“Either you show respect for the CNDD-FDD… or we will beat you to correct you.” − Muramvya province resident who fled Burundi in October 2017, Isingiro, Uganda, April 12, 2018
President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision in April 2015 to stand for a disputed third term sparked a political, human rights, and humanitarian crisis which continues to have devastating consequences for many people in Burundi. Violence and intimidation against political opponents across the country escalated ahead of the May 17, 2018 constitutional referendum that would allow the president to extend his hold on power.
Since Nkurunziza made the first move in 2015 to extend his stay in power, Burundian state security forces, intelligence services, and members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, have carried out brutal, targeted attacks on opponents or suspected opponents, human rights activists, and journalists–killing an estimated 1,700 people and forcibly disappearing, raping, torturing, beating, arbitrarily detaining, and intimidating countless others. According to the United Nations, over 390,000 Burundian refugees fled since the start of the crisis and remain outside of the country, and an estimated 3 million Burundians need humanitarian assistance–over a quarter of the country’s total population. The country’s once vibrant independent media and human rights organizations have been decimated, facing severe restrictions or being banned entirely, and many of their leaders have been arrested or forced into exile. Armed opposition groups have also attacked security forces and members of the ruling party since 2015, with some establishing rear bases in neighboring eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
On May 11, 2018, unidentified assailants shot and hacked to death at least 26 people, including several children, in Ruhagarika village, Cibitoke province, near the Congolese border, in the single most deadly attack on civilians in Burundi for at least several years. At time of writing, it is unclear whether the attack was related to the referendum, but it highlights the precarious security situation around the referendum as actors from all sides have in the past resorted to violence.
The third (and current) term of Nkurunziza, who has been in power since 2005, was seen by many as a violation of the two five-year term limit set forth in the Arusha Accords–a political framework signed in 2000 that established a power-sharing agreement intended to end the country’s civil war–as well as the country’s 2005 constitution. Nkurunziza and his supporters argued that his first term should not count because he was elected by parliament instead of a direct vote. While Nkurunziza’s third term was disputed, the constitution clearly did not permit him to stand again. To maintain power, the president and his party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD), called for a referendum to change the constitution to increase presidential terms to seven years, renewable only once. However, the clock on terms already served would be reset, enabling Nkurunziza to run for two new seven-year terms, in 2020 and 2027. The change could extend his rule until 2034.
On December 12, 2017, Nkurunziza announced the referendum, warning that those who dared to “sabotage” the project to revise the constitution “by word or action” would be crossing a “red line.” His speech legitimized a government policy of seeking out and punishing anyone perceived to oppose the referendum.
Since early 2017, security forces and the Imbonerakure have continued to kill, rape, beat, detain, threaten, and harass scores of people in Burundi. Some have been targeted after refusing to contribute funds to finance the referendum vote and the 2020 elections. In some cases, simply not belonging to the ruling party was enough to create suspicion and provoke a violent response.
Following international condemnation of the repression at the start of the crisis in 2015, when security forces used deadly force to disperse protests and quash dissent, some of the abuses became more covert in recent years. Across the country, Burundians have regularly reported finding bodies, sometimes decapitated or with their hands tied behind the back. Some bodies were weighed down with stones and found in the Ruzizi River or Lake Tanganyika. Some of the victims were later identified by witnesses as people who were known to have opposed Nkurunziza’s efforts to prolong his hold on power. There has also been an increased reliance on the Imbonerakure in recent years to target perceived opponents, although the police, military, and intelligence services have also continued to commit serious abuses. While supposedly independent, former Imbonerakure members and other witnesses have described how the Imbonerakure’s activities are at times well-coordinated with the state security forces and intelligence services and they often receive orders from military, police, and intelligence commanders.
Based on over 100 interviews conducted between February and May 2018 with victims of abuses, witnesses, family members of victims, and five former members of the Imbonerakure, this report documents repression and serious human rights violations against those perceived to be opponents of Burundi’s ruling party since January 2017. Human Rights Watch interviewed 67 Burundian refugees who fled to Congo and Uganda in 2017 or 2018 and at least 40 Burundians currently living in Burundi. The report also draws on Human Rights Watch’s previous research and reporting on Burundi since the start of the crisis in 2015. The full scale of abuse is difficult to determine and likely significantly higher than what Human Rights Watch has documented, given the climate of fear across the country which makes many victims and witnesses unwilling or unable to report on abuses.
The near-total impunity for crimes committed by the security services and Imbonerakure in recent years has protected the perpetrators and encouraged further abuse. In nearly all the 83 cases of human rights abuses documented by Human Rights Watch for this report, the individuals responsible and their commanders have not been arrested, charged, or tried, even when they have been identified by witnesses. The state has failed to take reasonable steps to ensure security and provide protection for its citizens, and it has not fulfilled its duty to take all reasonable measures to prevent and prosecute these types of crimes.
Human Rights Watch urges the Burundian government to take prompt measures to end the impunity protecting those responsible for killings, rapes, beatings, arbitrary detention, threats, and harassment, and to prevent these abuses, including by its own security forces and the Imbonerakure. Leaders of opposition parties and groups also have the responsibility to take immediate action to dissuade their members from attacking CNDD-FDD and Imbonerakure members and make it clear that they do not sanction such crimes.
The United Nations Human Rights Council established a Commission of Inquiry in September 2016 to document serious crimes in Burundi since April 2015. In September 2017, the commission concluded that it had “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity ha[d] been committed and continue[d] to be committed in Burundi since April 2015.” The commission’s mandate has been extended through September 2018, but Burundi continues to refuse any form of cooperation with the commission.
On October 25, 2017, judges from the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized an investigation into crimes committed in Burundi since April 2015. Two days later, Burundi became the first country to withdraw from the ICC. Yet ICC judges found that Burundi’s withdrawal does not affect the court’s jurisdiction over crimes committed while the country was a member. The ongoing investigation brings hope that those responsible for some of the worst crimes committed in Burundi in recent years may eventually be brought to justice.
In September 2015, the European Union imposed sanctions on three senior police and intelligence officials and one opposition member who took part in the failed coup. In November 2015, the United States imposed sanctions on the minister of public security, the deputy director general of the police, and two leaders of the failed coup. Most major donors have suspended direct budgetary support to the Burundian government, but some maintained humanitarian assistance.
Yet much more could and should be done to help curb the abuse and to prevent the situation in Burundi from deteriorating further.
To show that there are consequences for the widespread abuses that have continued since 2015, the EU and US should expand targeted sanctions to those further up the chain of command. The UN Security Council should also impose targeted sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against individuals responsible for ongoing serious human rights violations in Burundi.
Foreign governments, UN bodies, and others concerned about the situation in Burundi should increase pressure on the government and opposition to stop the kinds of abuses documented in this report and call on the government to hold perpetrators to account. They should also advocate strongly for the protection of civil society actors and journalists, and press Burundi to cooperate with UN mechanisms, including the Commission of Inquiry, and allow for the deployment of 228 UN police officers, as authorized by a July 2016 Security Council resolution.
The East African Community (EAC) has attempted to initiate dialogue among key Burundian players since 2014, but these efforts have made no tangible progress and have been hampered by an apparent unwillingness among regional leaders to press Nkurunziza to make real concessions. It is time for regional leaders to step up and take a strong position in pressing Nkurunziza and his government to urgently resolve the country’s crisis and end the violence and repression.
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