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Oral briefing of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

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14 ذو القعدة, 1441

Human Rights Council
Forty-fourth session, Interactive dialogue on Burundi

Madam President,
Excellencies,
Ladies and gentlemen,  

Since our Commission’s last oral presentation on 9 March 2020, several events have occurred both in Burundi and on the world stage, and some have had an impact on our work.

As is the case for most mechanisms before you during this session, our work was affected by the health situation related to the Covid-19 pandemic and the movement restrictions that followed. We had to cancel field missions scheduled between March and June. We did our best to adapt to this unforeseen situation and to address the additional constraints and challenges in collecting accounts from victims and direct witnesses of human rights violations and abuses recently committed in Burundi. We continued to discuss with other sources. Since September 2019, we have collected over 273 new witness accounts, which complement the 1,200+ interviews carried out since the beginning of our investigation, and we will continue our work until the completion of our final report, which will be submitted to this Council in September.  
Once more, we wish to express our gratitude to the persons who provided us with valuable information despite the risks involved.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Over the last months, the pandemic and the health crisis have dominated the global headline news including those on Burundi. Since 10 April 2020, we alerted the international community in a statement, on our concerns regarding the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and its potential impact on the Burundian population. In another communiqué, we deplored the inadequate measures put in place by the Burundian authorities in the face of the pandemic, namely the failure to implement the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommendations on social or physical distancing. Burundi was one of the few countries in the world that, despite having confirmed cases of COVID-19, did not restrict access to public gathering venues such as churches, bars and restaurants, nor prohibit large sports and political gatherings. On 12 May, the Government declared persona non grata the WHO country representative and three experts from the organization, a decision that we regretted in another statement issued on 14 May 2020.  

On 8 June 2020, President Pierre Nkurunziza died, officially of « cardiac arrest», after a brief hospitalisation, while his wife was in Kenya undergoing medical treatment for two weeks. We note with satisfaction that since the passing of President Nkurunziza, the Burundian authorities appear to have better grasped the health risks linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, if only by turning away from the claim that Burundi « is protected by divine grace». Now, messages from the highest authorities remind the population of the need to adopt preventive measures and to go to health centres for testing in case of symptoms. We hope that they will go further and, in collaboration with WHO, take all the necessary measures to curb the spread of coronavirus and ensure transparency as to the pandemic situation in the country, which is the subject of much speculation. Guaranteeing the dissemination of thorough and transparent information on health risks; including serious complications of the disease such as heart complications and shortness of breath; the rate of transmission of coronavirus, preventive measures to curb the transmission and available treatment is crucial in order to encourage the population to implement preventive measures. In addition to the right to life and to health compromised by such a health crisis, the resulting economic crisis, on a global scale, has a negative impact on the enjoyment of essentially all human rights, and in particular those of women and people living in extreme poverty. Burundi is not spared.

The presidential, legislatives and local (commune) elections took place on 20 May as per the electoral calendar, without international observers1 , following the official electoral campaign which took place from 27 April to 17 May 2020. On 4 June, the Constitutional Court officially declared Evariste Ndayishimiye, candidate of the ruling party CNDD-FDD (Conseil National de Défense de la Démocratie - Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie), the President-elect of the Republic with over 68% of the votes, thus confirming the provisional results announced by CENI on 25 May. The CNDD-FDD candidates to legislative and communal elections largely won in all the provinces and communes. However, the death of President Nkurunziza disrupted the electoral calendar since, as per the decision of the Constitutional Court on 12 June, the President elect was sworn in on 18 June 2020 instead of 20 August as initially scheduled.

The Commission took note of the relatively strong participation of women in the electoral process, including the number of elected female candidates; despite being discriminated against and in spite of several material and cultural challenges linked to the negative views against women’s engagement in politics. This result was made possible by the gender quota prescribed by law and by the blocked lists and the co-opting mechanisms. The Commission hopes that similar measures will be put in place during the elections at the sub-local (colline) level, even in the absence of a legally prescribed gender quota.

The electoral process – still ongoing for the Senate and colline elections, respectively scheduled for 23 July and 24 August – has been characterised by political intolerance and marred by violent incidents and multiple human rights violations. These occurred before, during and after the official electoral campaign, on voting day and, to a lesser extent, after the announcement of the official elections results. The Commission was able to document several cases of violation of the right to life, the right to liberty and security, the right to physical integrity, the right to participate in public affairs which includes the right to vote freely and secretly and the right to be a candidate, as well as the fundamental civil liberties, in particular freedoms of association and assembly and freedoms of opinion and expression. These violations directly affected mostly men, but also women, candidates or simple members of opposition parties.

