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Human Rights Council holds interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

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13 March 2018

AFTERNOON

GENEVA (13 March 2018) - The Human Rights Council this afternoon held an interactive dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.

Doudou Diène, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, said that the Commission would engage with authorities and stakeholders to advance its work.  He called on Burundi to review its position and engage in a constructive dialogue.  Fact-based information was the priority for the Commission, and it would focus on analyzing in a detailed manner the justice mechanism of Burundi in order to make recommendations that would help avoid future crises. 

Francoise Hampson, Member of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, reminded of the restrictions imposed on the media and the fact that only Government-organized demonstrations were allowed.  The authorities were threatening political actors not willing to fall in line with the regime.  The Commission had received information and testimonies regarding harassment committed by officials against people considering voting against proposed constitutional reforms. 

Lucy Asuagbor, Member of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, highlighted the discrepancies in funding requests from the Ministry of Interior regarding electoral procedures.  Taxes on sugar and gas had increased, further burdening the population.  Burundi was now in the midst of a humanitarian emergency with over three million people requiring assistance. 

Burundi, speaking as the concerned country, rejected the report, stating that it was rife with false allegations.  It drew the Council’s attention to the excessive enthusiasm by the Commission’s new President and his determination to extend the mandate to new areas which were not under its mandate.  The use of selectivity and double standards in the Council did not ensure progress for the people who were victims of conflicts in all countries.  The High Commissioner should refrain from promoting this practice.  In conclusion, Burundi reaffirmed its determination to spare no effort to improve the human rights situation in the country.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers regretted that Burundi continued to refuse to cooperate with the Commission’s mandate, noting that the announcement of the referendum was an additional reason for concern since it was not preceded or accompanied by inclusive dialogue and could run counter to key provisions of the Arusha Peace Agreement.  Speakers reminded that the continuation of the inter-Burundian dialogue in an international format was of the utmost importance.  They encouraged Burundi to step up efforts to promote and protect human rights, including by combatting poverty in rural areas.  The Government had to strengthen the culture of peace and unity and fulfil its commitments to combat impunity.  Some speakers condemned the interference from outside and the attitude of mentoring towards an independent State.  They noted that it was clear that Western countries were showing their sympathies towards the opposition and were trying to change the political landscape in Burundi.  Some speakers noted their firm and principled opposition against any politicization in the Human Rights Council.  All States had the responsibility and duty to take all necessary measures to ensure that human rights were not abused to achieve narrow political interests.

Speaking were European Union, Russian Federation, Germany, Belgium, Denmark, Spain, Czechia, Australia, Syria, France, China, Greece, Venezuela, Iran, Netherlands, United Kingdom, Ireland, Lithuania, Norway, Algeria, Switzerland, Myanmar and United States. 

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: International Service for Human Rights, International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, International Federation of ACAT Action By Christians for the Abolition of Torture (in joint statement with TRIAL INTERNATIONAL and World Organisation Against Torture), Amnesty International, East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, CIVICUS – World Alliance for Citizen Participation, and Human Rights Watch.  

The Council will resume its work on Wednesday, 14 March, at 9 a.m. when it will hear an oral update of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and Eritrea, and hold a general debate on human rights situations that require the Council’s attention.  In the afternoon, the Council is scheduled to hold an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on minority rights, and to hear the presentation of reports from the Forum on Minority Issues, and the Social Forum, as well as the annual report of the Chair of the Coordination Committee of Special Procedures.    

Presentation by the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

DOUDOU DIÈNE, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, said the Commission would engage with the authorities and stakeholders to advance its work.  He called on Burundi to review its position and engage in constructive dialogue.  Fact-based information was the priority for the Commission.  Focus would be given to analyzing in a detailed manner the justice mechanism of Burundi in order to make recommendations that would help avoid future crises.  Since last September, the social, economic, and human rights situations in Burundi had not improved and the authorities had restricted cooperation with international agencies.  Authorities had also rejected humanitarian response plans.  The agreement between Burundi and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights remained suspended.  Commission members were also subjected to threats from Burundian representatives.

