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Oral briefing by the Commission to the Human Rights Council

41st Session Human Rights Council

Interactive Dialogue on Burundi

ORIGINAL VERSION: FRENCH

Geneva, 2 July 2019

Released on 2 July 2019

Mr President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are once again honoured to address this Council as members of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi in order to present to you what has been accomplished so far, alongside some of our findings on the state of human rights in Burundi since March 2019. Final conclusions will be presented in September in our final report.

Tasked with conducting “a thorough investigation into human rights violations and abuses in Burundi since April 2015”, this mission is becoming more complex by the day in a context where democratic space is rapidly shrinking in Burundi. Notwithstanding these obstacles, we strive to maintain high standards of work discipline and impartiality.

Just like in previous years, all our efforts towards dialogue with the Burundi Government proved to have been in vain and we deeply regret this. On our part, we maintain our policy of engagement towards Burundian authorities. We are ready to embark on a constructive dialogue with them, particularly so that they can present the situation in the country, provided this is done on the basis of objective indicators, so that this information would be taken into account in our final report.

Since our last oral presentation of March 2019, our team has carried out missions to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Rwanda, Ethiopia, France, Belgium and the United Kingdom, especially to collect information on human rights violations committed since May 2018 from victims and direct witnesses of these abuses. Naturally, we continued gathering information remotely and through face-to-face interviews with victims, direct witnesses, and other sources found in neighbouring countries and Burundi. We express our gratitude to Member States who granted us access to their territory for their continued cooperation with the Commission.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Similarly to the Arusha Agreement, the Human Rights Council has always recognized that peace, good governance, development, and respect of human rights are all interrelated. However, the Government of Burundi is trying to convince the international community that the situation in the country is returning to a state of normalcy, although violations and even international crimes still occur, and consequences of the 2015 crisis keep on affecting livelihoods of citizens who are both in and out of the country. Therefore, the Commission of Inquiry characterizes the current situation as a persistence of human rights violations.

Although Burundi is not in a situation of armed conflict, which would result in large scale violent incidents, the situation remains a cause for concern. It has almost been four years that the population lives in an environment in which men and women are victims of numerous and frequent human rights violations, simply for exercising their democratic rights, when protesting against the third mandate of President Nkurunziza, refusing to adhere to the ruling party, opposing the revision of the Constitution, for being a member of an opposition party or being close to one of those persons. Some citizens got used to it, they internalised these new paradigms and embarked on risk-mitigation strategies such as joining the ruling party - the CNDD-FDD. Others live in fear induced by such an unpredictable environment wherein any Burundian can become a victim. They stay, keeping a low profile until a more serious incident takes place or fear becomes stronger and then they feel compelled to leave the country.

As a matter of fact, serious human rights abuses continue since May 2018, particularly summary executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, ill-treatment and sexual violence, as well as restriction of civil liberties. These violations have a political dimension given that they occurred following the May 2018 referendum to amend the Constitution, or as a prelude to the 2020 elections. Most of the victims were opponents, real or perceived as such, to the Government and / or the ruling party, mainly members of Agathon Rwasa’s new opposition party, the Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL), legally approved in February 2019. Members of this party are regularly subject to threats, arbitrary arrests and detentions, beatings, even torture. The party itself faces several challenges in conducting basic activities, such as organizing meetings or opening offices. An office of the CNL was burnt down on 14 June 2019, but it is nine of its members who were immediately arrested and sentenced to two years of prison following this incident.

Burundian citizens who had fled to seek refuge in other countries and came back under the Tripartite Voluntary Repatriation Programme since 20181 , were also targeted. Many are those who faced hostility and were stigmatised once they arrived back home and were robbed of the return packages they received to facilitate their reintegration. They have been accused of not contributing to the development of the country or funding of elections by the Imbonerakure, often with assistance from some local administrative authorities, who seized their belongings as compensation. These returnees and some of their family members have also been victims of other serious violations like rape, arbitrary arrests and executions. Such incidents have forced some of them to flee again. Some young men were accused of cooperating with armed opposition groups, simply because they stayed or travelled abroad, have been arrested and severely tortured.

Cases of sexual violence were also documented. Most victims were women and young girls, and to a lesser extent, men, minors and adults. In several instances, these cases of violence took the form of gang rapes, including in the midst of attacks on their homes. Some of the victims who were recently repatriated to Burundi were targeted, because they or any of their relatives was an alleged member of the opposition or rebel group, or because they refused to join either the CNDD-FDD, or the Imbonerakure.

In fact, it seems that CNDD-FDD is looking into securing its presence across national territory through continuous forced enrolment of new members, collection of funds from the whole population by the Imbonerakure, and participation in the construction of local offices.

These violations mainly occurred in rural areas, at colline and communal level. Government authorities appear indifferent to the victims’ fate, since they merely deny what happened to them and choose to protect the main perpetrators, particularly the Imbonerakure, police and SNR officers, as well as local administrative authorities.