As we previously indicated, since the accreditation of the party Congrès National pour la Liberté (CNL) of Agathon Rwasa on 14 February 2019, which quickly became the main opposition party, its members and leaders faced acts of intimidation, threats and serious human rights violations. These acts were mainly committed by Imbonerakure and local administrative authorities; usually acting with the support of the police or agents of the national intelligence service (SNR). As elections approached, cases of serious violations increased. The electoral campaign launched on 27 April 2020 was the scene of numerous arrests and arbitrary detentions of CNL members, especially targeting the party leaders at the local level, candidates at the local elections and even those at the legislative elections, as well as designated elections observers of the said party (Mandataires) tasked with observing the voting process and the tallying of votes. Several executions of CNL members were also recorded during this same period.   

The electoral campaign was punctuated by incidents, namely clashes between members of the ruling party and opposition party members; resulting in injuries and even some casualties. CNL was not always able to carry out its campaigning activities, such as the inauguration of party headquarters, some of which were forbidden by local authorities. Some of its electoral meetings were disrupted by Imbonerakure and the population was, in some cases, prevented or discouraged from attending them. Burundian authorities have themselves partly recognised these acts of violence, particularly in the case of the clashes between CNDD-FDD and CNL members during the election campaign. They nevertheless assigned the responsibility of these clashes almost exclusively to CNL members without carrying out, in most cases, any impartial investigations.

Hate and hostile speeches, particularly virulent against political opponents of CNDD-FDD - sometimes with an ethnic dimension – widely circulated on social media without being denounced, condemned or sanctioned by the authorities. In contrast, the complaint by a commune’s administrator whose local administration was criticised by a female candidate from an opposition party led to judicial proceedings for insult and malicious accusations against the female candidate.  
The judicial system, which is still characterised by a lack of independence and impartiality, has largely been used as a tool in the electoral context and justice has become the main instrument used by authorities and CNDD-FDD to weaken and stand in the way of CNL. While most CNL members were released after a few days or weeks, some were sentenced to excessive prison terms following trials “on the spot”, mainly for attempt to « disrupt elections» or for «participation in illegal meetings», and others remain in preventive detention.

The media remain under strict control notably through the media synergy initiated by the government and journalists were not able to freely carry out their duties. Journalists were intimidated and threatened or prevented from freely covering the electoral process. As a reminder, four journalists from the Iwacu media group, one of the last independent media still operating in the country, were sentenced on 30 January 2020 to two and a half years in prison for « impossible attempt of complicity in undermining the internal security of the State»2 when they were only fulfilling their professional duties of information gathering. On 22 October 2019, they went to Bubanza province to cover armed clashes reported on the same morning between the Burundian defence forces and members of an armed group; but they were immediately arrested and detained. Their sentencing was denounced by several independent experts from the United Nations3 . We deplore that the Ntahangwa Court of appeal confirmed this verdict on 5 June 2020.

During the electoral campaign period, some children have been prevented to attend school and were instead forced by their teachers or school principals to participate in political rallies organised in favour of the ruling party or its candidate to the presidential election, Evariste Ndayishimiye.

From a general perspective, despite these numerous and concerning violations, it does not seem that there was massive violence. We are convinced that our appeal, particularly to the international community to remain vigilant, had an impact. Several calls to exercise restraint were addressed to all political parties in Burundi by different members of the international community and they seemed to have been heeded4 .

In the framework of its investigation of the economic underpinnings of the Burundian State, the Commission is looking into various practices that constitute illicit financial flows and impede the enjoyment of human rights in the country, specifically:

  • Possible embezzlement of official development assistance and disbursements from international organisations, of contributions to community and social development as provided for in various mining conventions or of compensations for expropriated persons as a result of major public works;
  • Possible cases of illicit enrichment by members of the government or senior officials;
  • Possible cases of illegal interest acquisitions by government members and senior officials;
  • Possible cases of corruption particularly in the context of exports or imports and in the awards of mining rights and government procurement.

It is clear that the economic underpinnings of the State are characterised by an obvious lack of transparency which raises numerous fundamental questions, specifically on governance in Burundi in general. The Commission will present in its final report its conclusions on this matter and the detailed findings of the investigation on the main illicit financial flows as they, inter alia, hinder the enjoyment of human rights, specifically – but not exclusively – economic and social rights. Already, we wish to draw attention to the responsibility of all technical and financial partners of Burundi to ensure that their assistance to the development of the country does not contribute in any way to the persistence of human rights violations.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Human rights violations continue to date and it would be premature to make any pronouncements on the possible evolution of the situation under the new government. Risk factors, especially those with a structural dimension, remain and will not simply disappear as a result of the ongoing political transition.

In fact, President Ndayishimiye’s inaugural speech was not without ambiguities or contradictions. We take note of his remarks promising political reconciliation through dialogue, those in favour of justice, fight against impunity, improvement of the human rights situation, priority given to the protection of the population, including in matters related to social and economic development, as well as his call for the return of all refugees.

