48th session of the Human Rights Council
Interactive Dialogue on Burundi
Geneva, 23 September 2021
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today, I have the privilege to submit the final report of the Commission of inquiry on Burundi, pursuant to this Council’s Resolution 45/19 of 6 October 2020, The report was published on 16 September 2021 along with the Commission’s detailed conclusions (A/HRC/48/CRP.1. Both documents are available on the Commission’s webpage and on the Council’s website.
During the fifth term of its mandate, the Commission focused its investigations on the most serious human rights violations committed in Burundi since President Ndayishimiye took office in June 2020. The Commission also analyzed the overall developments of the human rights situation during that period, including the economic underpinnings of the State, and updated its analysis of the risk factors.
This report is based on more than 170 testimonies from victims and witnesses of human rights violations and abuses and other sources, collected since September 2020 despite additional challenges related to Covid-19 travel restrictions and the liquidity crisis that affected the United Nations. This amounts to more than 1,770 interviews conducted since the Commission was established in 2016.
Once more, we wish to convey our gratitude to the persons who provided priceless information to the Commission despite the risks involved.
Despite President Ndayishimiye’s numerous promises to sustainably improve the human rights situation in Burundi, to date, only symbolic gestures, certainly welcome, and decisions, often controversial, have been made. These are neither sufficient nor adequate to have a sustainable and profound impact on the human rights situation. Nothing was done to truly reopen the democratic space and fully guarantee the fundamental freedoms of expression, information and association. The façade of normalisation hides a very concerning human rights situation.
Following the end of the 2020 electoral process, the number and frequency of violations initially decreased. However, from June 2021, we noted an increase in violations, mainly in the context of the fight against armed groups allegedly responsible for attacks perpetrated throughout the country since August 2020. As a reminder, since that date, security incidents have been regularly reported, including armed clashes and exchanges of gunfire between members of the security forces, sometimes supported by the Imbonerakure, and groups of often unidentified armed men. Indiscriminate attacks against civilians were also conducted, notably on 25 May 2021 in Bujumbura, during which grenades were launched in very busy public spaces. Burundian authorities legitimately looked for the persons involved in these attacks or suspected of collaborating with rebel groups. In actual fact, military of the former Burundian army (ex-FAB) and members of opposition parties (specifically the Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL)) were targeted, and, to a lesser extent, the returnees.
While some of these persons were executed, others were victims of enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrest and detention during which they were often tortured in order to force them to confess or reveal information on rebel groups and their operations. Relatives of persons arrested or wanted, particularly women, were also arrested and prosecuted for not denouncing them.
The Commission was not able to establish, on a case-by-case basis, whether the authorities’ suspicions with regards to their involvement in the attacks were founded on objective evidence or only based on their political affiliation or ethnic profile, thus constituting repression against political opponents. However, the Commission considers that there are reasonable grounds to believe that a significant number of political opponents were victims of violations under the guise of pursuing the persons responsible for the armed attacks. In any case, there is no justification for such practices. The just fight against criminality and terrorism must be carried out in strict compliance with human rights.
It is also in this context that from April 2021, some of the persons released from prison following the presidential pardon granted to more than 5,000 prisoners in March 2021, were abducted and disappeared.
The main perpetrators are agents of the National Intelligence Service (SNR), placed under the direct responsibility of President Ndayishimiye, police officers, specifically from the Rapid Mobile Intervention Groups (GMIR), and Imbonerakure. They continue to operate with absolute impunity.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The democratic space remains closed and tightly controlled by the Burundian authorities despite some encouraging gestures, seeking to appease the international community.
Under the direct pressure of President Ndayishimiye, some suspended media outlets were authorised by the National Communication Council (CNC) to resume their activities under certain conditions. Amongst them Radio Bonesha and Télévision Isanganiro. The BBC was invited to submit a new accreditation request. However, the situation of Voice of America remains unchanged. The Government did not make any decision with regards to media outlets in exile such as Radio publique africaine or Télé Renaissance.
On 24 December 2020, the four journalists from the press group Iwacu, who were sentenced for carrying out their professional duty of finding information on security incidents, were released on presidential pardon after having spent 14 months in detention. However, their innocence was not recognized nor was their conviction overturned.
The journalists who dared question or criticise the Government or its actions continue to be vilified, intimidated or threatened, including by President Ndayishimiye himself. For example, at the end of August 2021, he violently and publicly attacked two Burundian journalists in exile, one of whom had questioned the official figures on the Covid-19 situation in Burundi.
