Oral briefing Of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi*
23 September 2020, Geneva
* Original: French
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have the privilege today to submit our final report; pursuant to this Council’s request as set forth in Resolution 42/26 of 27 September 2019, which gave us the mandate to investigate human rights violations committed in Burundi, specifically those committed in the context of the 2020 electoral process and to investigate the economic underpinnings of the State.
Our conclusions on these topics are presented in the report published on 16 September 2020, and detailed in the long report (A/HRC/45/CRP.1) available on our webpage and on the Council’s website.
Since September 2019, despite additional restrictions and challenges encountered, our Commission was able to collect more than 300 statements from victims and witnesses of human rights violations and abuses recently committed in Burundi and from other sources. This amounts to more than 1,500 interviews conducted since the beginning of our mandate in 2016.
We wish to once more convey our gratitude to the persons who provided us with priceless information despite the risks involved.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The 2020 electoral process was concluded on 24 August 2020 with the elections of local representatives (at the colline level for rural areas and quartiers for urban areas). Fortunately, this process was not marred by mass violence, specifically thanks to the international community’s, and this Commission’s, calls for calm and reminders that political leaders were responsible for the actions of their activists. However, serious human rights violations, some of which may constitute crimes under international law, were increasingly committed during this process. The Commission documented cases of summary executions, numerous arbitrary arrests and detention, cases of torture and ill-treatment; including sexual violence; as well as numerous violations of key civil liberties that are indispensable for free, credible and transparent elections.
These violations were no mere coincidence. In the course of our investigation, it transpired that the ruling party, CNDD-FDD (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie – Forces de défense de la démocratie), and the Burundian authorities had put in place a strategy founded on violence and human rights violations to ensure their victory in all the elections.
The first component of the strategy was to weaken the political opposition, especially the CNL (Congrès National pour la Liberté) which quickly emerged as the main opponent to the ruling party. Everything was setup to undermine its chances of winning in the various ballots. The authorities and CNDD-FDD, using Imbonerakure – members of the CNDD-FDD youth league – SNR and police agents, as well as local administrative officials – who, for the most part, are themselves members of CNDD-FDD- targeted the most active CNL members and supporters, particularly those running for elected office. To that end, clear instructions were given during meetings organised by the CNDD-FDD and the local administrative officials, including the preparatory meetings for the arrest of the most influential CNL members.
Consequently, during the pre-electoral period, a large number of CNL members were arbitrarily arrested and detained; some were tortured or subjected to ill-treatment; while others were killed. Similar violations were also committed after the legislative and communal elections by way of reprisals, but also during the pre-electoral period of the local elections held on 24 August 2020. Furthermore, it is worth noting that the senatorial elections – conducted by indirect vote, and therefore cast by the newly elected representatives at the communal councils, mostly CNDD-FDD members – were relatively spared from such violations.
The CNL was also prevented from carrying out some of its political activities. In several locations, the local authorities prohibited the opening of party headquarters; often on arbitrary or abusive grounds. Several of its headquarters that had been approved were vandalised or destroyed shortly before or after their inauguration.
During the official electoral campaign, meetings scheduled by the CNL were not held, for example because the pre-announced venue was occupied by Imbonerakure, or the local administration officials prohibited such rallies or meetings through misuse or abuse of their authority.
Several opposition candidates were not able to run for elected office and some of their observers were prevented from observing the electoral process, especially the crucial phase of vote counting. Several were intimidated or threatened and others were arrested days before the election date.
A striking element of this electoral process was the increase of hate speech and incitement to violence against the political opposition, including by members of CNDD-FDD or local authorities, but also hate speech with an ethnic dimension, which were tolerated by the Government.
The second component of this strategy was to muzzle the independent observers such as the media and the civil society to prevent them from reporting on what is happening in the country. During the official campaign, the media was subjected to the control of the National Communication Council, in particular through the “media synergy” set up for the elections, and independent journalists who are still in the country were frequently intimidated and threatened. As a reminder, journalists from the independent media group Iwacu are still arbitrarily detained since October 2019 for carrying out their professional duties, and this followed the withdrawal and suspension of the BBC and VOA license by the Government.
The third and final component of this strategy was to exercise tight control on the general public before, during and after the elections. Threats and intimidation were used to force people into joining the ruling party or to vote in favour of the CNDD-FDD, including voters in queues on Election Day.