FRANCOISE HAMPSON, Member of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, said restrictions were imposed on the media and only Government-organized demonstrations were allowed to take place.  Authorities were threatening political actors not willing to fall in line with the regime.  The Commission had received information and testimonies regarding harassment committed by officials against people considering voting against proposed constitutional reforms.  Arrests and arbitrary detentions also remained a major concern.

LUCY ASAGBOR, Member of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, said the Commission had found discrepancies in funding requests from the Ministry of Interior regarding electoral procedures.  Taxes on sugar and gas had increased, further burdening the population.  Burundi was now in the midst of a humanitarian emergency with over 3 million people requiring assistance.  The Commission had collected testimony of increased border controls aimed at preventing people from leaving the country. 

DOUDOU DIÈNE, Chairperson of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, said the situation in Burundi deserved utmost attention from the Human Rights Council.  He called on the authorities to be more open to dialogue.  The Council would be updated on the situation during its June session.

Statement by the Concerned Country

Burundi, speaking as the concerned country, extended its congratulations to the former President of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi for having resigned in November 2017.  His resignation was telling of the aims of this Commission.  The Government had formally notified the Human Rights Council of its position on this Commission in 2016.  Having in mind the multiple changes of leadership in this Commission, it was difficult to understand how it ensured the accuracy of the accusations in its report.  Burundi rejected the report, stating that it was rife with false allegations against Burundi.  Burundi drew the Council’s attention to the excessive enthusiasm by the Commission’s new President and his determination to extend the mandate to new areas which were not under its mandate.  It brought up questions on the legitimacy of the Commission, its legal nature and the aim of its work.  Burundi informed that the negotiations between the two parties were ongoing, and that the High Commissioner for Human Rights had promised to send his team in March 2018 to Bujumbura.  Unfortunately, the aggressive and denigrating language used by the Office of the High Commissioner regarding Burundi was not very encouraging.  In February 2017, the High Commissioner had described Burundi as one of the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times.  Burundi had been indignant to hear these words.  The use of selectivity and double standards in the Human Rights Council did not ensure progress for the people who were victims of conflicts in all countries, and undermined international cooperation.  The High Commissioner should refrain from promoting this practice.  In conclusion, Burundi reaffirmed its determination to spare no effort to improve the human rights situation in the country.

Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

European Union regretted that Burundi continued to refuse to cooperate with the Commission’s mandate and condemned all threats against the Commission’s members.  The announcement of the referendum was an additional reason for concern since it was not preceded or accompanied by inclusive dialogue and could run counter to key provisions of the Arusha Peace Agreement.  Russia condemned ongoing attacks by extremists on civilian infrastructure in Burundi and said that interference from the outside and the attitude of mentoring to an independent State were unwelcomed.  It was clear that Western States were showing their sympathies towards the opposition and were trying to change the political landscape in Burundi.  Germany condemned all threats against the Commission and called on the Government of Burundi to cooperate with the Commission and the African Union.  The Government was also urged to rapidly conclude the outstanding Memorandum of Understanding on the status of the Office of the High Commissioner in Bujumbura.

Belgium applauded the persistence of the Commission in investigating grave human rights violations.  The authorities were called on to reach an agreement with the Office of the High Commissioner so that they could continue their work and the Commission was asked how they would proceed with their work?  Denmark noted that the situation in Burundi had not improved since the Council decided to extend the mandate of the Commission in September.  Particularly worrisome was that Burundi had become the first country to leave the International Criminal Court.  Spain was concerned with the gross violations of human rights, including arbitrary arrests, forced detentions, rape, and restrictions on freedom of association and expression.  Burundi was urged to reconsider its decision of leaving the International Criminal Court and to implement recommendations from the Universal Periodic Review.

Czechia said the failure of Burundi to cooperate with the Commission was unacceptable.  Noting the crisis that emanated from the failure to organize elections in accordance with democratic standards, Czechia said it was impossible for the proposed constitutional referendum to be credible.  Australia said the Commission’s finding that most rights violations were committed by State forces was especially troubling.  Australia noted African Union efforts to broker an end to the crisis and asked how the Human Rights Council could help in that process.  Syria reaffirmed its position rejecting the use of human rights as a pretext to interfere in the internal affairs of countries.  Such practices would only hurt the credibility of the Human Rights Council.  Syria welcomed Burundi’s efforts to pursue peace.

