Burundi + 1 more

Oral briefing of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, 17 September 2019

42nd Session
Interactive Dialogue on Burundi

17 September 2019, Geneva

Mr President,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Having reached the end of our mandate, we have the privilege today to submit our final report, pursuant to this Council’s request as set forth in Resolution 39/14 of 28 September 2018.

We carried out our mandate to investigate human rights violations committed in Burundi, the persistence of which remains of grave concern. We have also decided to assist the international community in acting preventively in the run-up to the 2020 elections by producing an analysis of the factors of risk of a deterioration of the situation. Our findings are outlined in our report published on 4 September 2019, and submitted in more detail in our comprehensive report (A/HRC/42/CRP.2, which is now available on our web page as well as on the Council’s website. Our objective and rigorous analysis clearly indicates that the crisis in Burundi deserves the full interest and attention of this Council.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The investigations undertaken during three years enabled us to collect more than 1 200 statements from victims, witnesses and perpetrators of human rights violations who either sought refuge, mainly in the neighbouring countries of Burundi, or are still residing in the country, including 300 since the renewal of the mandate in September 2018, We also conducted interviews with researchers and other sources. They complement the more than 900 statements which have been collected in the course of our first two years of work. We wish to once more convey our gratitude to the Governments of the countries that allowed us to carry out missions on their territory and to the persons who provided us with priceless information despite the risks.

We can confirm that serious human rights violations have continued since May 2018, namely: extrajudicial executions, disappearances, including enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as well as sexual violence. For the most part, these violations retained a political dimension. As we had already documented last year, some of these violations were committed within the framework of the constitutional referendum of May 2018, but they are increasingly becoming embedded in the preparation for the 2020 elections.

Next year will be a crucial year for Burundi since the presidential and parliamentary elections will take place in May and the communal and colline elections will be held between May and August.

We have noted a change in the profile of the victims of these serious violations. While the violations continued to target individuals considered opponents of the ruling party, CNDD-FDD, the Government or the President of the Republic, the definition of who is a political opponent has become extremely broad.

The first to be targeted are members or sympathizers - presumed or actual - of opposition parties, particularly the new Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL) created in 2019, but also the Mouvement pour la solidarité et la démocratie (MSD), l’Union pour le progrès et la démocratie (UPD-Zigamibanga) and the Union pour le progrès national (UPRONA). Young men have been subjected to severe torture, often of a sexual nature, by agents of the National Intelligence Service after being accused of belonging to or supporting armed opposition groups after living or travelling to a neighbouring country.

As was the case at the beginning of the crisis in 2015, journalists and human rights defenders continued to be arbitrarily arrested and detained, but also intimidated, harassed or subjected to ill-treatment to prevent them from carrying out their legitimate activities.

Burundians who were repatriated from Tanzania under the voluntary return program faced widespread hostility and suspicion once they arrived in their colline of origin, particularly from the Imbonerakure and local administrative officials who threatened and intimidated them. After only a few days or weeks, some of them or a family member were victims of serious violations including cases of disappearance, torture or ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests and detention. They felt compelled to flee once more because they feared for their safety. Several repatriated persons were also stripped of the food and equipment provided to them as part of the voluntary repatriation program to facilitate their reintegration and were then left without any livelihood.

Kindly allow me to provide an example of what happened to a Burundian family who returned to their country in 2018 after fleeing in 2016. Upon returning to their colline of origin, some Imbonerakure criticized them for leaving the country. They were regularly harassed and forced to give them money. This continued until they had nothing left of the assistance they had received to facilitate their reintegration. The Imbonerakure then demanded that the husband join them, particularly for the night patrols. The husband was taken and for some time the family did not know what had happened to him. They were intimidated to prevent them from seeking information regarding his fate. In the end, the husband, who had been detained, was released but he had been clearly ill-treated. The whole family chose to flee again to a neighbouring country.

Generally speaking, anyone in the population who does not show support for the ruling party has been targeted, as well as, indirectly, family members, particularly women. This situation concerns primarily individuals who refused to join the ruling party or the Imbonerakure, or those who refused to provide the financial contribution demanded by the Imbonerakure for the CNDD-FDD party or the preparation of the elections. Schoolchildren that scribbled on the photograph of the Head of State were not spared.

As of now, the violations we documented were committed mainly in rural and remote areas, during night attacks on households. Families with the most modest means and with no particular political activity have been affected. During such attacks, usually carried out by the Imbonerakure, several family members present at the scene were subjected to violence, especially women, who were victims of gang rapes. Many victims and their relatives suffer from lasting psychological and physical harm as a direct result of these violations.

