Transitional justice in Burundi

Burundi’s two main ethnic groups, the Tutsis and Hutus have been affected by conflict and bloodshed for almost three decades. The mayhem was finally halted when regional leaders mediated talks between more than 17 warring groups, who subsequently signed a peace agreement, in the northern Tanzanian town of Arusha in 2000.

Views of the Burundian people are being collected to be reflected in the establishment of transitional justice systems in the country - © OHCHR Photo/Gabriel VockelCentral to the Arusha agreement was the establishment of three transitional justice mechanisms: an international commission of judicial inquiry, a national truth and reconciliation commission, and an international criminal tribunal. The agreement also stipulated that national consultations be held, before any decisions were taken on what form of justice systems should be adopted.

Eight years on, the situation in Burundi is stable enough to allow further development of these systems. But, first, the Government with the assistance of the United Nations has embarked on national consultations to ensure the views of the Burundi people are taken into account. So far consultations have been carried out in 15 of the country’s 17 provinces.

FESTUS Ntanyungu, the chairperson of a tripartite committee overseeing national consultations says “We will look at the origin of conflict in Burundi, the exclusion and question of genocide.”

“We have to know,” Ntanyungu says, “what exactly happened in Burundi, in order to know if there was genocide or other crimes against humanity, in order for us to know the truth on everything that happened. “For this, we need to implement the mechanisms of transitional justice.”

Remy Nahimana, a former school teacher says he witnessed many ethnic-related murders over the years. As an older generation Burundian, he supports the Government’s proposal for a truth and reconciliation commission as an important process to address the past wrongs.

“When future generations read what comes out of these consultations Nahimana says that will be a way to state the bad things that happened, the slump we experienced, the conflicts, the killing, all the violence we experienced. We shall never do that again.”

It is best to build a society that is reconciled with itself, he says, because it leaves less room for violence.

The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights is the lead agency in the United Nations in the field of transitional justice. It assists with the development of standards and best practices and offers guidance in the design, as well as implementation, of transitional justice mechanisms and advocates for the inclusion of human rights and transitional justice principles in peace agreements. 

According to Jean Luc Marx, who heads the UN Human Rights office in Burundi, “There cannot be peace without reconciliation and there cannot be reconciliation without justice - especially for serious crimes such as genocide, war crimes and so on.”

He puts emphasis on the need for reconciliation. “It is very important for the people to see that all the horrible cases that happened here, the events that have taken place for many years - that you have justice and reconciliation. It is also important for the people to talk about what has happened and to have the victims recognised as such.”

Gabriel Muhiniaka, a retiree, says the deep-seated hatred and intolerance between the Hutus and Tutsis led to his parents being killed in the 1970’s. “My parents were killed my mother, father and uncle were killed during the tribal conflict between Hutus and Tutsis. They were killed because they were Tutsis. Long ago when you met someone who was not of your tribe you would be afraid. Now the proposed arrangement will be of great benefit. It will help stop conflict.”

The Convention on prevention and punishment of the crime of Genocide is commemorated annually on 9th December.

Unlike in neighbouring Rwanda, genocide has not been established. However, the proposed international tribunal is expected to determine whether any aspects of the conflict in Burundi could amount to genocide.

However it is characterised, it is clear that Burundians have suffered immensely in the conflict and it remains to be seen how the proposed justice systems will address these past wrongs.

9 December 2009

View video on transitional justice in Burundi: