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The international community should continue to help Burundi to implement its international human rights obligations

28 May 2010 – Bujumbura

“This is my 13th and last visit to Burundi as the Independent Expert of the Human Rights Council on the situation of human rights in Burundi” said Mr. Okola whose personal tenure as a special procedure mandate holder ends in July 2010. During the visit, the Independent Expert met the Minister of Interior and Minister for Human Rights and Gender. He also had consultations with representatives of some political parties, civil society organizations, the United Nations and the diplomatic community and representatives of the Batwa community. The mission was focused on the human rights situation Burundi in the electoral context.

Elections

“I was able to observe local elections in one of the polling stations.  During this exercise I discussed with voters, observers of political parties, poling station clerks and security officers at the polling station. Generally, and as confirmed by international observers, the elections were held peacefully and transparently.” However, the Independent Expert received reports from political parties of some irregularities related to the organization of local elections including the counting of votes which may have helped the ruling party to win the local elections, by a large margin.  “I have been informed by representatives of the political parties I spoke with that the elections were not totally fair as the ruling party used the advantage of incumbency during the electoral campaign to its advantage by using official government vehicles and campaigning beyond the legal campaign period.  They have further alleged that intimidation, threats and, arrests were used against members of opposition political parties for many months ahead of the organization of local elections. Furthermore, they claimed that a number of their supporters were murdered by supporters and of the ruling party and state security agents”.

The Independent Expert was further informed by some political parties that they are envisaging boycotting the forthcoming elections. “I appeal to them to continue participating in the electoral process as boycotting them would leave the country with no effective political means of keeping the government in check. I also appeal to the CNDD-FDD, should they win the next series of elections, not to use their victory to govern the country without regard to the views of the opposition as this would effectively lead to a one party state.”Mr. Okola further appealed to the international community to use their influence to encourage both the government and the opposition parties to avoid any situation in which the country might experience internal problems arising from the elections.”

On the question of the establishment of the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante (CENI), the Independent Expert noted that the establishment took into account political parties’ proposals”. Nonetheless, political parties are challenging the outcome of the elections. “I appeal to CENI to continue to play a key role in ensuring that the voices of Burundians are heard and respected. I also appeal to political parties to use legal remedies to exercise their right to challenge the elections, if they are convinced that fraud has occurred in these elections. The Government and all political parties have a key role to play in sustaining peace in the country. It is therefore important that all political parties act with maturity in the way they conduct themselves both in challenging the outcome of these elections and those forthcoming”, Mr. Okola stated.

Transitional justice

The Independent Expert expressed concern at the speed of the implementation of the Transitional Justice Agenda.  While congratulating the government of Burundi and its international partners on the completion of the national consultations on this subject, he nevertheless noted that it had taken five years for this modest start to be achieved. “There is a need for the international community to take a more proactive stance on this matter  to ensure that Burundian authorities carry forward this agenda consistent with their obligations under the Arusha Accord and the relevant Security Council resolution” stated the Independent He  called upon the current and next Government of Burundi to expedite the process taking into account national consultations held in this regard in order to account for and prosecute past human rights violations, heal and provide reparations to victims and reconcile the people.
 
Civil society organizations

The Independent Expert noted that although there had been notable improvement in the relations between the civil society and the government over the years, these improvements had been negated by measures which the government had taken against civil society organizations recently.  “I fear that the decision by the government to deregister the Forum pour Renforcement de la Société Civile (FORSC) in November 2009, and the decision recently taken to revoke the work permit of the representative of Human Rights Watch, appear to be a warning to civil society organizations to behave as the government wishes or face similar consequences,” stated the Independent Expert. The Independent Expert said that he had expressed his concern to the Burundian authorities on these matters. “The right to freedom of opinion and expression of all human rights defenders should be protected and not sanctioned. I have voiced my concern to the Government and asked if these decisions tend to convey a message to the civil society organizations that unless they behave as the Government wishes, they will be sanctioned, Mr. Okola said. He informed that the government had assured him that it was not the intention of the government to dismantle these organizations and that cooperation will be extended to them.
 
He appealed to the Government and the international community to make sure that civil society organizations have favourable working conditions and are not threatened.

Discrimination

Speaking on the plight of the Batwa community in Burundi, the Independent Expert stated that this community had been largely marginalized and discriminated against. “I call once again on the Government to ensure that Batwa rights are respected and promoted. Systemic discrimination against them in terms of participation in the structure of the State, employment, land and education should be dealt with as a matter of urgency”.