These violations were usually the outcome of a process of harassment, intimidation and threats aimed at the victim and/or the family. Most of these violations were committed by members of the youth wing of the party, the Imbonerakure, who are omnipresent at the zone and colline level, and act more and more in isolation or in cooperation with local administrative officials but also, as was the case in the past, in cooperation with the police and the SNR. Agents from the National Intelligence Service (SNR) and the police (PNB) also continued to be involved in cases of violations.

We consider that there remain reasonable grounds to believe that some of these violations constitute crimes against humanity as defined by the Rome Statute, including murder, imprisonment, rape and other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity, and political persecution. Under the new 2018 Constitution, the SNR is officially no longer a defence and security force under the authority of the Government and the civilian oversight of Parliament. It now falls solely under the direct authority and control of the President of the Republic, who, therefore, can be held criminally accountable for the actions of SNR agents, particularly for not exercising the necessary control over these agents, including taking adequate measures to halt or address these international crimes and ending the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators. Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

One of the most striking developments since our last report is the aggravation of restrictions on civil liberties, including the rights to freedom of expression, information, association and peaceful assembly. This is all the more worrisome since it falls within a pre-electoral context.

By and large, any statements that contradict the official propaganda of the Government and the CNDD-FDD whereby peace and security prevail in Burundi, have been systematically described as attempts to destabilize the country or as attacks on national sovereignty by officials of the Government and ruling party, regardless whether the statements are from the media, a national or international NGO or from representatives of international organizations.

Sanctions were immediately taken against the persons behind them when they were present on Burundian territory. Independent media outlets have been censored by the National Council of Communication and have had their licences revoked, such as the BBC. In the case of RFI and Iwacu (one of the last independent Burundian media), the regulating authority issued warnings. In June 2019, the organization PARCEM was suspended for presenting a critical report on the worrisome socio-economic conditions in the country.

Freedom of association has also been severely restricted. For instance, the activities of national and foreign NGOs are tightly monitored and those of opposition parties are hindered, as in the case of the CNL which faces enormous challenges in opening local offices. A number of opposition parties have seen their members arrested and detained arbitrarily for gathering, some severely beaten and injured.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in the world and the adverse consequences of the 2015 political crisis on the socio-economic environment of the country and the living conditions of Burundians have persisted. A majority of Burundians live in extreme poverty, particularly women who have become, for whatever reason, heads of households. Violations of economic and social rights have continued to be documented, primarily those regarding the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes the right to food, clothing and shelter. It was estimated that in 2019, 56% of Burundian children aged 6 to 59 months suffer from chronic malnourishment and that 15% of the population of Burundi face acute food insecurity1. Nevertheless, various contributions, mainly to organise the elections, continued to be collected, usually by force, with the consequence of even greater impoverishment. Burundi’s human development index ranks 185th out of 189 countries, with a schooling average of only 3 years2. Violations of the right to work and education, particularly on the basis of political discrimination, have also been documented. The extent to which politics overrides concerns for the living conditions of the population is borne out in the handling of malaria, which according to the WHO, has afflicted half of the population since December 20183. However, in refusing to declare an epidemic, the Government has decided to forego the increased support that would have been forthcoming from the international community. Instead, shortages of medicine are regularly reported.

The judicial system has continued to be used as an instrument of repression against political opponents, and has been used by the executive for political purposes. In a country undermined by impunity, where the authorities claim that the situation has returned to normal, and where justice is failing, the victims are still too fearful of reprisals to press charges or they do not see the benefit of pressing charges, when the perpetrators are often protected by the authorities.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

This year, we have decided to be forward looking and determine whether the risk factors indicating a possible deterioration of the human rights situation are present in the current context of Burundi, which is marked by the 2020 elections. We believed it to be crucial to adopt a rigorous analytical approach to the United Nations’ goal of early warning and prevention that would enable an objective monitoring of the situation. This would, in turn, enable the Burundian authorities, the international community and any other stakeholders to be alerted and thus to respond quickly with appropriate preventive measures.

We decided to use the Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes elaborated in 2014 by the UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect. We recall that risk factors are those conditions that increase the risk of or susceptibility to negative outcomes. They include behaviours, circumstances or elements that create an environment conducive to the commission of atrocity crimes, or indicate the potential, probability or risk of their occurrence. Some are structural in nature, while others pertain to particular circumstances or events. We focused on the eight common risk factors of atrocity crimes identified in the Framework of Analysis. With regard to atrocity crimes, they generally refer to crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes of genocide and ethnic cleansing. We highlight that if there is a risk of atrocity crimes occurring, there will certainly also be a deterioration of the human rights situation.

The Framework of Analysis includes objective indicators for each risk factor. For the purposes of identifying the indicators currently present in Burundi, we conducted an analysis of the most significant developments since the beginning of the 2015 crisis, including the findings and information collected since the establishment of the Commission.

The conclusion is straightforward. After four years of crisis and on the eve of the 2020 elections, the situation in Burundi is characterized by the persistence of the 2015 crisis, as demonstrated in particular by economic instability; the presence of more than 340,000 Burundian refugees in neighbouring countries; overall impunity for human rights violations and crimes against humanity committed since 2015; and the lack of prospects for a political solution to the crisis, due notably to the inflexibility of the Government of Burundi during the mediation process under the auspices of the East African Community.

The 2020 electoral process constitutes one of the key elements to understand the current Burundian context which is characterized by the accelerated shrinking of the democratic space, strict controls over civil society and censored media. The multiparty system is illusory. The climate is of political intolerance. The political space has been sealed by the ruling party and its youth wing “the Imbonerakure”, who tend to be both associated and confused with government institutions. Among their aims is to convert and recruit in their ranks the population as a whole. There is a personalization of the powers of the Head of State which signals the weakness of the state institutions. The manipulation of the country’s history for political purposes, in the absence of a genuine reconciliation and transitional justice process for past atrocity crimes, risks solidifying past grievances. The presence of Burundian armed opposition groups in neighbouring countries, regional tensions and uncertainties about the position of Burundian defence and security forces in the electoral context are also significant factors that may impact the situation.

The eight common risk factors for atrocity crimes, and thus also for the deterioration of the human rights situation, are present today in Burundi, namely:

  1. Unstable political, economic and security environment;
  2. An overall climate of impunity for recent and past serious human rights violations;
  3. Weakness of state structures that could prevent or halt possible violations, in particular the justice system;
  4. The existence of motives and intents to resort to violence, specifically the determination of the CNDD-FDD party to stay in power, including the use of past grievances and cases of impunity;
  5. The capacity of different stakeholders to resort to violence and commit violations;
  6. The absence of mitigating factors such as strong, organized and representative domestic civil society as well as free, diverse and independent national media;
  7. Enabling circumstances and environment conducive to violence and human rights violations, including the exploitation for political purposes of identity, past events or motives to commit violence;
  8. The existence of triggering factors, in particular the holding of the 2020 elections.

We wish to underscore that the presence of these eight common risk factors does not necessarily mean that atrocity crimes will occur and, most importantly, it does not determine at which point in time or how these crimes could occur, nor which types of crimes or violations might be committed. However, Burundi is clearly at high risk.

We stress that we consider the current crisis to be mainly of a political nature, having been triggered by the decision of President Pierre Nkurunziza to seek a third term in 2015. In this crisis, ethnicity has been occasionally exploited for political purposes. It is worth recalling that in the framework of the 2010 and 2015 elections, violence was intra-ethnic as much as it was inter-ethnic.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The risks are real and serious but the deterioration is not inevitable. The purpose of our approach is precisely to prevent that. Indeed, it is a known fact that early warning is in itself a component of prevention. We therefore call on the international community to follow the evolution of the situation in Burundi with the utmost vigilance. This is all the more necessary given the sensitive period ahead.

Accordingly, we are requesting that the mandate of the Commission be renewed for one more year to ensure that there will remain at least one independent international mechanism in a position to monitor the human rights situation in the country.

In view of the persistence of human rights violations in Burundi, we are concerned by the recent agreement signed between Tanzania and Burundi to organise the return of Burundian asylum seekers and refugees, either willingly or by force, and if needed, without the assistance of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. A good part of our work this year has been to document the human rights violations that targeted Burundian refugees who returned to the country. We recommend that all States grant prima facie refugee status to Burundian asylum-seekers and ensure strict adherence to the principles of non-refoulement and protection of refugees.

We reaffirm the importance for the Government of Burundi to respect the Arusha Peace Agreement and to implement the recommendations contained in our various reports, which are more than ever valid and relevant. The new recommendations addressed to the authorities this year are primarily meant to prevent a deterioration of the situation. We insist in particular on the recommendations regarding the importance for Burundi to re-engage constructively and collaboratively with all international and regional human rights mechanisms; on the measures to be taken to ensure the structural and financial independence of national human rights mechanisms and to build the capacity of their members. Equally important is the recommendation to guarantee, in law and in practice, the rights to freedom of information, association and peaceful assembly, which are crucial for ensuring a climate of political tolerance and a genuine multiparty system in an electoral context. Finally, we recommend that the Government guarantee the independence of the National Electoral Commission (CENI) and provide access to national and international independent electoral observers, ensuring their freedom of movement to carry out their work before, during and after the elections.

Thank you for your attention.

WFP, Country file, Burundi, April 2019.

UNDP, Human development index, 2018.