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Oral Briefing by Fatsah Ouguergouz, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL Thirty-fifth session
Interactive Dialogue on Burundi

Geneva, 14 June 2017

Mr. President, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, which you and this Council established and which I have the honour of chairing, has been operational for four months. This period may seem short in relation to the huge task assigned to us, but it has enabled us to better appreciate the human rights situation in Burundi since April 2015.

During these four months, my Commissioner colleagues and I have had the opportunity to meet several times, to present a first oral briefing to this Council on 13 March 2017 and to speak to many actors affected by the situation in Burundi.

We tried to meet the Permanent Representative of Burundi in Geneva on several occasions in order to establish a dialogue with the Burundian authorities. Unfortunately, we did not receive any response to these approaches, nor to the letters that we wrote to the Minister of External Relations in Burundi on 6 February 2017 and 20 March 2017, assuring him of our willingness to work with the Burundian authorities and inviting the Burundian Government to share any information it deemed useful with our Commission.

We deeply regret Burundi’s absence of response and cooperation, especially as Burundi is a member of this Council and is therefore bound to collaborate with the mechanisms it has created, such as our Commission.  However, our Commission will continue to make every effort to establish a dialogue with the Burundian Government until the end of its mandate.  To this end, we have sent a new letter to the Minister of External Relations as recently as 12 June. On the same date, we also sent a copy of this oral briefing to the Permanent Mission of Burundi in Geneva, which acknowledged receipt.

We have therefore not been able to visit Burundi. However, we have been able to visit several countries hosting Burundian refugees, whose number, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, has reached more than 400,000, or around 4 per cent of the total population of the country.

Since we began our investigations, we have collected more than 470 testimonies on human rights violations committed in Burundi since April 2015, supplementing information we received from other sources. I wish here to thank the governments of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya for their cooperation and for granting us and our secretariat access to their respective territories.  I would also like to thank the United Nations Organisation Stabilisation Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO) and the United Nations country teams in Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda for facilitating our visits.

Mr. President, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The human rights crisis which Burundi is experiencing has been continuing for more than two years. Indeed 26 April 2017 was the second anniversary of the first demonstrations against President Nkurunziza’s bid in the presidential election, which, as we have documented, led to serious human rights violations, including arbitrary arrests and detentions and repeated and excessive use of force by the police against demonstrators. 

These violations increased after the attempted coup d’état in May 2015 and worsened again in December 2015 following attacks against several military installations in and around Bujumbura. Has the situation improved since then, as the Burundian Government claims?  The testimonies gathered by our Commission would appear to indicate the contrary. 

A climate of widespread fear

During our investigations, we were struck by the deep and widespread fear running through the testimonies we gathered from exiled Burundians: fear of persecution by the Burundian authorities and by members of the youth league of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure; fear of testifying for fear of reprisals; fear of returning to their country despite repeated calls by the Burundian government. Many of the victims and witnesses we interviewed expressed an urgent need for psychological and, in some cases, medical support. Some victims were visibly traumatised following the torture and cruel or inhuman treatment they had suffered, or after narrowly escaping death. The people we met described the fate of many others who have been executed or tortured, or who have been victims of sexual violence or enforced disappearances. Furthermore, the few human rights defenders who have not been forced to leave Burundi are finding it increasingly difficult to gather testimonies from victims inside the country, for fear of exposing them, and exposing themselves, to the risk of reprisals.

Severe restrictions on civil liberties

The severe restrictions on civil liberties observed in 2015 are continuing. To this day, the main opposition party leaders as well as many journalists and other members of civil society are still in exile; some are the objects of international arrest warrants issued by the Burundian authorities. In early January 2017, the government imposed a definitive ban on the country's oldest human rights organisation, Ligue Iteka, after the organisation published a joint report with the International Federation for Human Rights on the deteriorating human rights situation in Burundi, in November 2016. On 4 April 2017, the government also announced the six month suspension of one of the main opposition parties, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD).

The main private media are still suspended. To this day, only two of the radio stations that were closed in April and May 2015 have been allowed to resume broadcasts: Rema FM, which is close to the ruling party, and Radio Isanganiro, a private radio station. After Radio Isanganiro reopened, one of its programmes was suspended in November 2016 after it broadcast a song entitled "Human Rights for Journalists"; furthermore, on 4 April 2017, the station's editor-in-chief was summoned by the National Intelligence Service in Bujumbura to be questioned, among other things, on Radio Isanganiro's alleged collaboration with Burundian media broadcasting from Rwanda.

We are also concerned by certain amendments reportedly proposed as part of an ongoing revision of the Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure. According to the information we have received, these amendments would enable the security forces to carry out searches without a warrant, including at night, would strengthen controls over e-mails and would facilitate the seizure of electronic information.

Mr. President, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

You will recall that in March 2017, we expressed concern here about "the scope and gravity of allegations of human rights violations and abuses in Burundi."   The interviews we have been able to conduct since then have confirmed our initial fears.