On the question of Albinos Mr. Okola  noted that following trials held in July 2009 of 11 persons accused of involvement in the attacks on people with albinism, virtually no attacks were reported until 2 May when two albinos were murdered. Arrests followed swiftly and no further attacks have since been reported. The risk of a recurrence of the sort of attacks that occurred in Burundi between August 2008 and May 2009 nonetheless should not be ignored.

Prison conditions

The Independent Expert deplored the overuse of pretrial detention had resulted in an overcrowded prison system now housing roughly four times the number of detainees and prisoners that they were intended to hold. This had exacerbated the already deplorable condition of most of Burundi’s prisons and detention centers.

Judiciary

“Guarantees for the independence of the judiciary have yet to be translated into concrete rules, regulations, oversight mechanisms, and sanctions in case of transgressions, which renders the judiciary susceptible to interference by the Executive,” Mr Okola stated. The treatment of a number of cases involving political actors or members of civil society by the law enforcement agencies and the courts had led them to be increasingly viewed as political tools. There is a low level of confidence in their ability to deal effectively with any possible election-related conflicts that may arise. There is no legal aid system, even for the most vulnerable.

Impunity

Impunity continues to be a matter of serious concern. The assassination of the vice-president of l’Observatoire Lutte contre la Corruption and les Malversations Economiques (OLUCOME) in April 2009, the Muyinga and Gatumba massacres and other recent murders remain un-addressed. Noting that these matters seemed to be by and large forgotten, the Independent Expert appealed to the international community to ensure that they continued to remind the government that it was necessary to bring these matters to a closure by bringing all those implicated in them to justice.

Right to Freedom of Expression, Association, and Assembly

The Independent Expert observed that restrictions on civil and political rights, particularly freedom of expression, association and assembly, increased significantly in the third quarter of 2009, with both opposition parties and civil society organizations alleging they were subjected to targeted violence and intimidation, including arbitrary arrest or detention, by the authorities. A number of opposition party members were attacked, while trying to open new offices or chapters. Reports were received throughout the year of allegedly politically motivated assassinations including the recent killing of an MSD member. However, he noted that this situation had improved during the period leading up to the recent local elections and all the political parties were relatively free to hold meetings.

National human rights institution

Mr. Okola recalled that in 2006, the President of Burundi committed to establish an independent national human rights commission. He further recalled that during the Universal Periodic Review on Burundi in 2008, the government had committed itself to the establishment of the commission in accordance with the Paris Principles and that, since then a draft law had been produced after wide consultations with all the stakeholders. The law had been adopted by the Cabinet with modifications, and transmitted to the Parliament for adoption. Noting with concern that the process appears to have stalled, Mr. Okola urged the Government to ensure that the commission is established as soon as possible and in full conformity with the Paris Principles.

Sexual and gender-based violence

The Independent Expert stated that the phenomenon of sexual violence, especially rape, had escalated from year to year. Noting that extrajudicial settlements, which appeared to be the prevalent means of settling, gender-based violence frequently resulted in the re-victimization of a rape survivor by family members, must be brought to an end. Such settlements are insufficient and unacceptable. Measures should be taken to discourage these practices. Mr. Okola called upon the Government to establish and ensure the full implementation of procedures and mechanisms to assure judicial accountability for sexual and gender-based violence.

The Independent Expert further decried the fact that the law on inheritance which had been under discussion for four years had not been adopted. Stating that the time for talk and consultations was over, he urged the government to take appropriate measures, including considering good practices in the region, particularly from countries of the Eastern Africa region to expedite the process and promote women’s rights.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Mr. Okola commended the Government for its free primary education, maternal and infant health care programmes. To continue with its efforts, the Government should address economic, social and cultural rights as a matter of priority.  He urged the international community to continue to partner with the government of Burundi in its efforts to alleviate the endemic poverty of its citizens, and not to focus only on civil and political rights.

Conclusion

 Stating that this was his last mission to Burundi as the Independent Expert, Mr. Okola stated that Burundi had made major progress since the beginning of his mandate. “I have witnessed several achievements made in terms of peace, the adoption of a new constitution, the election of the President, members of the National Assembly and Senate, the establishment of national institutions, such as the army and the police, and enactment of progressive laws,” stated Mr. Okola. However, the Independent Expert noted that much still needs to be done in order for peace to be consolidated in the country. In this connection, he appealed to all Burundians and the international community to continue working towards progress, democracy, pluralism and to fight against impunity.