Header image for news printout

Opening Statement by Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Human Rights Council 24th Special Session

Geneva, 17 December 2015

Mr President,
Distinguished Members of the Council,
Excellencies,

Burundi is at bursting point, on the very cusp of a civil war. At least 400 people have been killed since 26 April – and the death toll may be considerably higher. Of these, up to 68 may have been extra-judicially executed in November. At least 3,496 people have been arrested in relation to the political crisis. Human rights defenders and independent journalists have fled the country and gone into hiding. And 220,000 people are now refugees in neighbouring countries, with many, many others internally displaced.

It was eight months ago that I visited Burundi and witnessed a very worrying simmering of tensions, intimidation, repression and increasing hate speech. Burundi was then at a crossroads, and a crucial choice lay ahead for the authorities, political and opposition leaders and their supporters – the path of peace or that of violence. The events of last week confirmed the extent to which violence and intimidation are catapulting the country back to the past – to Burundi’s deeply troubled, dark and horrendously violent past.

The time for piecemeal responses and fiddling around the edges is over. The situation in Burundi demands a robust, decisive response from the international community. I called last month on the Security Council to consider all possible steps to stop the ongoing violence and prevent a regional conflict, including travel bans and asset freezes. Today, those calls are more relevant than ever. Diplomatic and political calculations must not eclipse the need for action.

Since I briefed the Security Council a month ago, human rights violations in Burundi have continued to escalate and there is a growing, alarming risk of regionalisation of this crisis. We have documented 312 killings since public demonstrations against a possible third presidential term began, including 19 children. Over the last bloody weekend in Bujumbura, Government figures indicate that another 87 people were killed, but figures we have received from other sources are considerably higher.

Last Friday’s events are a shocking manifestation of what happens when a country is at boiling point and ready to tip over with any instigation. Unidentified armed men reportedly attacked military camps early Friday morning. Following the resulting fighting, a lockdown was imposed on two Bujumbura neighbourhoods, Musaga and Nyakabiga, where individuals known to oppose the President’s third term reside. The very frightened residents huddled in their homes, listening to the screaming and shooting outside, so petrified that even phone calls were conducted in whispers, as security forces carried out intensive house-to-house searches and arrested hundreds of young men. A number of young men were allegedly pulled out of their homes and executed. Others were taken to unknown locations and remain unaccounted for. People were beaten, some shops looted and goods stolen. In the aftermath of the worst of the violence and killings, reprisals continued, including house-to-house searches in some neighbourhoods of Bujumbura.
The carnage of last weekend has only served to move the much-needed political solution further from reach. There is barely any remaining semblance of trust between the authorities, political opponents, and the population.

The situation needs urgent, concerted, decisive attention from the international community.

I continue to receive daily reports on violations and abuses, perpetrated with total impunity, of the right to life and to physical integrity, to liberty and security. There have been multiple killings and assassination attempts. Human rights defender Pierre Claver Mbonimpa has paid a particularly high price for his activism, losing both his son and son-in-law in targeted killings over the past few months, as he himself recovers from an assassination attempt. He is with us here today. I wish to pay tribute to his outstanding courage and offer our condolences for his loss.

Of the 3,496 people who have been arrested since April 2015, 452 were arbitrarily arrested during the month of November alone. Members of the opposition, journalists, human rights defenders and their families are frequently targeted.

Heavy and worrying restrictions against the freedoms of association and expression continue to be imposed. On 23 November, an order suspended the activities of 10 national NGOs until completion of a judicial inquiry process against them. Since then, the bank accounts of three other civil society organizations and the radio station “Radio Publique Africaine” have also been frozen. At this point, most independent journalists and leaders of human rights organizations have fled the country. Just this past Tuesday, another four rights defenders had to flee.

Essential medicine stocks are dwindling, women and children under five face particular nutritional and health risks, and food insecurity remains precariously high. Human rights violations and fear of such violations, violence and conflict are the main drivers of the current displacement and humanitarian crisis. Improvement – or further degradation – of the human rights situation will likely have a direct impact on future displacement, returns and humanitarian needs.

Of the 220,000 terrified people who have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, many are the same families that had to flee their homes during Burundi’s civil war, and had returned home over the past decade, full of hope for peace, stability and economic growth in their homeland. Imagine the despair of having to relive such desperation and abandon one’s home yet again.