Such a situation was made possible by the domination of the Imbonerakure in the public sphere, especially in rural areas. They are ubiquitous in the collines and exercise tight control over the joint human security committees established in 2014, which are responsible for a plethora of missions, including the protection of the population. It is on this basis that they quasi-systematically usurp the functions of the defence and security forces with total impunity. The situation is such that high-ranking members of the defence and security forces are concerned while, conversely, members of the Government encourage Imbonerakure’s involvement in the security of the country.
Officially, the CNDD-FDD has indeed won the elections, even if allegations of massive fraud and irregularities were reported. The ruling party now holds all the levers of powers in the country in unprecedented proportions while traditional counterbalances to power (the media and the civil society) are tightly controlled. Indeed, to date, the Constitution from the Arusha Peace Agreement had guaranteed a balance of power between various political forces, which disappeared with the 2018 Constitution. Nonetheless, increased representation of women in political entities where the Constitution requires a 30% gender quota is a positive aspect.
Other human rights violations – that are not directly linked to the electoral process – were documented, namely against repatriated Burundians who are continuously confronted to a widespread climate of hostility and suspicion. The increased security incidents over the last few months have raised concerns amongst local authorities over attacks or various attempts aimed at “disrupting the elections”, which deepened their mistrust towards the repatriated and any newcomers, often suspected of collaborating with rebel armed groups. The Commission notes that the first repatriation convoys of Burundian refugees from Rwanda were organised at the end of August 2020 with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and that the repatriation operations from Tanzania continue. We hope that the Burundian authorities will take all necessary measures to guarantee the security of these people and their reintegration in their colline of origin, and that they will allow an independent evaluation of their situation.
Summary executions of persons suspected of collaborating with armed opposition groups were committed, namely in the context of joint operations between the National Intelligence Service (SNR) and the anti-riot brigade.
Torture and sexual violence against women have continued, especially in the form of politically motivated rape, even when not directly linked to the electoral process. In most cases, the victims’ husband was the target because of his political activities, or because he refused to join CNDD-FDD, or because he was suspected of collaborating with the armed opposition. Women were raped as punishment or in order to extract information from them about their husband.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The Commission has taken an in-depth look into the issue of sexual violence committed against men in Burundi since the beginning of the crisis, mainly in the context of their detention by the National Intelligence Service. The information collected by the Commission during this term does, in fact, shed light on the recurrence of these violations, as well as the complacency and indeed the participation of officials from this Service. Men were subjected to various forms of torture targeting their genitals, were raped, or forced to have sexual relations with other men and women detainees. It is hard for victims to report this type of violence and receive support, particularly because of the widespread impunity enjoyed by SNR agents as well as the prejudice and harsh taboos related to sexuality, which explain their fear of being ostracised and rejected, should they recount what they endured.
The Commission also looked into the main violations against Burundian children since 2015. It noted that over the last five years, children were killed, girls were raped, teenagers were arbitrarily and/or illegally arrested and detained and were victims of acts of torture and ill-treatment. Children were submitted to various forms of political exploitation, schools were turned into politicised environments dominated by Imbonerakure as teachers and students alike engaged in forced recruitment of children. Children were denied an education for political reasons, forced to attend campaign rallies organised by the ruling party and to vote illegally for the ruling party during the 2020 elections. Children were therefore, forced to flee the country, sometimes without their family, and many of them were deprived of their rights to education, health, food and to family life.
It is important to underscore that such violations have a compounded effect on children. They are likely to suffer physical and/or mental effects that may compromise their well-being on a short, medium and long-term. Without specialised treatment, the impact can be felt on the long term, including at the biological level, and therefore indirectly affect the society as a whole, since children are the future of the country.
Imbonerakure remain the main perpetrators of all these violations, along with agents of the National Intelligence Service, police agents and local administrative officials.
The judiciary is still used as a tool of repression against political opponents, while promoting a climate of impunity for the perpetrators of the violations, and it was used as a tool by the executive power for political purposes. The victims are still afraid of filing complaints for fear of retaliation, or because they do not see it serving any purpose.
However, the Commission has noted the first signs of departure from widespread impunity since the establishment of the new Government, specifically with the condemnation, in July 2020, of two Imbonerakure to a 15-year prison term for having kidnapped and killed Richard Havyarimana, a CNL member, in May 2020. In addition, on 13 August 2020, 13 persons, including 3 policemen, 2 local administration officials, 1 CNDD-FDD official and 7 Imbonerakure, were sentenced to prison terms varying from 5 to 10 years for having extorted and even assassinated Burundian agricultural workers who were returning from Tanzania.
