New York, 23 October 2019
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Pursuant to the Human Rights Council’s request as set forth in Resolution 39/14 of 28 September 2018, we have the privilege to submit to you our findings following the conclusion of the third term of our mandate. We apologize for the absence of the third Commissioner, Ms. Lucy Asuagbor, who was unable to attend today for professional reasons.
We are pleased to inform you that following the presentation of our report to the Human Rights Council on 17 September 2019, the Council decided to renew our mandate for another year (resolution 42/26, adopted on 27 September 2019). In so doing, the Council has shown that it is highly preoccupied with the current situation in Burundi. In-depth investigation of human rights violations in the country remains a necessary task that other international human rights mechanisms such as the Universal Periodic Review are unable to accomplish.
Our report shows that the persistence of human rights violations in Burundi is the result of the authorities' actions. The authorities, instead of fulfilling their obligation to put an end to the ongoing violations, to prosecute the perpetrators and to grant reparation to the victims, refuse to acknowledge the reality and prefer to denounce any mention of these violations, repeating unfounded accusations of political manipulation and international conspiracy against Burundi. However, giving victims a voice is not a political process, and denouncing the persistence of violations does not constitute an attack on national sovereignty.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
The investigations undertaken during the three years of our Commission’s work enabled us to collect more than 1 200 statements from victims, witnesses, including perpetrators of human rights violations who either sought refuge, mainly in neighbouring countries to Burundi, or who are still residing in the country, including 300 since September 2018. We wish to convey our gratitude to the Governments of the countries that allowed us to carry out missions on their territory and to the persons who provided us with priceless information despite the risk of reprisal.
Since May 2018, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, including enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment as well as sexual violence, have continued to be perpetrated in Burundi. These violations retained a political dimension and have become increasingly embedded in the preparation of the 2020 elections, namely the elections of the President of the Republic, parliamentarians, senators, as well as communal and colline councillors.
The violations mainly targeted political opponents and therefore members and sympathisers – real or presumed - of opposition parties. However, the definition of who is a political opponent has become extremely broad. Anyone who has not demonstrated support for the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, or the President of the Republic, including refusing to join the party or the Imbonerakure youth league, or to provide financial contribution for the party or the preparation of elections, was targeted, as well as family members, especially women. These violations were mainly committed in rural and remote areas, especially during night attacks on households in which several family members were subjected to violence, in particular gang rapes. Families with the most modest means and with no particular political activity have been affected.
Journalists and human rights defenders also continued to be arbitrarily arrested and detained, but also intimidated, harassed or subjected to ill-treatment to prevent them from carrying out their legitimate activities.
Burundians who were repatriated from Tanzania under the voluntary return program faced widespread hostility and suspicion, particularly from the Imbonerakure and local administrative officials who threatened and intimidated them. Repatriated persons were the victims of serious violations and felt compelled to flee again.
Most of these documented violations were committed by the Imbonerakure, who are omnipresent at zone and colline level, and act more and more in isolation or in cooperation with the local administrative officials, agents of the police and the National Intelligence Service (SNR). The police and SNR agents also continued to be the main identified perpetrators of violations among state agents.
We consider that there are still reasonable grounds to believe that some of these violations constitute crimes against humanity as defined by the Rome Statute. We note that under the new 2018 Constitution, the SNR is officially no longer a defence and security force under the authority of the Government and the civilian oversight of parliament. It now falls solely under the direct authority and control of the President of the Republic, who, therefore, could be held criminally accountable for the actions of SNR agents.
Yesterday we were informed of particularly worrisome developments in north-western Burundi which allegedly involved loss of life and bodily injury during armed clashes. In particular, journalists from the Iwacu Independent Press Group were arrested while carrying out their functions and detained. As we investigate the matter, we urge the Burundian authorities and other parties to respect human rights.
One of the most striking developments since our last report is the aggravation of restrictions on civil liberties, which is all the more worrisome as the country is preparing for elections.
Independent media that were still in Burundi, including RFI, the BBC and Voice of America, have been warned or had their licenses revoked or suspended for broadcasting information deemed "unbalanced". This in fact refers to any statements that contradict the official propaganda whereby peace and security prevail in the country.
The activities of national and foreign NGOs are tightly monitored and those of opposition parties are hindered, in flagrant violation of the right to freedom of association and freedom of peaceful assembly.
Burundian authorities are therefore seeking to suppress any criticism, as evidenced by media censorship, increased surveillance of independent civil society organizations, the closing of the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as the recent threats against the Catholic Church. Our latest report clearly shows that the relative calm prevailing in Burundi is based first and foremost on fear.
Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in the world and the adverse consequences of the 2015 political crisis on the socio-economic environment of the country and the living conditions of Burundians have persisted. We recall that based on the 2018 human development index, the United Nations Programme for Development ranked Burundi 185th out of 189 countries. Nevertheless, various contributions, mainly to organize the elections, continued to be collected, usually by force, with the consequence of even greater impoverishment.
Violations of economic and social rights have continued to be documented. They are mainly violations of the rights to food, clothing and shelter, as well as the rights to work and education, and are often based on political discrimination. According to the World Health Organization, malaria has afflicted half of the Burundian population since December 2018. However, in refusing to declare an epidemic, the Government has decided to forego the increased support that would have been forthcoming from the international community. Instead, shortages of medicine are regularly reported.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
This year, in line with the prevention and early warning principles repeatedly stressed within the United Nations system, we analysed the existence of risk factors indicating a possible deterioration of the human rights situation. This approach seemed necessary on the eve of five different elections due to take place in 2020; which gives rise, as we all know, to tensions. In fact, the Human Rights Council has also been entrusted with the mission to « prevent human rights violations and respond promptly to human rights emergencies ».
To identify the existing risk factors, our Commission then used the Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes elaborated in 2014 by the UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, and the objective indicators relative to the eight common risk factors.
We recall that the situation in Burundi is characterized by the persistence of the 2015 crisis, as demonstrated in particular by economic instability; the presence of around 325,000 Burundian refugees in neighbouring countries; overall impunity; and the lack of prospects for a political solution to the crisis. The 2020 electoral process is characterized by the accelerated shrinking of the democratic space. The multiparty system is illusory and the climate is of political intolerance. The political space has been sealed by the ruling party and its youth wing “the Imbonerakure”, who tend to be both associated and confused with Government institutions as they seek to convert and recruit to their ranks the population as a whole. There is a personalization of the powers of the Head of State, which signals the weakness of the State institutions. The manipulation of the country’s history for political purposes, in the absence of a genuine reconciliation and transitional justice process for past atrocity crimes, risks solidifying past grievances. The presence of Burundian armed opposition groups in neighbouring countries, regional tensions and uncertainties about the position of Burundian defense and security forces in the electoral context are also significant factors that may impact the situation.
These elements as well as significant developments since 2015 lead to the conclusion that the eight common risk factors for atrocity crimes are present, namely:
1. An unstable political, economic and security environment;
2. An overall climate of impunity for recent and past serious human rights violations;
3. Weakness of state structures that could prevent or halt possible violations, in particular the justice system;
4. The existence of reasons for and the intent to resort to violence, specifically the determination of the CNDD-FDD party to stay in power, including the use of past grievances and cases of impunity;
5. The capacity of different stakeholders to resort to violence and commit violations;
6. The absence of mitigating factors such as strong, organized and representative domestic civil society as well as free, diverse and independent national media;
7. Enabling circumstances and an environment conducive to violence and human rights violations, including the exploitation for political purposes of identity, past events or reasons to engage in violence;
8. The existence of triggering factors, in particular the holding of the 2020 elections.
The risks are real and serious. However, the dangers that they alert us to are by no means inevitable. The purpose of our early warning approach is precisely to prevent that.
In that connection, I would like to close my statement with two obvious but also forward-looking points.
First, I and my fellow Commissioners would like to stress that it is within the power of the Government to change Burundi’s current trajectory to one more peaceful and respectful of human rights. It could take measures to mitigate the risks we presented – measures that could only be undertaken by a sovereign State. In our view, the most urgent measure would be to agree to, and participate genuinely in, an inclusive inter-Burundian dialogue, based on respect of human rights. From there, it should proceed to implement the recommendations contained in our reports, which are more relevant today than ever. Recent actions taken to bring some members of the Imbonerakure to justice are relevant in this regard, which we are following with great interest.
Second, should this path be chosen, we wish to underscore that there is considerable international goodwill to help the Government to pursue that path. To benefit from it, the Government would need to open the country for assistance, be it for development or humanitarian purposes, or for the promotion and protection of human rights. It falls on the Government not to lose these opportunities, for the benefit of the Burundian people.
Thus, through our risk factor analysis, we aimed to provide Burundi and the international community with a concrete tool by which the current dangerous trajectory can be changed. In undertaking it, we were mindful of the complexity of the situation and the fact that no one has a greater interest in ensuring a stable and peaceful Burundi than the Burundian people themselves. They just need the freedom to do that.
Thank you for your attention.
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