The National Communications Council maintains a tight control on media content and on the work of journalists and does not hesitate to call them to order in cases of “ill-conceived” articles. Ultimately, journalists who work in the country are forced to self-censor because they work under the threat of sanctions by the CNC, and of possible abusive and arbitrary criminal prosecution. In addition, the Government plans to further tighten its control by revising the 2018 press law in order to prohibit the dissemination on social media of “content contrary to Burundian culture” .
Broadly speaking, the situation for civil society is similar. Some positive gestures were noted, such as the release of human rights defenders Germain Rukuki and Nestor Nibitanga or the authorization given to the organization PARCEM (Parole et actions pour le réveil des consciences et l’évolution des mentalités) to resume its activities after being suspended for almost two years for “tarnishing the country’s image” when the organization published a critical report on the socioeconomic situation in Burundi.
However, at the same time, the Government has taken measures aimed at tightening its grip over the activities and functioning of civil society organizations. The Government has decided to limit operating costs within projects funded by technical and financial partners, as well as the salaries paid by these projects which must be in line with those in public entities in Burundi.
The Government also seeks to control the deliverables of foreign NGOs, the ethnic composition of their staff, the salaries of their expatriate staff, and demands that the recruitment committees introduced by the Government be involved in the hiring processes. The first oversight field visits were carried out.
It is obvious that the Burundian authorities consider that the civil society’s sole purpose is to assist them and support government projects, thereby denying the very principle of freedom of association, which includes the freedom to choose which objectives to pursue and how to achieve them.
The authorities’ hostility and mistrust towards civil society persist. For example, Tony Germain Nkina, a lawyer, was arrested on 13 October 2020 and seemingly detained in relation to his past activities within the civil society organisation APRODH (suspended in 2015 and de-registered in 2016). On 15 June 2021, during his first trial, he was found guilty of « collaborating with the rebels who attacked Burundi » and sentenced to five years in prison. His appeal trial took place on 20 September 2021 and the Commission hopes that the judgement will be just and fair.
Furthermore, we must recall that 12 journalists, lawyers and representatives of civil society organisations living in exile since 2015 were convicted in absentia on 23 June 2020 and sentenced to life imprisonment for their alleged involvement in the attempted coup d’état of 13 May 2015. Pursuant to the Supreme Court judgment, only published on 2 February 2021, all their assets were seized and auctioned off in November 2020 to cover the 2.8 million dollars of damage and interests awarded to the State and the ruling party CNDD-FDD (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie).
Following the elections, the many abusive restrictions directed at opposition parties, notably the CNL (Congrès national pour la liberté), such as the ban on organizing gatherings and meetings or opening party offices, were dropped. Incidents have nonetheless been reported in several provinces in which CNL offices have been ransacked, including in June 2021, and it remains difficult for this party to hold meetings in some localities.
Some CNL members have been arrested and detained arbitrarily on various grounds in retaliation for their political activities, such as the collection of members’ contributions to build party offices or for holding « illegal » meetings. On those occasions, they were tortured or ill-treated during their arrest.
Other active CNL members disappeared after being taken by State agents or Imbonerakure, as was the case of Oscar Nahimana who was the Vice- President of the independent communal electoral commission in Kirundo commune and province, who is reported missing since 28 September 2020; and Elie Ngomirakiza, CNL representative in Mutimbuzi commune, Bujumbura province (rural), last seen on 9 July 2021.
In light of recent cases of enforced disappearance that were reported to the Burundian authorities and to the National Independent Human Rights Commission of Burundi (CNDIH), and which are over and above the 168 cases since 2016, officially reported to the Burundian authorities by the UN Working Group on enforced or involuntary disappearance, the Commission is surprised that President Ndayishimiye claimed to not know of any cases of enforced disappearance in the country1 . The commission is particularly concerned by the implication of this statement, namely that the authorities are not engaging any action or effective measure to investigate these disappearances and to inform the families on the fate of their relatives.
