Interactive Dialogue on BurundiGeneva, 12 March 2019
Mr President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
We have the honour to address you once again as members of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, whose mandate was renewed by this Council for a third term pursuant to resolution 39/14 of 28 September 2018. We thank the members of the Human Rights Council for the trust they have placed in us. Our role seems to be increasingly necessary since this Commission remains the only international mechanism with the capacity to independently investigate the human rights situation in the country, which remains a matter of great concern.
We would like to assure you that we are pursuing the mission that was entrusted to us to further our “thorough investigation into human rights violations and abuses in Burundi since April 2015, including on their extent and whether they may constitute international crimes, with a view to contributing to the fight against impunity”, while demonstrating the highest standards of rigor and impartiality. In view of the upcoming elections scheduled for 2020, our mandate is especially important. We will pay particular attention to civil liberties and factors that may trigger violence or human rights violations. We are also pursuing our investigations into violations of economic and social rights, and particularly their links to civil and political rights. This will allow us to analyse the overall impact of current human rights violations on the Burundian population.
Our desire to establish a dialogue with the Burundian authorities remains unchanged despite the repeated refusals expressed by the latter even within this forum. We regret that the Government of Burundi has made it a habit of issuing attacks and personal threats against the members of the Commission, as was the case during our past presentations before this Council and at the General Assembly in October 2018. We note with regret the Burundian Government's policy of non-cooperation with most independent human rights mechanisms. For example, we note that the Subcommittee on the Prevention of Torture had announced a visit to Burundi in 20181. The visit did not take place despite the fact that, by becoming a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture, Burundi had assumed a legal obligation to receive the Subcommittee on its territory and to give it access to detention centres.
We nevertheless reiterate our invitation to the Burundian authorities to enter into a constructive dialogue with the Commission, with a particular emphasis on sharing information they deem appropriate on the human rights situation in the country, thus allowing us to reflect it in our final report. The Commission would therefore be in a position to assess objectively the Government's general assessment that human rights are well protected and respected in the country. We invite the Government to share information and data that can support this statement in an objective manner, based on relevant human rights indicators2. We will send the authorities correspondence in which we will identify the indicators that we believe are the most appropriate on this issue. We are also interested in any information on human rights violations and on efforts to implement recommendations addressed to Burundi through various mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review, Treaty Bodies, Special Procedures and, of course, our Commission.
It is also in this spirit that we call on Burundi to reconsider its position and accept the Commission's requests to visit the country. However, the persistence of the refusal by the Government will not be an obstacle to the continuation of our investigations since, like all the other commissions of inquiry established by this Council which are denied access to the territory under investigation, we will continue to collect information from victims and/or direct witnesses of recent violations and abuses, both inside and outside the country. These testimonies are systematically verified and cross-referenced with each other and with other independent sources such as individual experts and organizations active in Burundi, including in the field of research. None of the allegations are taken at face value. Instead, we conduct rigorous analysis based on a strict standard of proof.
We would like to thank the representatives of Member States who have agreed in the past to facilitate access to their territory so that we could meet Burundian refugees, and we thank them in advance for maintaining this cooperation with the Commission.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Burundi's representatives indicated that preparations for the 2020 presidential and legislative elections without external support are now the Government's priority. We can only note that these efforts fall within a very particular context, since the political crisis from the 2015 presidential election has not been resolved. The Burundian population continues to feel its effects through the tensions and the frequent acts of violence with a political dimension, which continue to push people to leave the country.
Indeed, the mediation efforts spearheaded by the East African Community (EAC) to resolve the crisis seem to have reached a stalemate. The fifth and final session of the inter-Burundian talks held in October 2018 in Arusha under the auspices of the facilitator, His Excellency Benjamin Mpaka, was boycotted by the Government of Burundi. Therefore, the facilitator completed his mission, without concrete achievements, on the 1st of February 2019 with the submission of his final report to the EAC's Heads of State Summit. The EAC simply took note of his report and decided that the Burundian matter would be considered at a later date, without setting a precise timetable or appointing a new facilitator. Nevertheless, the African Union and the United Nations Security Council continue to affirm that an inclusive inter-Burundian dialogue remains the only option for resolving the political crisis, maintaining national cohesion and organizing free and fair elections3.
