommended that partners and friends of Burundi should join efforts in encouraging the authorities to follow up closely on the draft laws to support their early adoption.
Noting that land scarcity was one of the root causes of recurrent conflicts in Burundi, an over-populated country, she said that democratic elections raised even more expectations that new national institutions should be in a better position to serve the interests of the population. Progress in the peace process was leading to the return of people who had taken refuge in neighbouring countries, especially in the United Republic of Tanzania, some of them since 1972. The demand of several returnees for land would no doubt increase the pressure on that scarce resource, which, if not properly handled, might reignite conflict. The potential for conflict over land was also exacerbated by the situation of internally displaced persons who might wish to return to their areas of origin, but without any prospect of getting their occupied land back. Matters had not been helped by the increasing forced return of families and individuals being expelled for alleged illegal stay in the United Republic of Tanzania. While the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was closely monitoring the situation, the issue of land should be addressed in a sustained manner by competent authorities; peacebuilding success could be measured by the successful return and full integration of refugees and internally displaced persons. Also of great concern was the situation of the minority Batwa ethnic group scattered all over the country. She urged the Government to abolish all forms of discrimination against them, in particular, the practice of bonded labour.
She said that after many years of conflict, Burundians had a legitimate aspiration to peace, justice and development. Combating impunity and strengthening the rule of law would remain great challenges for the newly elected Government. Strong political will and commitment of both the Government and the international community would be key elements to assure progress towards lasting peace and security. In particular, the process for the establishment of a transitional justice mechanism in Burundi needed to be brought to the fore during the coming weeks.
After her short but intense visit, she said that Burundi had a real opportunity to make a fresh start. "The road ahead will be anything but easy, but at no other time in its post-colonial history has the country had such an opportunity to leverage what it has learned from its often tragic experience, strengthened by the commitment of the international community to accompany the country as it works through reconstruction, development and the enjoyment of human rights by all its people. The only acceptable outcome is for Burundi, with our help, to seize this opportunity," she told the Commission.
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