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Statement of Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic at the Burundi Configuration of Peacebuilding Fund, Wednesday 9 July 2014


Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I visited Burundi from 25 to 27 June 2014, to assess the country’s human rights situation and discuss the human rights presence after the expiration of BNUB’s mandate at the end of 2014. This visit followed a previous one two year ago. During the visit, I met with Burundian officials, with representatives of the international community, civil society groups, and visited Bujumbura’s Mpimba prison.

The security situation has improved since two years ago and there are fewer politically-motivated killings. However, as the country approaches the crucial 2015 elections, there are clear indications of a reduction of civil and political liberties, which is having an adverse effect on the activities of the civil society organisations, the media, and opposition parties.  It is my firm view that the 2015 elections must be open and transparent for the results to be accepted by all and to prevent the country from diverging from the achievements gained since the signing of the Arusha Peace Agreement in 2000.

It is encouraging that recently there have been some notable positive aspects regarding the electoral process. I have congratulated the authorities of Burundi for the country’s successes since the signing of the Arusha Accord in 2000 and since my last visit. These include the new Electoral Code adopted unanimously by the National Assembly and the Senate respectively, and promulgated by the President on 3 June, which will govern the organisation of the 2015 elections. A further affirmative step was the Code of Conduct signed on 9 June by the Government, the Independent National Electoral Commission, political parties as well as the United Nations, which consists of a set of principles, which will govern the conduct of the stakeholders during the electoral process.

However, I have deep concerns regarding the growing restrictions on the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, especially the prohibition of public meetings and demonstrations planned in conformity with the new law on public gatherings. As the country moves closer towards the 2015 elections there is a corresponding increase in political violence, intimidation of political opponents and disruption of political meetings by the ruling CNDD-FDD’s youth association known as the Imbonerakure, often with the alleged collusion of local authorities and the police. Between this January and June 2014, BNUB registered 48 politically motivated incidents involving the movement. This represents more than twice the number in relation to the same period in 2013.   

A further cause for concern is the division of the political parties and civil society organisations.  The mainly Tutsi UPRONA, the only opposition party which did not boycott the 2010 elections and a junior member of the Government coalition, is now divided into two factions. TheFNL, a Hutu opposition party, is similarly divided into several wings, whilst a potential presidential candidate, Frédéric Bamvuginyumvira, the Vice-President of Sahwanya-FRODEBU, has been charged with corruption; and MSD Chairman, Alexis Sinduhije has fled the country following a confrontation between members of his party and the police. These developments illustrate the weakness of  the opposition ahead of the 2015 elections.

During my mission, participants in meetings with civil society organisations  were equally divided between those representing organisations critical of the Government’s human rights record and organisations which expressed unequivocal support for the ruling party’s actions. During my visit to the Mpimba prison, I met, notably, with Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, a leading human rights defender detained there. In my discussion with officials, I raised the case of Mr. Mbonimpa and encouraged them to guarantee freedom of speech and the protection of the rights of all human rights defenders. I was assured that the case of Pierre Claver Mbonimpa will be handled speedily and in full accordance with national and international norms and standards.

I have met with the President of the National Independent Human Rights Commission and I have assured him of our continued support.  The Commission is essential in consolidating Burundian institutions and we call on the Government to continue the dialogue and to provide the necessary tools to allow it to successfully carry its mandate. 

As Burundi prepares for next year’s elections, a special attention must be paid to the full respect of freedom of expression, including for journalists and human rights defenders; violence linked to the electoral process must be prevented; and harassment against perceived political adversaries must not be tolerated. All these are preconditions for free and fair elections in 2015 and for its results to be accepted by everyone.

While discussing with stakeholders, I took note of the fact that transitional justice remains a very sensitive issue in Burundi.  In all my meetings I emphasised that the set-up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the first step in the implementation of the commitments contained in the Arusha Agreement, while individual accountability should follow as well. The adopted Truth and reconciliation bill does not include some of the recommendations made by the United Nations in meeting international standards.  After discussing with stakeholders, I believe that the law does present an opportunity to put Burundi firmly on the path to reconciliation, but is not a guarantee.  The key issue will be the appointments of the Commissioners, which, unlike the adoption of the law, will have to be consensual.  I encouraged the appointment of competent and impartial Commissioners who will be able to produce a credible report.  I have assured my interlocutors that OHCHR would stand ready to assist the Truth and reconciliation Commission, if those criteria are met. 

The worsening political and human rights context, and concerns about the further deterioration of the situation ahead of the 2015 elections, calls for a continued human rights presence, with a monitoring and reporting capacity, beyond 2014. The BNUB Human Rights and Justice Section has been the only entity monitoring the human rights situation throughout Burundi. The UN Joint Transition Plan, presented to the Government on 16 May 2014, tasks OHCHR to continue to lead the UN’s efforts in the priority areas of human rights and transitional justice. Given the expiration of BNUB’s mandate at the end of 2014 and under the open-ended agreement signed with the Government in 1995, OHCHR could have a stand-alone presence that would continue a full range of activities.

In my meetings with Government officials, I raised the binding nature of this agreement and informed them of OHCHR’s interest to continue its implementation as of 1 January 2015. As a next step, the High Commissioner is sending a letter to the Government informing them officially of OHCHR’s intentions. 

The focus on the elections should not make us forget the many challenges faced daily by Burundians when it comes to the full realisation of their economic and social rights.  In a country where half of the population is malnourished and in which children, especially girls, drop out of school because of poverty, economic and social rights also need to remain a priority.

While most of my interlocutors agreed that the current tensions were political, they raised the risk of the “perfect storm” scenario which could shift the focus of tensions from political to ethnic.   Many factors could trigger this scenario: The potential manipulation of the TRC process could increase ethnic tensions; the land issue could also feed tensions, particularly following the recent promulgation of the law on 31 December 2013 establishing the National Land Commission which is feared by opposition parties as potentially favouring returning Hutu refugees. Finally, attempts to change the Arusha Agreement especially with regard to ethnic balance that it provided can be especially divisive. 

A credible and successful electoral process - conducted in the respect of international human rights norms by which Burundi is bound - is an important step for the image of Burundi and its capacity to garner support for its development programmes and transitional justice mechanisms.   I call on the Government of Burundi to step up to the challenges ahead, and on the  international actors to support Burundi in its crucial transition.

Thank you very much.