France regretted the lack of cooperation by authorities in Burundi and said it was closely following the constitutional reform process.  Human rights violations committed since 2015 could constitute crimes against humanity and perpetrators must be held accountable.  The crisis would only be resolved via positive dialogue.  China said the situation in Burundi had markedly improved since 2015.  Beijing supported all parties in Burundi in their efforts to reach consensus through consultations.  The international community must respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Burundi.  Greece expressed concerns over the lack of cooperation by authorities and regretted ongoing rights violations in Burundi.  Attacks against activists, journalists, and human rights defenders were particularly concerning.  Long-term solutions required inclusive dialogue.

Venezuela recognized the political will of Burundi to improve the human rights situation in the country.  Only genuine dialogue and cooperation among States could fully promote human rights.  Iran reiterated its firm and principled opposition against any politicization in the Human Rights Council.  All States had the responsibility and duty to take all necessary measures to ensure that human rights were not abused to achieve narrow political interests.  Netherlands reminded that the majority of Burundian citizens lived in extreme poverty and in fear of arrest or disappearance when expressing an opposing political view.  It raised concern about the increase in arbitrary arrests and detention, used as a tool of intimidation, targeting members of opposition parties. 

Remarks by the Commission of Inquiry

DOUDOU DIÈNE, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, welcomed the fact that most members of the Council had emphasized the importance of dialogue between the Commission of Inquiry and the Burundian authorities.  Burundi had criticized the lack of objectivity and yet it refused the Commission the possibility of a visit.   It was in the objective interest of Burundi to allow access to the Commission.  It was also important that members of the Council appreciated the efforts of the African Union to push for sustainable dialogue in the country.  Responding to some comments made by the delegation of Burundi, Mr. Diène explained that it was a normal practice that inquiry bodies of the United Nations changed leadership.  There was a clear linkage between the political crisis and the economic, social and cultural situation, he emphasized.  Economic growth was more or less negative, and Burundi had become a country of humanitarian emergency, with more than 30 per cent of the population in need.

FRANCOISE HAMPSON, Member of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, said that the situation in Burundi was not improving in any significant way.  On the contrary, information pointed to continued human rights violations as in 2017.  Some refugees had returned to Burundi, but had left again because the conditions for repatriation had not been in place. 

LUCY ASUAGBOR, Member of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, noted that without access to the country, the Government would always contest any report by the Commission.  She pleaded once again with the Government that without access to the country, there would be no progress.  A balanced report was only possible through access. 

Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi

United Kingdom regretted that the Burundian Government had failed to acknowledge or address ongoing human rights violations and abuses.  Genuine and inclusive dialogue around changes to the Constitution was important as well as maintaining provisions of the Arusha Accords in the Constitution.  Ireland condemned the ongoing violations of basic rights, including arbitrary arrests, the increasing pressure on civil society space and house searches.  Internally displaced persons and refugees were bearing the brunt of this repressive environment.  Lithuania strongly condemned the decision to ban and suspend the work of independent non-governmental organizations and media.  The intent to abolish the ethnic political representation quotas enshrined in the Arusha Accords by changing the Constitution were concerning.

Norway said the continuation of the inter-Burundian dialogue in an international format was of the utmost importance.  Norway expressed concern that the process for constitutional reform was not being undertaken in a participatory and democratic manner.  Algeria encouraged Burundi to step up efforts to promote and protect human rights, including by combatting poverty in rural areas.  The Government must strengthen the culture of peace and unity and fulfil its commitments to combat impunity.  Switzerland said it was closely following the situation of human rights defenders in Burundi who were facing legal action.  Burundi was urged to cooperate with the Commission, including by granting it access to the country.

Myanmar welcomed Burundian efforts to ratify core human rights instruments.  In order for the Human Rights Council to achieve certain outcomes, it must promote the principle of cooperation.  Country-specific mandates were incapable of fostering genuine dialogue.  United States said Burundi continued to commit serious human rights violations and those responsible for such crimes benefited from impunity.  Burundi’s refusal to cooperate with the Commission was proof of the State’s disdain for the United Nations.  It was disturbing that Burundi, given its human rights record, was a member of the Human Rights Council.