Undemocratic practices and restriction of civil liberties have been rapidly gaining grounds over the past few months. Media are censored with sometimes heavy sanctions added to it: suspension, licence withdrawal, warning. Thus, the new law press law, which was enacted in September 2018, requires journalists to “only publish balanced information [...] whose origin, veracity and accuracy are clear and carefully verified”2 . Comments criticising the Government and any reference to human rights violations in Burundi are tantamount to meddling in the domestic affairs of, or attempts to destabilise the country, and are immediately repressed. National and foreign non-governmental organizations are closely monitored, and frequently sanctioned, as evidenced by the indefinite suspension of the NGO Parole et actions pour le réveil des consciences et l’évolution des mentalités (PARCEM). PARCEM, considered as one of the last independent NGOs in Burundi, was accused of “tarnishing the country’s image” and of trying to “disrupt public order and peace” by presenting a critical analysis of the socio-economic condition of the country based on World Bank data, which are rejected by the Government. As a reminder, Germain Rukuki is still detained arbitrarily while waiting for the outcome of his appeal against his 32-year prison sentence for conducting legal activities as a human rights defender.

Today, even churches are targeted by the Government of Burundi. For instance, on 11 June 2019, catholic Bishops expressed concern about “the steady rise of political intolerance, which happens to be the cause of fighting and even deaths”. They were immediately called to order and told they should abstain from making “any political statement”.

The situation of Burundian refugees resulting from the 2015 crisis is a forgotten humanitarian crisis. It is the least funded emergency situation in the world. While 350,000 refugees are found in neighbouring countries of Burundi, just 33% of financial needs expressed for the year 2018 by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees could be collected, and only 18% of the 2019 budget was received at the end of May. Despite their poor living conditions, many are the refugees who are not willing to return to Burundi as long as the crisis which began in 2015 is not over. This situation may span over a long period of time due to the uncompromising stance of the Burundian Government and its refusal to dialogue in good faith to solve the political crisis. Burundians are still leaving their country each month. Official figures indicating that 3,080 persons have fled between 1st January and 31 May 2019 3 simply reflect part of the reality, since in some countries, newly arrived Burundians are no longer registered prima facie, or their registration is practically impossible. Thus, it is difficult to estimate their exact number.

Burundians who did not flee are equally facing difficult living conditions as a result of the country’s economic recession since 2015. People are getting poorer. It has become difficult to fend for oneself and cater for their family. Based on figures agreed on by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Government, an estimated 1.7 million persons will face food insecurity in 2019. Notwithstanding, every household is forced to contribute to multiple national and local causes, particularly to fund the 2020 elections. Those who have not paid the amount required by the Imbonerakure, who are often in charge of collecting these contributions, are often ill-treated. Moreover, in some instances, their access to health centres or schools has been denied, and some have not been able to receive administrative documents, or allowed to move freely. We have taken note that in his message to the Nation on 30 June 2019, the President of the Republic has announced that since the necessary amount has almost been collected, the mandatory monthly contribution to the 2020 elections by civil servants has been suspended.

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Commission calls for the vigilance of the international community with regards to the preparation and holding of the 2020 elections. There can never be free and credible elections when only the ruling party is able to operate, and when it tends to be confused with Governmental institutions. There can never be fair elections when political intolerance is  manifest, and takes form in the violation of several fundamental rights of opposition members. There can never be transparent elections when civil liberties have been reduced to words, and independent witnesses and observers such as the press and Non-Governmental Organizations are progressively neutralized, excluded or banned. The closing of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights illustrates this situation eloquently.

The Government should immediately take strong measures in order to renew the vitality of the democratic space, which is necessary for holding credible elections, and thus foster political tolerance, uphold the security and freedom of action of every political party, and restore freedom of assembly, expression and information. If that is not the case, the 2020 elections could become the scene of a serious deterioration of the human rights situation. The history of elections in Burundi, including last year’s constitutional referendum, has always been marred by violence and serious human rights violations. Some worrying signs can already be seen in the current pre-electoral background.

The Commission is therefore deeply concerned with the current situation. We have therefore decided to examine whether there exist specific risk factors of aggravation of the human rights situation in the pre-electoral and electoral context and, to do so, we will continue to closely monitor its evolution in all its political, civil, economic and social aspects. These findings, analysis and recommendations will be presented in our final report in September. Meanwhile, we call on the international community and Members of the Council to stay alert in regards to the situation of human rights in Burundi.

Thank you for your attention.

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1/Tripartite agreement on the repatriation of Burundian refugees living in Tanzania, signed on 28 March 2018 between Burundi, Tanzania and UNHCHR.

2/Article 52.

3/ UNHCR, Regional overview of the Burundian refugee population, Date: 31 May 2019.