The current situation in Burundi deserves our fullest attention. Journalists, human rights defenders, and common citizens have been under attack for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and political participation. Radio stations and other media outlets have been selectively, but deliberately targeted for attacks. The police have failed to live up to their role as guardians of public security in a non-partisan manner. Instead, they have allowed themselves to be instrumentalized for political purposes. While the armed forces have up to now largely served as a buffer between protestors and the police, divisions within the armed forces are being sown. The enormously large number of Burundians fleeing their country speaks volumes of people’s perceptions of the security situation in the country. The number of people being killed confirms that those perceptions are not unjustified. Not surprisingly, there is growing consensus that free and fair elections cannot be conducted in such a hostile environment.
Burundi, which has historically faced great challenges in terms of social integration and in developing functioning, effective, and independent institutions, had made great strides in addressing a difficult history of ethnic divisions. Indeed, the Arusha Agreement of 2000 –to which other countries in the region contributed so much—and the 2005 Constitution, put in place an extraordinarily ambitious power-sharing arrangement.
Many close observers argued that this had helped transform dynamics of political contestation in the country, de-emphasizing the significance of ethnic identity.
Today, we see an increasing risk of ‘ethnic conflict entrepreneurship.’ What without exaggeration can be called hate speech has made its appearance in the political campaign. Violence exercised by youth militias, which is at a minimum condoned, and in some cases openly encouraged by the governing party is deeply alarming. Information also indicates that sectors of the State security forces are arming those militias, which has been a long-standing problem. To disarm these groups is of utmost importance in this situation, as has recently been expressed also be the East African Community.
Because in circumstances of potential conflict mistrust is rife, the international community has to play a key role in ensuring independent and impartial monitoring and reporting. Enhanced international presence with fully fledged monitoring capacities on the ground is urgently needed. In the same vein, continued, unannounced and confidential access to any detainee is paramount. The due process guarantees of detainees must be meticulously respected.
Monitoring of the current situation must at the same time include efforts to individualize responsibilities for the instigation and the perpetration of violence. The individualization of responsibility, including criminal responsibility, will help to blunt efforts to ignite inter-group conflict. The gains that have been made by Burundians on inter-group relationships need to be protected. Accountability needs to be part of any prevention strategy in order to avoid the recurrence of mass violations. Current discussions and dialogues at the regional and international levels have been grossly silent on this front.
My official visit to Burundi coincided with the departure of BNUB. At the farewell party organized by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Kavakure (recently dismissed), Burundi claimed for itself the status of a ‘normal developing country.’ In my remarks at the end of the visit I took the opportunity to offer a reminder both to Burundi and to its partners that human rights lie at the core of development, both conceptually and practically. I reiterate that message today against the background of events that call for urgent attention. But those events should not be taken to be merely those that followed April 25, when President Nkuruziza’s candidacy was announced.
Any political settlement that is found in the short or mid-term needs to ensure that it addresses long-standing, systemic failures. These pertain to 1) creating real opportunities to uncover the truth of past massive violations and abuses, facilitated by an independent entity; 2) making sure that the cycle of impunity is broken by at the minimum, reasserting the limits on the scope of application of the temporary immunities for criminal individual responsibility which originated in a very special situation shortly after the end of the civil war, but which have become, in effect, a limitless amnesty; 3) refraining from misusing any truth-telling entity to further delay discussions about responsibility for international crimes; 4) offering immediate victims assistance programmes to those who are especially vulnerable, and, eventually, a comprehensive reparations scheme, including education and health benefits; and 5) working towards a State structure and a society that are apt to prevent future mass violations. Here, the reform of the security sector needs to take into account justice considerations, which implies that individuals with questionable human rights records must be screened and that the different branches must have an effective civilian oversight. The judiciary, which is at all level dependent on the executive branch, must be restructured. Education at all levels must allow for a critical dialogue in relation to the past.
Only a policy that reflects serious efforts to redress past massive violations would be a sincere sign of the authorities’ commitment to break with the “tradition of impunity.” This, in turn, would enable domestic institutions and mechanisms to effectively protect human rights in the present. The need to redress past massive violations does not stem from backward looking considerations. Rather, the unredressed past is ensnaring the present and compromising the future.
Both Burundi and its international partners have a long way to go.