However, since the submission of our report last September, the Government of Burundi has not shown any willingness to engage in such a dialogue, or to fight against the general climate of impunity prevailing in the country. This situation encourages the perpetuation of human rights violations. To our knowledge, the main alleged perpetrators of serious violations and international crimes committed since 2015 have not been prosecuted, and they still hold positions of responsibility within the security and defence forces or within the Imbonerakure, whose collusion with these forces has been highlighted in our reports.
We wish to stress the fact that the persistence of this general impunity is entirely due to the lack of political will from the Burundian authorities to take the necessary measures. In contrast, they have shown their capacity to act when they deem it appropriate. In this regard, we take note of the announcement made on the 29th of November by the Burundian judiciary to reopen, in the name of the fight against impunity, the case of the assassination of the first democratically elected president, Mr. Melchior Ndayaye. The authorities also issued arrest warrants against former President Pierre Buyoya, current High Representative of the African Union for Mali and the Sahel, as well as 16 former senior officials at that time.I It should be noted that according to the Arusha Peace Agreement and with national reconciliation in mind, all appeals and reviews concerning assassinations and political trials perpetuated between 1962 and the end of the civil war, should be introduced to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission4. This case comes at a time when the Government has just revised and extended the mandate of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, through a bill adopted on 6 November 2018. This amendment requests the TRC to extend its investigations on "serious violations of human rights and of international humanitarian law committed between 26th February 1885 and 4th December 2008"5. We therefore wonder why the Government of Burundi, which is showing willingness to address the violations and crimes committed in the nineteenth century, does not find it worthwhile to establish the truth about those committed since 2015.
The closing of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on 28 February 2019, following a request from the Government of Burundi on 5 December 2018, is regrettable. This Office worked for 23 years to support peace building as well as security and justice sector reform, despite setbacks and challenges. It also contributed to strengthening the capacity of certain government institutions and civil society in the field of human rights. This closing comes at a time when national human rights mechanisms are not in a position to effectively protect and promote fundamental rights, not least because of their complete lack of structural independence. We therefore request the Government of Burundi to share with the Commission information on the measures taken to guarantee the objective independence of these institutions and on the results of their work.
In addition, the Burundian authorities also decided to suspend for three months the activities of foreign NGOs, from 1 October 2018, in order to force them to re-register and submit their list of employees with an indication of their ethnicity, pursuant to new quotas of 60% Hutu and 40% Tutsi, and a minimum of 30% of women6. Foreign NGOs must also deposit one-third of their annual budget into an account of the Central Bank of Burundi. Certain NGOs have publicly announced their decision to leave the country rather than submit to these requirements, which they consider contrary to their values. These include Humanity & Inclusion (formally known as Handicap International), Avocats Sans Frontières and RCN Justice & Democracy. As of 31 December 2018, only 84 are thought to have resumed their activities, out of the 130 foreign non-governmental organizations operating prior to the suspension. The situation of dozens more is still to be clarified.
This continuous shrinking of the democratic space, which also affects national NGOs, human rights defenders and independent Burundian media, is all the more worrisome since it falls within the context of the 2020 elections.
Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in the world. According to estimates from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for the year 2018, 3.6 million people in Burundi, one third of the population, were in need of humanitarian assistance7. Furthermore, 56% of Burundian children suffer from malnutrition8 and we are concerned about the impact that this situation may have on their development and health in the long term.
The precarious situation of a majority of Burundian households does not spare them from being subjected regularly to mandatory and other so-called voluntary contributions in order to finance the 2020 elections. They regularly take the form of racketeering or extortion since they are accompanied by violence or condition access to health care and education. Financial or in-kind contributions for the construction of headquarters of the ruling party CNDD-FDD at the “colline” and commune level are also required from the entire population.
As of 31 January 2019, 349,252 Burundians were refugees in neighbouring countries, mostly in Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda9. The Commission was informed that, in conjunction with refugees who decide to return to Burundi under the assisted voluntary return program, many Burundians continue to regularly leave the country.
