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Statement by Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, at the Burundi Configuration of the Peacebuilding Commission, New York, 13 March 2017

Excellencies,

​In his most recent report on Burundi, the Secretary-General noted that "human rights violations and abuses continue to be reported on a worrying scale. Despite a decline in overt violence and fewer incidences of armed confrontation, reports of human rights violations and abuses continue, including killings, enforced disappearances, gender-based violence, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and ill-treatment, along with the discovery of unidentified bodies."

In his statement to the Human Rights Council on 8 March, the High Commissioner Zeid stressed his concern that in Burundi the "democratic space has now been virtually extinguished. (…) The recent decision to free up to 2,500 detainees is a positive sign, but hundreds of people remain in jail because of their real or perceived opposition to the Government."

The number of alleged cases of arbitrary detention has decreased but remains high. We continue to receive reports of targeted extra-judicial killings, though at a much lower level than during the peak of the crisis. But enforced disappearances are up and allegations of torture have significantly increased.

OHCHR colleagues have interviewed a significant number of refugees in neighboring countries in recent days - to cite one passage from an internal report I received: "Many reported systematic use of torture by the SNR intelligence services in Bujumbura. Interviewees showed scars and bruises resulting from beatings with rods, reported being made to walk on broken glass, having gasoline poured into open wounds, having acid poured on body parts. Some had broken teeth from being hit with a rifle butt and others had their teeth pulled out.  Of great concern were the allegations from many of those interviewed that they were arrested and tortured primarily because of their ethnicity." This has obvious – and frankly very alarming – implications for peacebuilding in Burundi and indeed in the region.

There is continued intimidation of the media and civil society,. Freedom of expression and of association is increasingly restricted, with the adoption of new legislations aiming at controlling the work of NGOs.  Late last year, at least 11 NGOs were either banned or suspended, many by ministerial order signed by the Minister of Interior.

We are concerned about reprisals targeting individuals who have cooperated with OHCHR or other human rights mechanisms.  For instance, in January, the Bujumbura Court of Appeal decided to disbar three lawyers from the Bar Association and to suspend a fourth. This reprisal was taken because the four lawyers contributed last July to a report to the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) by a coalition of CSOs.

OHCHR is not aware of any investigations opened against alleged perpetrators of human rights violations. This naturally results in a climate of impunity, further exacerbated by lack of independence of the judiciary.

We are also concerned about the increase in the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance – from 1.1 million to at least 3 million (26 per cent of the total population), and the four-fold increase in the number of people who are food insecure – from 730,000 to 3 million, owing to rising food prices, lower rainfall and poor harvests. The socio-political crisis has had an impact on the rule of law and on access to essential support services, thus exposing the most vulnerable to multiple protection risks, including gender-based violence and other violations and abuses.

Last time when I was here before you on 19 October 2016, I reiterated the fact that "OHCHR and the Government of Burundi have had a long and positive history of collaboration since 1995". "This led to the establishment of a National HR Commission and many other positive developments". I expressed our gratitude for that record. I also mentioned that we were then facing a cascade of negative reactions by Burundi authorities following the release of the report of the independent experts mandated by the Human Rights Council to investigate violations. Unfortunately, the situation had not improved positively.

On 11 October, the Government decided to suspend all forms of cooperation and collaboration with our Office until further consideration. In November we shared with the Government a model draft MoU for the OHCHR office, and three and a half months later, in late February, we heard back from them, with an amended draft.

Unfortunately, it seems clear from the several amendments proposed by the Government that the aim was to substantially limit and hinder the fulfilment of OHCHR's mandate, independence and ability to operate. Their draft proposed such changes as a 90% reduction in staff (limiting us to 5 international and national staff, down from 51 at present), a duration of just two years, limitations on our freedom of movement, no monitoring, and obliging us to visit detention centres only if accompanied by the National Human Rights Commission.

We call upon the Government of Burundi to speedily conclude negotiations on and sign the MoU governing the relations with our office in Burundi. We value the support of the PBC in continuing to encourage the Government to resume full cooperation with our office.

The resumption of full cooperation between the Government of Burundi and our office will enable us to continue supporting the priorities outlined by the authorities in the area of human rights. These were articulated by H.E. M. Albert Shingiro, Permanent Representative of Burundi, at the PBC configuration meeting on 19 October 2016.

I would like to reiterate the readiness of our entire office to accompany the Burundian institutions with the aim of better protecting and promoting human rights.

We encourage the Burundi authorities to take concrete measures aimed at demonstrating that "Burundi's unwavering commitment to human rights" – as expressed by the Foreign Minister of Burundi at the UN General Assembly - is real.

To that end, there are three actions we would respectfully urge the Government of Burundi to take:

  • Bring to justice and hold accountable all those responsible for human rights violations and abuses; including obviously those who are sympathetic to the Government, and not just those who are perceived to be in opposition;
  • Lift restrictions and other measures targeting NGOs; and the media to allow them to operate more freely;
  • Urge Burundi to sign without further delay the memorandum of understanding with OHCHR.

To conclude, in a context such as Burundi's, the deterioration of human rights affects almost every sector of activity in the country.  This fits in with the recognition that "development, peace and security and human rights are interlinked and mutually reinforcing." Hence the very strong – indeed integral – links between human rights and peacebuilding in Burundi.

Thank you very much.