International Service for Human Rights said Burundian civil society actors, and particularly human rights defenders and journalists, had been the primary targets of systematic oppression by the authorities.  Journalists and human rights defenders faced heightened risks of threats, intimidation and violent attacks.  International Federation for Human Rights Leagues said a dozen people had been arrested recently.  The Government was threatening the citizens in order to get them to vote in the upcoming referendum.  This was not a favourable climate to hold a referendum and the new attacks and obstacles targeting civil society were very worrisome.  International Federation of ACAT Action By Christians for the Abolition of Torture (in joint statement with TRIAL INTERNATIONAL and World Organisation Against Torture), said it had documented 23 disappearances, and over 90 cases of arbitrary arrests, which were perpetrated by activists in cooperation with the forces of law and order.  A campaign of terror that would force the population to vote yes on a referendum that would allow the Government a second mandate, was currently in place.

Amnesty International said the country was approaching a major and decisive turning point in its history, with a referendum on constitutional amendments due to take place in May.  Amnesty International had repeatedly raised the alarm about the crackdown on dissent since the start of the political crisis in 2015.  It urged Burundi to allow full and unfettered access to all parts of the country to all relevant and international human rights observers.  East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project said it had been three years since Burundi was plunged into a climate of fear and violence, extrajudicial torture, arbitrary detention and disappearances affecting all segments of society.  All voices critical of the Government were under attack.  The Commission of Inquiry had reported that there were reasonable grounds that crimes against humanity had been committed.  CIVICUS - World Alliance for Citizen Participation remained extremely concerned about the grave human rights violations taking place in Burundi, which showed no sign of abating.  In January, at least 60 people were arrested after publicly advocating that citizens should reject the proposed constitutional amendment which would extend President Pierre Nkurunziza’s term in office beyond 2020. 

Human Rights Watch said that today, after the Commission had found reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity had been committed, there was still no adequate collective action.  This was even more appalling as human rights abuses were likely to increase further as the country’s political crisis deepened.  A ruling party official had threatened in front of residents to “break the teeth” of those who campaigned for people to vote “no” for the proposed referendum.

Concluding Remarks

DOUDOU DIÈNE, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, underlined the seriousness of the human rights situation in Burundi, which was not only the view of the Commission of Inquiry.  There was no more any country in the world that could consider that human rights issues belonged only to their authorities.  Burundi was a member of the United Nations and party to international human rights instruments.  The Commission had the primary mandate to document human rights violations, namely gathering information at the source.  The International Criminal Court had started a process that would move forward.  The fact that Burundi had participated in the Universal Periodic Review was a sign of opening.  The Commission was aware of the complex situation in the country.  There could be no doubt that the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights was capable of taking necessary measures to give sense and substance between the work done by the group of experts and the Commission of Inquiry.  Burundi had an objective interest that its point of view be studied at the source and reflected in the report.  The High Commissioner was determined to seek dialogue and the Commission of Inquiry was determined to complete its mandate. 

FRANCOISE HAMPSON, Member of the Commissions of Inquiry on Burundi, in response to allegations of the partiality of the Commission, said anyone who had dealt with the Commission of Inquiry knew it was independent.  In the case that those violations might represent international crimes, the Commission would be sure to state so.  But the starting point for the Commission was human rights law.  In response to the question on links with groups of experts, these had not yet been established.  In response to the question about what Governments could do to help, she said they could persuade Burundi to enter dialogue with the Commission and allow humanitarian access.  She also urged Governments to call on the African Union to persuade Burundi to cooperate with the Commission.

LUCY ASUAGBOR, Member of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, said she had asked herself whether in any way the Commission violated the sovereignty of the Government of Burundi.  The answer was no.  Burundi had, by ratifying international instruments, abandoned its sovereignty and had exposed itself to accountability mechanisms.  Consequently, the protection of human rights was a collective responsibility.  There was a need for monitoring organisms to be able to intervene, including a monitoring organism that could investigate violations.  What was of real relevance now was that cooperation from the Government was required.

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