Our recent field investigations revealed that, out of the thousands of refugees who returned voluntarily in 2018, many of them felt compelled to flee again after a few days or months. Indeed, upon their arrival, a significant number of returnees were openly vilified for leaving the country by local authorities and/or members of the ruling party youth league, the Imbonerakure. They were perceived as opponents, and some were suspected of supporting armed opposition groups. They were threatened and intimidated by the Imbonerakure, sometimes in collaboration with the local authorities, who very often took their resettlement kits and the allowance received within the framework of the voluntary return program. Men, as well as women, were arrested and detained, some were killed or disappeared, and women and girls were raped. One of the reasons for such treatments would be to discourage them from relocating to their original “colline”, specifically to prevent them from claiming the houses or plots confiscated during their absence, or because they were identified as opponents or enemies of the state. We therefore reiterate our concern that the return of Burundian refugees against their will could violate the principle of non-refoulement.
In more general terms, the tracking of opponents or individuals considered as such, is still on-going. People who did not vote in the constitutional referendum of 17 May 2018 or who are suspected of having voted no, as well as members of opposition political parties, are particularly targeted and often arrested or eliminated. Such actions can only reinforce our concerns in regards to the upcoming elections in 2020.
Cases of sexual violence persist, presumably encouraged by the general climate of impunity prevailing in the country and the socio-economic vulnerability of households, affecting in particular women and girls in rural areas and those who come from families of voluntary returnees. This type of violence also targets women whose family members are considered to be part of the political opposition.
The Imbonerakure are still omnipresent, actively and continuously monitoring the population at the local level, often in coordination with local authorities. They are directly involved in the majority of violations documented by the Commission, including sexual violence.
The security situation remains worrisome due to the increase in the number of reports of incidents, clashes and attacks between armed opposition groups and elements of the security forces, on the Burundian territory but also in the border areas of neighboring countries.
We wish to draw the Council's attention to the fact that the preparation and holding of the 2020 elections can have a major impact on the human rights situation in Burundi in the coming months. Respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as the rule of law and political pluralism, are essential for holding truly democratic, free and credible elections in 2020. The future election campaign should be open to the independent media and take place in a free and peaceful atmosphere in which candidates and voters toned not fear being subjected to violence, intimidation or reprisals.
We take note that on 14 February 2019, after months of proceedings, the authorities have just authorized the creation of a new opposition political party called the "Congrès National pour la Liberté". Our Commission will continue to closely monitor the measures and decisions taken by the Burundian authorities and all developments on the ground that are linked to the preparation of the elections in order to identify possible risks of violence or human rights violations. The Arusha Agreement had recognized the existence in Burundi of a conflict which is “fundamentally political, with extremely important ethnic dimensions"10, an observation which remains valid. Risk factors are present. Accordingly, we invite this Council to monitor with the utmost vigilance the ongoing electoral process, the measures that will be taken in this framework by the authorities and their impact on the Burundian population, whose fate deserves the attention of the international community.
We will keep you informed of further developments in the human rights situation in Burundi during the next session of the Council.
Thank you for your attention.
1. https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21848&LangID=E; https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=23325&LangID=E
2. See, OHCHR, Human Rights Indicators, Guide for Measuring and Implementing, HR / PUB / 12/5.
3. Report of the Security Council meeting on the situation in Burundi, held on 19/02/2019, S / PV.8465.
4. Arusha Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Burundi, Protocol I, Article 7 (18).
5. According to the Arusha Agreement and the bill establishing the first TRC 1/18, Bill of 15 May 2014, investigations covered the period from independence day, 1st July 1962, up to4th December 2008.
6. In application of bill no. 1/01 of 23 January 2017.
7. OCHA, Burundi Situation Report, 21 December 2018. In addition, 1.7 million would be food insecure. The official estimates for the year 2019 are still pending.
8. Report of the Secretary-General on the situation in Burundi, S / 2018/1028, 15 November 2018, para. 28.
9. Statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
10. Article 4 of the Arusha Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Burundi.
* * * * *