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Opening remarks by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at a press conference during his mission to Burundi

Bujumbura, 15 April 2015

Good afternoon, and thank you for coming.

With a series of pivotal elections scheduled to take place between May and August, this is a critical moment in Burundi’s history, and I am very grateful to the Government for inviting me at this time. The country is at a crossroads, and its future may well depend on which path is chosen by individual politicians and their supporters, as well as various key authorities, over the next few weeks: the path of free and fair elections which would strengthen and mature Burundi’s still fragile democracy, and enable an improvement in its dire socio-economic situation; or the path of violence and intimidation aimed at subverting democracy for the sake of gaining or maintaining political power. The path that could potentially lead back to Burundi’s deeply troubled, tragic and horrendously violent past. The path that was avoided in important recent elections in countries such as Mali, Kenya and Nigeria. The path that no one should even consider taking.

I will put it bluntly: as I prepared for this mission, I talked to many knowledgeable people, within and outside the UN, in Geneva and New York. They were all, without exception, alarmed about the direction the country appears to be taking. The Secretary-General has signalled his concerns, and so has the Security Council.

Since arriving here on Sunday, in addition to meeting the President, Vice-President and Minister of External Relations, I have also held discussions with civil society organizations, the National Human Rights Institution (CNIDH), foreign diplomats, opposition politicians, and key State institutions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Independent National Electoral Commission, and the President of the Constitutional Court. Earlier today I took part in a lively Round Table discussion involving many of the above on the subject of Human Rights and Elections, with particular reference to Burundi’s upcoming elections this year. During the course of these meetings and discussions, it was very clear that many people here are also extremely worried.

Tensions have been rising sharply over the past few months as the elections approach.  These have reportedly been stoked by an increase in politically motivated harassment, intimidation and acts of violence, as well as a reported rise in hate speech. Just last Saturday, for example, extreme examples of hate speech were heard at a big pro-Government rally here in Bujumbura, and a journalist who had written a story about allegations concerning the provision of arms to the widely feared militia of the Imbonerakure, had a grenade thrown at his house.

Other journalists have been harassed and threatened as have human rights defenders reporting on the harassment and threats. Some have been arrested, including a prominent journalist who reported on allegations linked to the unsolved and extraordinarily brutal murder of three Italian nuns last September. Also last year, opposition politician Datus Nshimirimana was murdered, and last month Annonciate Haberisoni, the wife of an opposition leader, was lucky to escape with her life after being shot here in Bujumbura.

The phrase that keeps cropping up when discussions of violence and intimidation take place, the root of many people’s fears – and many people in Burundi are very afraid – is the militia of the Imbonerakure. This militia, which openly supports the government, appears to be operating increasingly aggressively and with total impunity.

Some people are so afraid, they have already left the country, well ahead of June’s presidential election. Almost 6,000 people are now believed to have crossed into Rwanda alone. Over the past two days the number crossing that border has soared to 1,000 people per day. Several of those who have left have told the UN explicitly that their reason for leaving was the actions of the militia.

These are all bad signs, but there is a clear way out, a clear way back to the path that leads to peace and prosperity, the path that was laid out at Arusha, and which the country has in general been following quite closely until recently.

The Government and security forces must clamp down on the militia of the Imbonerakure, investigate and bring those of its members who have carried out crimes before the courts. It must send a clear message to this dangerous group that it will no longer tolerate its extreme activities, and that selective impunity – a massive problem in Burundi – will no longer prevail. The authorities, in particular the police, must treat all political demonstrations equally and in accordance with international laws and standards relating to freedom of assembly.

And opposition politicians must play their part too. They must not inflate or exaggerate the facts to whip up support against the Government, thereby feeding the climate of fear. They must also ensure that their supporters protest peacefully, and do not indulge in hate speech or react violently to perceived provocations.

Ultimately, it is the authorities who have the obligation to protect all citizens and residents from intimidation and violence committed by any individual or group. They must also accept that criticism is a vital element of democracy, not a threat that must be crushed. The right to freedom of expression and opinion is enshrined in international treaties ratified by Burundi, and the government is obliged to uphold those treaties.

Burundi has ratified an impressive number of international treaties. It also has an excellent record of cooperation with the United Nations. Its relationship with my Office goes back many years, and the current Government has continued to conduct a constructive relationship, as evidenced by its agreement with us to set up a full country office at the beginning of the year, following the departure of BNUB which had an integrated human rights component. My conversations with President Pierre Nkurunziza, First Vice-President Prosper Bazombanza and the Minister of External Affairs Laurent Kavakure lead me to believe that that relationship will continue, and I hope all members of the Government will see that any criticisms I make are made in the spirit of friendship, and the United Nations’ strong desire to help Burundi become a success story.