We, however, note concerning elements such as a certain denial of the political crisis triggered in 2015 or his remarks providing an unduly restricted view of some public liberties such as the freedom of expression, information, assembly and association under the guise of preserving the Burundian culture. We hope that the new President will quickly clarify that the fundamental right of media and independent human rights defenders to publicly report cases of human rights violations or abuses, to criticise the government or to demonstrate in the streets are effectively recognised, respected and protected in Burundi.

Such remarks are concerning; especially given that the new President’s policies will be implemented by a government composed primarily by the old guard of the late President Nkurunziza’s regime5 ; some of whom are under sanctions by the United States of America, the European Union and Switzerland for their involvement in the repression triggered by the 2015 events6 . They have also been cited for their involvement in serious human rights violations and even crimes against humanity. Conversely, we commend the appointment of Mme Imelde Sabushimike as Minister of National Solidarity, Social Affairs, Human Rights and Gender, one of the five women in this government and the first Twa to hold a ministerial post.  
We solemnly invite the new President of the Republic to demonstrate his willingness for change regarding human rights issues by fully cooperating with the international human rights mechanisms. In this respect, the immediate release of the four journalists of Iwacu, of human rights defenders such as Germain Rukuki and Nestor Nibitanga – through, for example, a presidential pardon– would be a significant gesture of his desire to respond positively to requests from several special procedures mandate-holders on this subject.

Furthermore, we invite him to quickly put in place measures to end to the political and economic crisis that Burundi is enduring since 2015 and the serious human rights violations that have taken place in that context, with a view to allow the voluntary return of refugees. You may recall that at the beginning of the year over 70 % of the Burundian population were living in poverty and that an estimated 1.7 million Burundians were in a situation of food insecurity and in need of humanitarian assistance. As of 31 May 2020; 335, 511 Burundians were still refugees in neighbouring countries. Between 31 March and 31 May 2020; 1,250 refugees were repatriated from Tanzania as 3,183 new refugees arrived in neighbouring countries.

Amongst the priority areas for action against which the new authorities can objectively attest their desire for change and normalisation on the long term, we can cite: the fight against poverty and economic stability (risk factor no. 1), fight against de facto impunity enjoyed by the main perpetrators of violations (risk factor no. 2), the reform of the judicial system (risk factor no. 3) and the re-opening of the democratic space (risk factor no. 4). Beyond these actions on structural factors, the cooperation with the Commission of Inquiry would be undeniable proof of the willingness by the new Burundian authorities to genuinely improve the human rights situation. We invite them to respond to our detailed questions on this matter sent on 4 February 2020. Furthermore, the reopening of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Burundi would be an additional strong signal and a tangible step forward.  

If there is a genuine concern from the international community to see a positive evolution of the human rights situation in the coming months and years, it must remain vigilant because the governance system put in place to benefit the CNDD-FDD party remains. The international community should not settle and turn the page as if the entire and exclusive responsibility of the current situation lies with the late President Nkurunziza, and as if an election and a political transition are sufficient to automatically guarantee the improvement of the human rights situation going forward. This political transition could become an opportunity to improve the human rights situation in Burundi if, and only if, the international community remains vigilant and mobilised to encourage the introduction of measures that address the root causes of the violations that the Commission of Inquiry is mandated to document.

Thank you for your attention.

 



1/ Burundi had approved the entry of twenty observers from the East African Community (EAC). However, shortly before their arrival, the Burundian Government announced that the EAC observers would be placed in quarantine for fifteen days given the context of fighting COVD-19, with the quarantine period ending after the voting day. Therefore, the observers chose not to travel to Burundi.

2/ Articles 16 and 607 to 626 of the Burundian penal code revised in 2017.

3/ See the press release by Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention dated 20 February 2020: https://news.un.org/fr/story/2020/02/1062201.

4/ See for example the declarations of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Burundi dated 11 April 2020, 14 May 2020, 26 May 2020 and 7 June 2020.

5/ Five of the fifteen Ministers are former Ministers under Nkurunziza including Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni ; Dr. Thaddée Ndikumana, Minister of Health; Gaspard Banyankimbona, Minister of National Education, Higher Education and Scientific Research ; Ezéchiel Nibigira, Minister of East African Affairs, Youth, Sports and Culture; Domitien Ndihokubwayo, Minister of Finance and Déo Guide Rurema, Minister of Environment, Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. The spokesperson for the presidency and the President’s chief of staff were reappointed.

6/ For example, Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni, current Prime Minister and former Minister of public security; Gervais Ndirakobuca (alias Ndakugarika, « I will kill you »), Director of the National Intelligence Service (SNR) since November 2019, now Minister of the Interior, Community Development and Public Security.

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