Geneva, 10 April 2020 - The Commission of Inquiry on Burundi is concerned by the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential impact on the Burundian population. The Commission takes note that the Government has already implemented certain measures such as urging the population to adopt preventive protection and hygiene measures, suspending international passenger flights, as well as mandatory quarantine for travelers arriving from the most affected countries. However, these measures remain insufficient in addressing the current pandemic that constitutes an unprecedented challenge for all countries, especially those in a situation of economic crisis, such as Burundi, with fragile health systems and more than 70% of the population living a hand to mouth existence below the poverty line.
The Commission stresses that human rights must be the cornerstone of any response of the Burundian government to the pandemic. In accordance with its international obligations, specifically those related to the rights to life and to health, the Government must protect its population and make every effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus and treat patients, while ensuring the respect and the protection of all human rights, including the right to food and fundamental freedoms.
The Commission recalls that the freedoms of information and expression are fundamental rights particularly important during a pandemic. They must be fully respected and protected and should not be unduly restricted in order to prevent the release of substantiated data that contradict those provided by the authorities or the dissemination of information and ideas that question or criticise the measures adopted by the Government. On the contrary, comprehensive and transparent information on health risks, the transmission rate of the coronavirus, means to mitigate the transmission and available treatment is essential to encourage the population to participate and implement possible restrictive measures.
The Commission regrets that some humanitarian organisations were refused access to sites where persons were quarantined in deplorable conditions when they should have been provided with food, clean water and access to health facilities and medical services.
The measures taken to address the pandemic should not be discriminatory, nor exacerbate the existing inequalities and vulnerabilities, and they must be tailored to the reality of the Burundian context in which a significant part of the population survives on informal employment. Access to medical treatment and medicine must be guaranteed to all, without any distinction on the grounds of gender, political opinion or affiliation, ethnicity, religion, social status or nationality. The most vulnerable persons, including returnees, street children, women heads of household, elderly people and people with disabilities should be especially protected.
Given the overpopulation of Burundian prisons, the cramped living conditions imposed to detainees and the restricted access to medical care and sanitation, the persons deprived of their liberty are at increased risk in case of a potential virus spread. Therefore, the Commission calls on the Burundian authorities to apply the interim guidance specifically elaborated in this respect and to not limit themselves to prohibiting prison visits. The Commission reiterates its recommendation for the immediate release of persons arbitrarily detained such as human rights defenders Germain Rukuki and Nestor Nibitanga, the Iwacu journalists and all those detained for political motives, those who have served their sentence or who have been granted presidential pardon. Those in preventive detention as well as prisoners at the end of their sentence should also be released.
The Commission insists that any potential restriction of fundamental freedoms such as the freedom of movement and assembly must be strictly necessary, commensurate to the evaluated risk to public health, limited in time, non- discriminatory in nature and in scope and must be re-evaluated on a regular basis.
At the global level, additional measures must be taken in order to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the Burundian population, particularly on its ability to provide food, clothing and shelter and to maintain personal hygiene since more than 1.7 million people need humanitarian assistance. Measures taken to control the spread of the coronavirus should not disrupt the supply chains vital to the availability of essential products or the delivery of humanitarian assistance.
The Commission calls on the Burundian authorities to cooperate closely with international and non-governmental organisations. It urges the Burundian government to immediately implement the recommendations of the World Health Organisation, specifically those on social distancing and to encourage all related initiatives, including on an individual basis, instead of threatening their initiators. The Commission also calls upon the Government to develop, as quickly as possible, a plan to counter the threat of coronavirus and to provide assistance to persons who need it, individually and through international assistance and cooperation if its own available resources are not sufficient. Any obstacles to humanitarian and health operations should be lifted immediately and Burundian authorities should facilitate the implementation of the Global Humanitarian Response Plan COVID-19, which identifies Burundi as one of the priority recipient countries. In addition, the Commission calls on the international community to support this response plan to the global crisis.
1/ Inter-Agency Standing Committee, OHCHR and WHO, COVID-19: Focus on persons deprived of their liberty, Interim Guidance, March 2020.