Hate speech against opponents has, by and large, been replaced by official calls for tolerance in politics, but there are still occasional statements associating opponents with “enemies of the State”, including by President Ndayishimiye himself. Furthermore, the Imbonerakure have continued to march while chanting songs hostile to political opponents, in some rural collines. The level of political violence has certainly subsided but Imbonerakure can still be mobilised at any time.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As of 30 June 2021, 164,990 Burundian refugees had been repatriated under the tripartite voluntary repatriation programme launched in 2017, primarily from Tanzania (129,535) and Rwanda (28,212). As of the same date, 276,275 Burundians officially remained refugees in neighbouring countries. The climate of hostility and suspicion towards returnees has to some extent abated following instructions issued to local administrative chiefs to ensure a better reception for returnees in order to achieve the Government’s goal of large-scale refugee returns. However, the Commission has collected testimonies indicating that returnees still face suspicion from some local authorities and Imbonerakure.
Generally speaking, there remains considerable barriers to the socioeconomic reintegration of returnees, notably due to chronic poverty and pre-existing vulnerabilities in in reception areas. In fact, the overall situation of the Burundian population remains preoccupying. For example, let us recall that in 2020, Burundi was ranked 185 out of 189 countries on the human development index2 , and according to the World Bank in 2019, 83.4% of the population lived below the poverty line. In more specific terms, this means that in 2021, an estimated 2.3 million people in Burundi need humanitarian assistance mainly food assistance.
Furthermore, Burundians are still forced to make regular monetary contributions in order to finance public infrastructure, contribute to development or support the party in power, or else be denied access to public services and spaces or the issuance of administrative documents. The Ministry of the Interior, Community Development and Public Security himself recognized and denounced such practices from some communal and provincial authorities.
The number of incidents involving members of the Imbonerakure has dropped in several provinces following instructions given to them and calls from the President himself to focus on the development of the country and to stop usurping the functions of law enforcement and security forces. However, in border regions and those that are the scene of armed attacks, they remain mobilized by the authorities to ensure security, including, for instance, through the joint committees. Thus, on 30 June 2021, the defence forces received a written internal order to rely on “armed political movements” to neutralize armed gangs, in what is essentially an official acknowledgement of the Imbonerakure’s subsidiary role of security forces3 . They therefore continued their night patrols, which often result in cases of violence.
Corpses are still often being found in public places. The local authorities have continued to bury them without seeking to identify the deceased or to investigate the cause of death and possible perpetrators. Such conduct is a violation by the Burundian State of its obligation to protect the rights to life and to an effective remedy. The authorities’ ongoing silence about this situation could even be interpreted as tacit acquiescence to these practices.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
President Ndayishimiye and his Government have finally recognized the existence of dysfunctions in the justice system which were documented by the Commission, including the prevalence of corruption and the failure to enforce judicial decisions. However, the measures to address these challenges are far from adequate and can only be harmful and counterproductive in the long run. They mainly seek to strengthen the control of the Executive over the Judiciary, officially in order to resolve the challenges but in so doing, they undermine the very principle of judicial independence. It is thus noted, inter alia, that the Supreme Council of Magistrates, led by the Head of State, will be responsible for overseeing the quality of judicial decisions and the measures used to enforce them and will even have the power to take “corrective” measures4 . Similarly, authorities, including senior officials, have publicly criticised Burundian judges accusing them of corruption and being the source of several ills in the country while threatening them with dismissal. Conversely, these same authorities remained silent regarding the interference of CNDD-FDD members and those close to power in judicial procedures, another key challenge in the justice system.
Furthermore, there has been no notable progress in the fight against impunity. The first convictions in the summer of 2020 were not really followed by others that would have marked a clear departure from past practices. Authorities continue to deny the human rights violations committed since 2015, and in so doing maintain a climate of fear of retaliation that dissuade victims and their families from filing any complaints.
With regards to financial and economic malfeasance, President Ndayishimiye and his Government made the fight against corruption and bad governance, endemic in the country, one of his priorities. Here too, few steps have been taken to deliver on these promises, except a few isolated gestures and decisions whose efficiency to act as deterrents is yet to be proven. It is in fact important to note that one of the first decision of the Government was to abolish the anti-corruption Special Court and Special brigade and to replace them with anti-corruption sections in the public prosecutors’ offices and anti-corruption chambers in the ordinary courts. Admittedly, the results of the specialised institutions were mixed, but the existence of specialised institutions is generally considered as one of the key elements of the fight against corruption. Another decision was the dismissal, on 1 May 2021 of the Minister for Trade, Transport, Industry and Tourism, accused of misappropriating funds, without instituting judicial proceedings against her.
