Burundi “A general climate of impunity” – the latest UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi Report

Published 9th September 2019

On 4 September last week the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi released its latest report. The situation in Burundi continues to warrant deep concern as grave human rights violations persist. Experts estimate that it may only get worse as the 2020 elections draw closer. After all, it was a political crisis in 2015 election cycle that catapulted the small East African nation into chaos.

As I have written here Burundi is no stranger to civil war coloured by political and ethnic violence- in 2015 the situation was no different. President Pierre Nkurunziza ran for a controversial third term deemed by many to be unconstitutional thereby triggering protests and strong opposition to his bid for yet another term in office. Nkurunziza’s forces responded violently and swiftly. The situation attracted the attention of the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor and a preliminary examination was announced on 25 April 2016.  At that point more than 430 persons had been killed and an estimated 3,400 people had been arrested whilst over 230,000 had fled the country. 

On 25 October 2017, the Prosecutor received authorisation from Pre-Trial Chamber III to  turn her preliminary examination into an investigation and exactly 2 days later Burundi’s withdrawal from the Rome Statute took effect. However, withdrawal does not legally stop the ICC from continuing with their investigation as the Court still has jurisdiction over crimes committed during Burundi’s time as a member state.

The Commission, which was established through Human Rights Council resolution 33/24 to conduct a thorough investigation into “human rights violations and abuses committed in Burundi since April 2015, to determine whether any of them may constitute international crimes, to identify their alleged perpetrators and to formulate recommendations for ensuring that such perpetrators are held accountable for their acts” has not had an easy task.

Commissioners Doudou Diène, Lucy Asuagbor, Françoise Hampson have been classified as “personae non gratae” in Burundi and have been accused of attempting to destabilise the country. Responding to questions from journalists curious about his thoughts on the latest Commission report, senior adviser to the President, Willy Nyamitwe tweeted the following: “We are no longer interested in responding to the lies and #FakeNews by some Westerners who obviously seek the destabilization of Burundi”.  #HRC42

As pointed out in the Commission Report, Burundi not only rejects the Commission’s work in its entirety but it is equally non-cooperative with other regional and international mechanisms.  This includes the government closing the Burundi office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the fact that the UN Subcommittee on Prevention of Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment was not allowed to conduct a visit in 2018. The Commission Report also points out that Burundi has “not submitted to the treaty bodies some of its periodic reports on the implementation of human rights instruments” nor has it cooperated with the UN special procedures mandate holders in relation to allegations of human rights violations.

Burundi’s engagement at the international level clearly leaves a lot to be desired but as the Commission Report highlights, the treatment of their own citizens is where the real tragedy lies. The Commission has interviewed many victims, witnesses and other people with information either living in Burundi or in third states, collecting over 1000 testimonies allowing them to put together a report that depicts just how grim the situation is.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as at 30 June 2019 there were 344,931 Burundian refugees in neighbouring countries. According to the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 1.77 million persons are in need of humanitarian assistance and 1.7 million are facing serious food insecurity.

Police, National Intelligence Service officers, municipality administrative officials and the Imbonerakure, the military youth wing of the ruling party (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD) have all been identified as the perpetrators of acts of violence and abuse. They continue to act with impunity and terrorise those who do not actively support their party. This includes murder, witnesses recalled people being beaten to death or executed with guns and knives. Enforced disappearances are common, as are acts of torture, sexual violence and arbitrary arrest. Even minors are not safe as the Commission Report mentions that schoolgirls were detained for roughly 10 days and were actually prosecuted for “insult to the Head of State”. Their “crime” was the alleged defacing of photographs of the President in school textbooks.

There are also severe restrictions on freedom of expression and grave violations of economic and social rights compounded by the lack of true democracy or a genuine multi-party system.

As stated by the Commission, the 2020 elections “pose a major risk” as they could be yet another flashpoint. The prognosis is bleak and Burundi has all the devastating components that could escalate into a full-blown crisis.

** This article first appeared on the Opinio Juris Blog http://opiniojuris.org/2019/09/09/burundi-a-general-climate-of-impunity-the-latest-un-commission-of-inquiry-on-burundi-report/

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