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Remarks by Ivan Šimonović, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, at the Human Rights Council interactive dialogue on Burundi, Geneva, 22 March 2016

Mr. President,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Resolution 30/27 of 2 October 2015 invited the High Commissioner to provide an update on the implementation of that resolution. In view of the deteriorating situation, the Council held a special session on 17 December 2015, and through resolution S-24/1 decided to enhance the interactive dialogue to hear updates also from other stakeholders.

I recently returned from Burundi where I, in my own capacity, as well as with the Secretary-General, met with high-level Burundian Government officials, opposition representatives and the civil society.

The situation in Burundi is of great concern. Continued political tensions in the country threaten to escalate into a spiral of violence. The humanitarian, economic and social toll on the population is equally worrisome.

Since April 2015 when the crisis began, and as of 21 March, at least 474 people have been killed, and there are 36 cases of alleged enforced disappearances. Altogether, 4951 persons have been detained in connection with the crisis. 3117 of them have been released, often after intervention by our office, while 1834 remain detained. We have also received reports of 496 cases of torture and ill-treatment.

After a court hearing on their case, 41 detainees who were on the list of 125 political detainees suggested by my Office for immediate release were provisionally freed last week. We see this as an indication that some effort is being made to re-establish the rule of law. I strongly urge the Government to release all others included in our list, as well as all others detained for political reasons only.

Nine days ago, 16 leading members of the FNL opposition party were arrested in Kirundo province by police, assisted by “Imbonerakure” militia members associated with the ruling party. On 9 March, Hugo Haramategeko, one of the few national opposition figures to remain in the country, was also arrested. Civil society continues to operate within an extremely limited space, with activists suffering judicial harassment, arrests and torture, as well as violence and intimidation by agents of the State or militia associated with the Government.

We take note of the recently released report of the Commission of Inquiry set up by the Ministry of Justice and led by the Prosecutor-General to investigate allegations of extrajudicial killings during the events of 11 December 2015. However, we urge further and much more credible investigations into the multiple alleged mass graves in the country. The offer by the UN Human Rights Office in Burundi to provide forensic experts is still valid.

In addition to the number of human rights violations allegedly committed by the military, the police, the intelligence services and the Imbonerakure militia, the emergence of two armed groups opposed to the Government since December 2015, is adding to the violence and counter-violence. The attacks on 11 and 12 December 2015 by armed rebels against three military camps in the Bujumbura region illustrate the cycle of violence which Burundi is caught up in. According to credible reports, the operations by security forces in certain neighbourhoods of the capital city following the attacks led to extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and sexual and gender-based violence against civilians.

Grenade attacks have also become a tragic feature of everyday life, particularly in Bujumbura. Grenades are frequently thrown indiscriminately at police and military, or simply at crowds in market places, bus stations or side-streets. Last month, MSF treated over 115 people wounded by grenade shrapnel within four days alone.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

We welcome the Government’s agreement for a first mission by the team of independent existing experts mandated by the Human Rights Council to carry out investigations in Burundi from 1 to 8 March, and thus enabling Mr. Christof Heyns to provide the oral update during today’s interactive dialogue. We count on continuing cooperation throughout their mandate, including with support staff which we intend to deploy to Burundi from April to 31 July, to conduct in-depth investigations in Burundi and draft the report to be presented at the 33rd session of the Human Rights Council. We urge the government of Burundi to authorize their visit and to fully cooperate with them.

We also welcome the Government’s readiness to deploy additional AU human rights monitors. If the number increases up to 100 in addition to the current support provided by the Human Rights Office, a more comprehensive logistical support package will be needed.

We also welcome the decision by the General Prosecutor of the Republic to withdraw some media bans. Indeed, two radio stations, Radio Isanganiro and Radio Rema were authorized to reopen, although the directors had to sign letters of commitment to providing balanced and objective information. However there continues to be very limited space within which journalists can continue to work freely, as only one of the independent media suspended is actually allowed to restart operating and under strict conditions. Civil society also continues to suffer heavy restrictions. A total of 10 national NGOs and members of civil society have had to temporarily suspend their activities until completion of a judicial inquiry process. Members of civil society have been the targets of arrests and intimidation by the Government, and many have fled to neighbouring countries for their safety.

I am particularly concerned about the emblematic case of Marie Claudette Kwizera, accountant of the influential NGO, Ligue Iteka, who was reported to have been taken away on 10 December 2015 by unidentified perpetrators, and whose whereabouts continue to be unknown. The Government is urged to take all measures to investigate her case, as well as all other cases of enforced disappearances.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The human rights violations occurring in Burundi not only affect the future of the country’s population, but also the wider Great Lakes region. As of 4 March, UNHCR reported that a total of 250,000 Burundian refugees and asylum-seekers have arrived in the neighbouring countries since the crisis erupted in April 2015. Not only has the constant increase of refugees created a major humanitarian problem, but there is general concern that the exodus may contribute to instability in a politically and socially-fragile region.

Whilst much of the focus on Burundi in recent months has centred on civil and political rights, it is important not to side-line the equally important economic and social rights of the Burundian population.

Already in 2014, Burundi was rated the world’s leading nation affected by hunger, according to the Global Hunger Index. With the detrimental effect of the current political crisis on the Burundian economy, malnutrition is a major humanitarian concern, with 730,000 people considered seriously malnourished. According to UNICEF, the number of children admitted for severe acute malnutrition in Bujumbura doubled between October and December 2015.

The announcement by the Government of an austerity budget for 2016, which forecasts significant cuts to the health, education and social affairs sector budgets, will translate into increasing difficulties in providing basic social services.

On 15 March, Burundi’s main donor, the EU, announced that it had suspended direct financial support to the Burundian administration, including budget support, but is fully maintaining both its financial support to the population and its humanitarian assistance. Other donors have also cut foreign aid, which amounted to almost half of Burundi’s annual revenue before the crisis erupted in April 2015.

A humanitarian response plan, requesting US $62.3 million to assist 442,000 people out of the 1.1 million people in need, was presented to donors on 8 March 2016 in Nairobi, with a view to launching the humanitarian appeal at the end of March. UNHCR requested US $175.1 million for the Burundi humanitarian response in 2016, and has to date received just US $4.7 million, or about 3 per cent.

On the other hand, international donors appeared to be ready to re-engage if they see clear signals towards the resolution of the current crises and a more conducive environment being established.

A climate for inclusive dialogue is urgently required to eradicate the polarisation and fragmentation of Burundian society, resulting from the increasing poverty and ongoing political crisis. To create such a climate, it is necessary to ensure freedom of expression, and to allow media, civil society and opposition to operate freely.

There must be an end to disappearances, arbitrary arrests, extra-judicial killings and torture, and clear and public moves to hold to account perpetrators – including agents of the State and members of armed groups.

Thank you very much.