Continuing climate of violence and violations committed in a more clandestine way

The violence in Burundi, whether attributed to state agents, Imbonerakure, or armed opposition groups, has persisted since April 2015. Every act of violence leads to serious consequences for the civilian population. By way of example, gunshots and grenade explosions were heard once again in Bujumbura in May 2017, leading to a wave of searches and arrests in certain neighbourhoods of the capital, as in 2015 and 2016. Nevertheless, the testimonies we have collected show that since late 2016, human rights violations are often committed in a more clandestine, but equally brutal, manner. For example, a victim told us that in 2016, a police commander threatened him in the following terms: "I can kill you. I can bury you and no one will know." Already in 2015, a provincial chief of the National Intelligence Service told a group of detainees: "We're going to kill you and throw your corpses in the river." We have received other similar testimonies.

There are continuing reports of disappearances. Dead bodies are also still regularly discovered.  According to several testimonies, it is often difficult to identify the bodies. The modus operandi seems to be the same:  the victims have their arms tied behind their backs and sometimes their bodies are weighed down with stones to make them sink once they are thrown into a river.  Many witnesses have told us that when the bodies are found, they are often buried very quickly at the request of local authorities, without any prior identification or investigation.

Hate speech and enlistment of the population

These human rights violations are reinforced by hate speech delivered by certain state officials and members of the ruling party. In April 2017, a video circulated, showing around a hundred Imbonerakure chanting a song calling on people to "impregnate [female] opponents so that they give birth to Imbonerakure." Following expressions of international condemnation, including by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the ruling party's National Secretary for Information and Communication denounced the video and promised sanctions against the culprits. Have any such sanctions since been imposed? We would like to hear the Burundian government's response on this point.

In any event, this incident is not an isolated case. In May 2017, we received other videos showing meetings and alarming speeches by Imbonerakure, which we are in the process of analysing. Our Commission has also documented many statements since 2015, including by senior officials, inciting hatred and discrimination, sometimes with an ethnic dimension.

The song of these Imbonerakure is also symptomatic of a broader tendency of enlisting the population into the ruling party, often by force.  According to many of the testimonies we gathered, any resistance is used as a pretext for human rights violations and abuses. Furthermore, several victims of torture by the police or the National Intelligence Service told us that the abuses they suffered were often accompanied by ethnic insults by their torturers. This being said, testimonies indicate that victims are most often targeted on the basis of their alleged opposition to the government, independent of their ethnicity.

Mr. President, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Our investigations have also enabled us to confirm the main violations documented and reported to this Council, including by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and the United Nations Independent Investigation on Burundi (UNIIB). These violations include extrajudicial executions, acts of torture and other inhuman and degrading treatment, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary arrests and detention, and enforced disappearances, often accompanied by demands for large ransoms from families in exchange for promises to release detainees or to find those who have disappeared.

Cruelty and brutality of the violations

We were struck by the particularly cruel and brutal nature of the violations described to us. Several victims, usually young members of opposition parties, particularly the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) or the National Liberation Forces (FNL), or people accused of supporting or belonging to armed groups or having firearms, described to us the systematic torture and particularly cruel and inhuman treatment by members of the National Intelligence Service and the police, sometimes assisted by Imbonerakure.  In particular, we collected many testimonies alleging the use, during torture sessions, of clubs, rifle butts, bayonets, iron bars, metal chains and electric cables with the result that some victims' bones were broken and other victims lost consciousness; long needles stuck into victims' bodies or unidentified products injected into them; nails ripped out with pliers; burns; and many abuses inflicted on male detainees' genital organs. In several cases, acts of torture and ill-treatment were accompanied by violent insults and death threats, including of an ethnic nature.

We also received testimonies of sexual violence against female relatives of government opponents, especially by people believed to be Imbonerakure. By way of example, in August 2015, a woman in her fifties was raped by four people believed to be Imbonerakure in police uniform because her children belonged to an opposition party and had participated in the 2015 demonstrations; the perpetrators then subjected the woman to another form of grave sexual violence which it would be painful for me to describe here. In another example, in January 2017, a woman was raped by two armed men in military uniform in front of her children; her husband was an opposition party member who had refused to join the ruling party.

The vast majority of these violations appear to have been committed in a climate of total impunity. Indeed, according to the information at our disposal, the suspected perpetrators of the human rights violations that we have documented have rarely been prosecuted.

Mr. President, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Before the next Council session in September, when we will be in a position to present our final conclusions, we will continue our investigations and proceed with an analysis, including a legal analysis, to assess whether, in accordance with our mandate, certain violations or abuses constitute international crimes. We will also be in a position to establish institutional and, in some cases, individual responsibility for these violations.

Thank you for your attention.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNHCR renews warning over Burundi situation as funding dries to a trickle, 23 May 2017 (http://www.refworld.org/docid/59241c9f4.html).   

Oral briefing by Fatsah Ouguergouz, President of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, 13 March 2017, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/HRC/CoIBurundi/Pages/CoIBurundi.aspx

A/HRC/32/30.

A/HRC/33/37.