The Government has also decided to suspend existing mining concessions in order to renegotiate them to ensure that they are profitable to Burundi. The Commission had reported that obtaining mining licenses was contingent on the payment of large sums to high-level officials, notably the former President Nkurunziza, and other persons in his inner-circle, and the lack of transparency around the annual aid earmarked for community development, combined with a lack of visible achievements on the ground, raised questions about possible misappropriation. The renegotiations of mining concessions have to be conducted with absolute transparency to prevent corruption. Otherwise, they are likely to foster opportunities for further illicit payments.
The Commission also questions the credibility of President Ndayishimiye’s stand on some issues, for example, with his contradictions and reversals regarding public officials’ constitutional obligation to declare their assets, and his official declaration authorising civil servants to accept bribes and credit them to the Treasury in order to “contribute to the development of the country”.
Another central promise of President Ndayishimiye is the restoration of the rule of law, seriously undermined for several years. In this case too, nothing has been done to sustainably reslve the erosion of the rule of law. The authorities do not always respect the constitution, the laws and procedures and at times, even authorise violations such as the non-disclosure of assets or the non-compliance with ethnic quotas in some State institutions. Authorities have exceeded their competence by taking decisions without regard for proper procedures, such as the mass dismissal of communal accountants and tax collectors in Bujumbura (Mairie) decided by the Minister of the Interior, Community Development and Public Security. Similarly, legal decisions are not enforced, especially judicial decisions for provisional or definitive prison release.
Finally, the Commission updated its analysis of the risk factors for atrocity crimes which indicates that the common eight risk factors persist, although some indicators have improved. For example, risk factor 2 related to impunity for serious human rights violations, recent and past, and risk factor 3 related to the weakness of State structures, specifically the judicial system, which is neither impartial nor independent, are structural risk factors which remain unchanged in the absence of reforms. The absence of mitigating factors (risk factor 6), due to the closed democratic space and the authorities’ refusal to engage or cooperate on human rights, remains very concerning.
The Commission regrets that the human rights situation in Burundi has not significantly improved since President Ndayishimiye took office and that serious human rights violations, some amounting to crimes against humanity, persist. The public commitments and announcements, the isolated gestures of openness and the decisions taken thus far are admittedly welcome but are not sufficient to consider that Burundi is truly seeking to fulfil its obligations under International Human Rights Law.
It is vital that the international community continues to follow very closely the development of the human rights situation in the country and to encourage the Burundian Government to take measures that can truly improve the situation. To do so, it cannot solely rely on the only Independent National Human Rights Commission (CNIDH), whose A status is encouraging but which is yet to demonstrate, in practice, that it is able to operate in accordance with the Paris principles. Accordingly, the CNIDH must handle all cases of violations, including the most sensitive ones, even if it operates in a difficult and delicate context which, now more than ever, requires an independent and operational national commission.
Burundi went through several cycles of violence in its recent history, which affected Burundian families over several generations, wrecked numerous lives, and have regularly reoccurred in the absence of measures to heal the past. The story of a man that the Commission met perfectly illustrates the actual situation. He was born in the late 80s in a refugee camp since his parents had fled the violence in the country. In the mid-2000s, he went back to Burundi and in 2015, he demonstrated against President Nkurunziza’s third term and was later arrested and tortured. He fled the country again. In the meantime, since he had refused to join the CNDD-FDD which a relative was affiliated to and, as a result, their relationship collapsed. Inspired by the promise of change after the 2020 elections, he returned to Burundi to assess the situation, but faced with the suspicion demonstrated towards returnees, he was forced to flee yet again. As he explained, « it is very difficult to return to Burundi given the prevailing situation. We are worried… I no longer have any contact with anyone in Burundi ».
The Commission recommends to the members of this Council to avail the necessary means for an international independent mechanism under the United Nations to closely and objectively monitor the evolution of the human rights situation in Burundi. On the basis of the responsibility to protect, it is crucial not to abandon the Burundian population, to end the invisibility and isolation of the victims, to continue giving them a voice and to ensure that their suffering is known, recognized and remedied; but also, to contribute to the efforts of bringing to justice the main perpetrators of the crimes against humanity and serious human rights violations, in due course, and justice for the victims.
Thank you for your attention.
RFI interview dated 14 July 2021
See document dated 30 June 2021, internal order to security forces to rely on « armed political movements » to neutralize armed groups, available in annex V of the report A/HRC/48/68.
Organic Law n° 1/02 of 23 January 2021 on organic Law n°1/13 of 12 June 2019 on the organization and functioning of the Supreme Council of Justice.