While these trials represent an encouraging – but short lived – first step in the fight against the impunity enjoyed by police forces, Imbonerakure, local administrative officials and representatives of the CNDD-FDD party, they remain, at this stage, too few. The Commission hopes that effective and thorough investigations will be carried out for crimes that constitute human rights violations, especially the most serious ones committed since 2015, including the most recent and those involving high ranking officials.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Pursuant to its mandate, the Commission has also investigated the economic underpinnings of the Burundian State since economic malfeasance has a direct impact on the realisation of human rights; and specifically economic and social rights; in a country ranked amongst the poorest countries in the world. In view of its investigation findings, the Commission has reasonable grounds to believe that economic malfeasance underpins the Burundian economy, specifically through:
- Widespread corruption in all economic sectors especially the mining sector and public works;
- Poor governance practices and malfeasances including misappropriation of funds in various sectors, such as mining companies’ contributions towards community development which are untraceable;
- Numerous cases of conflict of interest and illegal acquisition of interests by senior officials holding political or administrative office while maintaining activities in sectors falling within their purview;
- Non-transparent public procurement procedures that facilitate corruption and misappropriation of public funds for the benefit of those close to people in power;
- Considerable customs fraud for minerals, specifically gold; and
- Cases of illicit enrichment of high-ranking officials in Government, Administration or CNDD-FDD.
Several questions arise as to the existence of possible financial incentives to hold onto power which may lead to the violations of human rights. Our analysis helps to shed light on the link between human rights violations that require resources in order to be carried out – such as those documented in our previous reports – and the lack of resources in the Burundian State in part due to economic malfeasance. In light of our investigation on the economic underpinnings, every organization, company, or individual bringing funds to Burundi should exercise the utmost due diligence.
Furthermore, the Commission updated its analysis on the situation in the country and the risk factors based on objective indicators identified in the framework analysis for atrocity crimes developed by the United Nations Office on genocide prevention and the responsibility to protect.
At the end of the 2020 elections, compared to the pre-electoral period, most of the factors remain unchanged although indicators for each risk factor have evolved. Amongst others, the Commission takes note of the increasing security incidents since October 2019, the fact that individuals suspected of involvement in perpetrating serious human rights violations and who are on the list of individuals sanctioned by the European Union and the United States, hold high offices in the new Government; President Ndayishimiye’s ambiguous messages on civil liberties and his selective approach to human rights violations which, de facto, undermine his declarations in favour of the fight against impunity; and finally the persistence of tensions in the region, as well as considerable economic malfeasance.
In effect, only one factor was reduced (the triggering factor) since the elections took place without mass violence. Conversely, risk factor no. 6 on the absence of mitigating factors has been aggravated by an even tighter control of the Government on the civil society and the media, in a context of unprecedented concentration of powers benefitting CNDD-FDD and increasing indifference of the international community to the situation in Burundi.
The Commission has identified measures that the new Government should prioritise in order to mitigate the risk factors, such as for example:
- Resuming full cooperation with the UN and re-opening the country office of OHCHR;
- The immediate release of human rights defenders, journalists and political prisoners;
- Guaranteeing freedom of the press and the freedom of association for civil society;
- Guaranteeing the freedom and the security of political opponents;
- Ending human rights violations and the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators;
- Guaranteeing the non-repetition of violations by revoking or suspending State agents suspected of involvement in those violations;
- Restricting the ubiquitous Imbonerakure in the public sphere and prohibit their usurping of the functions of the defence and security forces;
- The systematic sanctioning of hate speech;
- Guaranteeing an inclusive approach by the truth and reconciliation commission, including the four pillars of transitional justice;
- Fighting against economic malfeasance and poor governance;
- Carrying out judicial reform in order to guarantee its independence and impartiality.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
As demonstrated by the analysis of the risk factors, risks for the future are not negligible. To date, the Commission has not observed any signs of tangible improvements of the human rights situation despite assertions to that effect by President Ndayishimiye. Impunity still reigns, especially for the main perpetrators of the violations linked to the 2015 political crisis.
It is necessary that the international community continues to follow very closely the development of the human rights situation in Burundi during this crucial period, namely by maintaining an international and independent mechanism which can objectively follow the human rights situation in Burundi, including through an analysis of risk factors and the implementation of the Commission’s recommendations. A concrete demonstration of this would provide a strong incentive to the Burundian authorities to find solutions to the root causes of human rights violations, failing which the cycles of violence that have marked the history of the country may be repeated.
Allow me to conclude by quoting a Burundian woman refugee interviewed by the Commission:
« The reasons that pushed me to flee […] are still there, they [violations] still happen. There may be a new President but the problem remains. […] »
The Government must understand that Burundians expect significant actions, as we all do.
Thank you for your attention.