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HC statement at Security Council briefing on The Situation In Burundi 9 July


Mr. President,
Distinguished Members of the Security Council,

I thank the Council for giving me this opportunity to voice my concern about the deterioration of the human rights situation in Burundi. An escalating pattern of politically motivated violence, coupled with this country's history of recurring bloodshed and atrocities, should alert us to the potential for serious crisis. Already more than 145,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, and this movement has increased drastically in recent days. As they pack the few belongings they can carry, and abandon their lands and homes, what the people of Burundi are telling us is that they fear their country is on the brink of devastating violence. The risk to human life, and to regional stability and development, is high.

The crisis arising from President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to run for a third term in office has undermined a decade of steady progress in building democratic institutions, and precious gains in the sense of a common national community. In the past six months, members of opposition parties, civil society activists and media figures who called for the President to respect the Arusha Agreement and the Constitution by standing down after ten years in office, have been targeted for intimidation, severe harassment and arbitrary detention. Peaceful protests have been met with unwarranted use of force, including lethal force, in violation of Burundi's obligation under national and international law to guarantee the right to freedom of assembly. Demonstrators have been imprisoned and subjected to torture and ill-treatment. We have also received reports of extrajudicial killings. To date these violations have not been investigated, prosecuted or sanctioned.

Apparently determined to ignore every warning signal, the Government pushed through parliamentary and local elections on 29 June, despite pleas by the Secretary General, the East African Community, the African Union, the International Conference of the Great Lakes Regions and multiple other international actors – including the most recent international team of facilitators – for a delay, to allow space for dialogue and inclusion. The elections were boycotted by opposition parties, and took place in an atmosphere that was far from conducive to a free, fair and inclusive vote. There have been outbreaks of violence, including small-arms and grenade attacks, and tension is palpable. Burundians appear to be braced for an explosion of the murderous violence that has so frequently engulfed the country.

I travelled to Burundi in April, and met with the President and top officials in the government, the Constitutional Court, and other key bodies. I noted then the widespread and alarming violence attributed to the Imbonerakure militia, which has been linked to the President's political party. Immediate action must be taken to curtail these assaults, and to stem incitement to violence and hatred, and in line with the recommendation made during the Third Emergency Summit of Heads of State of the East African Community on the Situation in Burundi, I urge the Government to disarm the Imbonerakure militia immediately. All political parties, the President of the Republic, the police and the military should place the well-being of their country above their own political ambitions and interests, and take the path of peace and rule of law.

OHCHR's Field Office – which we have reinforced – has documented dozens of killings in the past two months, most of them shootings of demonstrators and human rights defenders by members of the Imbonerakure militia and security forces. I draw your attention in particular to the assassination, on 26 May, of Zedi Feruzi, a vocal opposition leader who opposed a third term for the President, and to the attempted assassination of the wife of another leading political opponent. Some security personnel and Imbonerakure militia members have also been killed.

Contrary to some recent reports, the massive outflows of refuges appear to have been sparked, not by rumor, but by precise and targeted campaigns of intimidation and terror. Refugees interviewed by my Office in the DRC, Rwanda and Tanzania continue to refer to the Imbonerakure militia as the main threat, but some have also stated that militants from other groups are also employing violence – a new and disturbing development.

My Office has also documented over 300 cases of arbitrary arrest and detention of demonstrators, human rights defenders, political opponents and journalists. We have noted numerous cases of torture and other forms of ill-treatment in detention. A severe crackdown on independent media has led to the closure of most private media and radio stations, with some being burned down. Large numbers of journalists have fled Burundi for fear of reprisals, as have many human rights defenders. Recently we have also seen key members of the President's own political party and government fleeing the country.

Frequent grenade attacks in public neighbourhoods and a campaign of intimidation of ordinary people by Imbonerakure militia members have created an atmosphere that is grim with fear and panic. Many hard-won gains in inclusive services, institutions and freedoms for the public are also breaking down. Numerous schools have closed; in any case, lack of security prevents school-children from attending. The humanitarian impact of the crisis now includes a cholera outbreak among refugees in Tanzania.

Since the 1960s, repeated cycles of uncontrollable violence have devastated Burundi.

Although all the country's communities speak the same language and have for centuries lived together in the same hills and communes, these recurring spasms have, in recent decades, laid down a pattern of mistrust, bitterness and pre-emptive violence. In a concerted effort to rebuild social institutions able to effectively mediate differences and address grievances, the international community and regional and national actors came together in Arusha fifteen years ago to rebuild an architecture of sustainable peace – with emphasis on the rule of law, observance of human rights, access to effective judicial or other institutions and participatory democratic governance. Slowly the country has inched back to greater confidence, more openness, and far more inclusion.

But today, that effort is in peril. After years of deep work to weave together the fabric of society, communities are retracting back to fear. The Secretary General's Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, has noted the risk that what has, to date, “primarily been a political crisis could escalate to a level involving a high risk of atrocity crimes”. The nightmares of Burundi's recent past are close at hand. And among them we must count the massive impact on regional development and security caused by past episodes of violence.

The people of Burundi and the region deserve far better than these recurring cycles of impunity, suffering and destruction. They have a right to go about their lives peacefully, in freedom, equality and dignity; without fear, and with equitable access to their country's many resources and opportunities. They look to this Council to exert its authority in order to ensure a speedy political solution to this dreadful crisis.

I ask you to bring all possible influence to bear to restore a sense of responsibility among key actors in Burundi.

Accountability must be ensured for all gross human rights violations, including those that have occurred over the last six months. Justice must be served, and reason must prevail, so that Burundi can return to the path of the rule of law and democracy; stability; confidence and peace – including through elections that are inclusive, transparent and fair. The Arusha Agreement sought to reconstitute a society in which differences, whether political or communal, could be accommodated, and in which the protection of the State could be counted as secure, for all. That is the path of development and hope, and it is Burundi's future. To close off that path would be a monumental error – one that would be remembered for generations.