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Statement of Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Simonovic at the Burundi Configuration of Peacebuilding Fund, Thursday 10 July 2014

Excellencies, distinguished members of the Security Council,

I visited Burundi from 25 to 27 June 2014, to assess the country’s human rights situation and to discuss a UN human rights presence after the expiration of BNUB’s mandate at the end of 2014. During the visit I met with Burundian officials, representatives of the international community and civil society groups. I also visited Bujumbura’s Mpimba prison.

There have been some recent positive developments. These include the unanimous adoption of the new Electoral Code, which will govern the organisation of the 2015 elections; and of the Code of Conduct - signed on 9 June by the Government, the Independent National Electoral Commission, political parties and the United Nations - which will govern the conduct of the stakeholders during the electoral process.

I was encouraged by the good work of the National Independent Human Rights Commission. The Commission is essential in promoting and monitoring the effective implementation of international human rights standards at the national level. I called on the Government to provide the necessary support to allow it to carry out its mandate successfully and independently.  I also assured the president of the Commission of OHCHR continued support.

However, as the country approaches the 2015 elections,I am also concerned about some worrying trends. 

Firstly, political violence the intimidation of political opponents and disruption of political meetings by the ruling CNDD-FDD’s youth association known as the Imbonerakure has increased. This happens often with the alleged collusion of local authorities and the police. The BNUB has regularly reported on the harassment of members of the opposition parties by the Imbonerakure. Between January and July 2014, BNUB registered 51 politically-motivated incidents involving the youth movement. This represents more than twice the number in the same period in 2013.   

Secondly, there is a trend of growing legislative restrictions and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, especially the prohibition of public meetings and demonstrations included in the new law on public gatherings.  During my visit to Mpimba prison in Bujumbura, I met with Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, a leading human rights defender detained since May 2014, for alleged threats to security of the State and circulation of false information, after releasing information on the alleged presence and training of Imbonerakure in the DRC. In my discussion with officials, I raised this case and encouraged them to guarantee freedom of speech and the protection of the rights of all human rights defenders. I was assured that the case of Pierre Claver Mbonimpa will be handled speedily and fully in accordance with national and international norms and standards.  I am disappointed at the latest court decision of 8 July rejecting his release on bail.  This is exactly what he was concerned with when we met.  He is a 66 years old human rights activist, certainly not a man that would run away or threaten witnesses.  His pre-trial detention therefore seems like a way to punish him without giving him the opportunity to challenge the accusations against him before the court.

Thirdly, there is the issue of the fragmentation of the political parties allegedly encouraged by the ruling CNDD-FDD party, apparently with a view to diluting the opposition.  In parallel to the reported instigation of fracturing of opposition political parties, the Government and its ruling party has also allegedly been involved in a policy of establishing significant numbers of civil society organisations to counter-balance the critical voices by established human rights defenders. In my meeting with civil society organizations, participants were sharply divided between those critical of the Government’s human rights record and organisations which expressed unequivocal support for the ruling party’s actions aimed at restricting civil and political rights.

While most of my interlocutors agreed that the current tensions were inherently political, they also raised the risk of a shift of the focus of tensions from political to ethnic. Three factors were identified which could trigger this scenario:

  • Land issues, particularly following the recent promulgation of the 31 December 2013 law establishing the National Land Commission which is viewed by opposition parties as potentially favouring returning Hutu refugees;
  • Attempts to change the Arusha Agreement, especially with regard to the ethnic balance  it prescribed;
  • Finally, the potential manipulation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.

Transitional justice remains a very sensitive issue in Burundi.  The establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is the first step in the implementation of the commitments contained in the Arusha Agreement, but individual accountability should also follow. The adopted Truth and reconciliation bill does not include some of the recommendations made by the United Nations in meeting international standards.  After discussing with stakeholders, I believe that the law does present an opportunity to move forward with reconciliation, but it is not a guarantee.  The critical factor will be the appointment of the Commissioners, which -  unlike the adoption of the law - should be consensual.  I strongly encouraged the appointment of competent and impartial Commissioners who will be in a position to produce a credible report. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stands ready to assist the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, providing these standards are met. 

The deteriorating political and human rights context and concerns about the further deterioration of the situation ahead of the 2015 elections call for a continued United Nations human rights presence with a capacity building, monitoring and reporting capacity in the country beyond 2014, especially in light of the potential need of early warning and conflict prevention. The UN Joint Transition Plan - presented to the Government on 16 May 2014 -  tasks OHCHR to continue to lead the UN’s efforts in the priority areas of human rights and transitional justice. OHCHR currently has an open-ended memorandum of understanding signed with the Government since 1995 which provides for a mandate for the full range of  human rights activities.

In my meetings with Government officials, I raised the binding character of the agreement and informed them of OHCHR’s interest to continue its implementation as of 1 January 2015.  In follow-up to my mission, the High Commissioner for Human Rights sent a letter to the Government of Burundi informing them officially of OHCHR’s intentions of establishing an independent OHCHR presence in the country as of January 2015. BNUB strongly supports such a continuation of human rights activities and involvement. Yesterday, when I briefed the Burundi Configuration of the UN Peacebuilding Commission many member states expressed their willingness to support the establishment of OHCHR national office in Burundi.

Speaking of human rights issues to be continued, the focus on the elections should not make us forget the many challenges faced daily by Burundians when it comes to the full realisation of their economic and social rights.  In a country where half of the population is malnourished and in which children, especially girls, drop out of school because of poverty, economic and social rights also need to remain a priority.

Mr President, in conclusion, I propose the following:

  • The United Nations  and the international community should continue to stand firm in support of respect for freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly for all in Burundi, not least ahead of the elections; 
  • Developments relating to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, land issues and the Arusha Agreement should be closely monitored and reported on for the purpose of early warning and prevention, if necessary;
  • The United Nations should call on the Government of Burundi to ensure a credible and successful electoral process conducted in the full respect of international human rights norms by which Burundi is bound.  The United Nations and other international actors should support Burundi in this challenging period.
  • The Security Council may therefore wish to support the continued human rights presence after expiration of the BNUB with  a  mandate for both technical cooperation and monitoring and reporting;
  • Finally, the United Nations should closely coordinate its activities related to human rights promotion and protection as well as conflict prevention with the Regional organisations and their mechanisms.

Thank you Mr. President.