And among those who remain, the fear is palpable. A frightened, uninformed population, on a diet of hate speech and paranoia, is one that may be recruited to the path of violence by either side of the current political impasse. The consequences of the mobilisation of more such individuals would be catastrophic – especially given that ethnic elements are already being stoked, given the country’s terrible history in this regard.

Excellencies,

We owe it to the people of Burundi to work towards a peaceful solution to the current crisis. The primary responsibility for this lies of course with the State authorities, and there are many concrete actions they can immediately take to defuse the situation. To start with, the Government can take all necessary steps to disarm pro-government armed militia, including within the Imbonerakure, and to bring the operations of police, intelligence services and other security forces under the mantle of the law.

I regret that the authorities have yet to carry out effective investigations concerning the vast majority of cases of serious violations and abuses of human rights, such as reports of extra-judicial killings, including with ethnic undertones. Impunity currently enjoyed by perpetrators of human rights violations as well as by members of unidentified armed groups is contributing to individuals increasingly taking the law into their own, violent hands. My Office stands ready to assist in international inquiry, along with the involvement of African institutions.

The Government must also give unconditional instructions to State agents to immediately cease all acts of torture, and to hold to account those responsible for torture or any other grave human rights violation. Holding perpetrators of violence to account, putting an end to the pervasive and long-standing impunity in Burundi, must be a centrepiece to any dialogue and a lasting political solution that will stand the test of time.

The Government must also urgently undertake efforts to restore public confidence, which is at its lowest point since the Arusha Accord was signed in 2000. This task gets more difficult with every extra-judicial killing, every arbitrary arrest, every act of political repression.

Those responsible for these serious violations and abuses of human rights must be brought to book without delay. There need to be independent, effective investigations and justice. And those who have been arbitrarily detained in unknown locations need to be accounted for, in line with the rule of law.

The Government of Burundi, this Council and the broader international community have a clear obligation to support the fact-finding mission being carried out by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights in Burundi and the African Union's efforts to address impunity, including through the nine human rights observers currently on the ground. The AU Peace and Security Council’s efforts deserve our full support, and the full contingent of 100 observers should be deployed as soon as possible. The results of their fact-finding mission should be made public as soon as possible and, as called for by the AU, those responsible for human rights violations and instigating violence should be subject to sanctions, including asset-freezes and travel bans. The involvement of the International Criminal Court in this regard would be of great importance.

For political dialogue to be meaningful, we need solid commitment – which means that everyone, especially those who have sharply opposing views to those of the authorities, including those in exile, must be involved. Independent radio stations must be able to recommence broadcasting. NGOs that have had their assets frozen and have been otherwise restricted, to operate freely. Creating such space, and promoting access to information, would greatly enhance prospects for the credible, inclusive dialogue called for by the African Union, the East African Community, and the Security Council.

Crucially, there needs to be very close monitoring of the borders with neighbouring countries. All appropriate measures must be taken – in line with international human rights law – to stop the reported flow of weapons into Burundi. The use of drones should be considered as one method of conducting such monitoring.

The Human Rights Council and all Member States -- but Burundi's neighbours in particular -- must now play a constructive role in insisting on an inclusive and credible inter-Burundian dialogue, with respect for human rights, an end to impunity, and commitments to end the use of violence at its core. I appreciate the continued interaction my Office in Bujumbura has with the Burundian Government, which in recent days has led to the release of 53 minors accused of armed rebellion on November 30, as well as 98 people detained during the demonstrations in June. I hope to increase our engagement to work together to develop constructive solutions to the current, grave human rights challenges before us.

Excellencies,

When the lockdown in Musaga and Nyakabiga ended, residents walked out to see the corpses of young men littering their streets, ridden with bullet wounds. Not a day goes by without dead bodies on the streets of Bujumbura. The people of Burundi are either fleeing or waiting, apprehensive, for the next wave of violence, praying that the dark days of the past will not return.

While the future of the county is in the hands of Burundian leaders, this Council has a clear responsibility to do all in its power to prevent the worst from materializing in Burundi in the coming days.

We owe no less to the people of Burundi, who have endured enough.