Other successes in recent years – and it is important to stress the country has made considerable strides in many areas since the signing of the Arusha Agreement – include improvements in the fields of education and women’s and children’s rights. The fact that, by law, at least 30 percent of parliamentarians must be women is an important measure, although women’s rights still need sustained and determined attention to ensure they advance in other areas, and sexual and gender- based violence remains a very significant problem throughout the country. I regret that, due to the complexities of the political situation in the country at present, and to my tightly-packed schedule during this visit, I had to cancel a planned visit to Gitega where I had hoped to visit the Humura Centre, where victims of sexual and gender-based violence are housed and provided with medical and psychological care and legal assistance. My staff in Burundi will continue to prioritize issues related to gender and the advancement of women’s rights, and there is clearly much good will on the part of the Government to continue making progress in this area. I hope this will include swiftly rectifying the remaining discriminatory legislation that is still in force.

Another extremely important development since Arusha, is that ethnic tensions have been dramatically reduced, which is a great achievement given the country’s terrible history in this regard. The setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a significant development, and I have offered the support of my Office, including advice born of experience of other such Commissions around the world, as it carries out its four-year mandate. However, I would like to stress that truth and reconciliation, while extremely important, cannot be carried out at the expense of justice. A major contributor to the current risk that serious violence may break out once again in Burundi is the almost total impunity for all the horrendous crimes that occurred during the decades prior to the Arusha Agreement.

Another very significant advance on the human rights front, was the establishment of Burundi’s National Human Rights Institution (CNIDH) in 2011. The first group of Commissioners pulled off the remarkable feat of acquiring the coveted ‘A’ Status, bestowed by its peers around the world, in under two years. This status is not granted lightly and is clear evidence of the respect there has been for the work of the Commission. With five of its seven members due either to be re-appointed or replaced this summer, I urge the relevant authorities to ensure that only member of the highest calibre are chosen, so that the CNIDH can continue to burnish Burundi’s human rights reputation abroad, while stimulating positive change for the population at home.

Burundi has become an important and respected contributor to UN peace-keeping operations, especially in Somalia. While not responsible for assembling or managing peace-keeping operations, my Office is increasingly being asked to conduct due diligence to ensure that no officers suspected of serious international crimes are allowed to assume command of such operations. It is a matter of concern to me that, if violence breaks out in Burundi itself, one of the by-products might be that its vital contribution to peace-keeping in other countries may be undermined or even lost altogether.

During my meetings, the Government highlighted its concerns about social, economic and cultural rights – concerns which I most certainly share. Burundi is very green and fertile and, unlike so many other countries, is blessed with an abundant supply of water. It should therefore not be so extraordinarily poor, with 48 percent of the population living in severe poverty, according to the most recent Multidimensional Poverty Index. Nor, despite considerable foreign aid, should it be languishing in last place on the Global Hunger Index, with more than 60 percent of the population classified as undernourished in 2014. While some of this is the result of rapid population growth due to the extremely high fertility rate of 6.08 children per woman, it is also the lingering result of decades of conflict and massive human rights violations and displacement. Given that the vast majority of Burundi’s refugees returned home over the past 15 years, it is particularly sad – and worrying -- to see some people starting to feel the need to flee once more. It will also be devastating to the country’s slow and fragile recovery if another round of violence is triggered by forces opposed to a truly democratic and peaceful election.

In short, Burundi cannot afford another outbreak of violence. It cannot afford it economically, politically, socially or culturally. It cannot afford it domestically or internationally. I therefore urge the country’s politicians, and the rank-and-file political activists, to ensure the political debate, while naturally heated, never reaches the level of inciting hatred or violence. I urge the authorities at the national, provincial and local level to be scrupulously even-handed and to ensure the protection of all members of the public. I urge those who compete in the elections to do so fairly, and those who lose fairly to do so graciously. I urge the President and the ruling party, as well as opposition leaders, police and military to place the future well-being of the country as a whole before their own personal political desires. In the long term this is in everybody’s interests. And history – and possibly national or international courts – will judge those who kill, bribe or intimidate their way to power. There is only one path for Burundi to follow, and that is the path of peace, rule of law and democracy.

I wish you well, and rest assured that the international community will fully support a Burundi that takes that path to peace, democracy and the prosperity that ultimately arises from them.

ENDS

For more information please contact:
In Bujumbura: Robert Kotchani: +257 76115496, kotchani@un.org  and Rupert Colville (for the duration of the mission): +41 79 506 1088 or rcolville@ohchr.org
In Geneva: Ravina Shamdasani: +41 22 917 9169 / rshamdasani@ohchr.org or Cecile Pouilly: +41 22 917 9310 / cpouilly@ohchr.org

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