Political Unrest and Human Rights Repercussions in Burundi

By Sonja Dobson

    Photo from the guardian.com

    In April of 2015, the citizens of Burundi had only seen a decade pass since the end of the civil war, which began in 1994. However, the ten years devoid of major crisis came to an end when the current President, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced he would run for a third term. This sparked protest because the Burundian Constitution limits the President to two terms. His party argued that it would be Nkurunziza’s second general election so it was permissible, seeing as he first came to power through the selection of the National Assembly after the Arusha Agreement transitional government. Further, a referendum was held in May 2018 where the people voted for constitutional reforms which could keep President Nkurunziza in office until 2034. Today, due to regime brutality, hundreds of people are dead and over half a million people have been forcible displaced.

    Burundi has been mired in this political and human rights crisis for years, and many organizations have continuously reported on serious crimes being committed in the country. The United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council Commission of Inquiry on Burundi confirmed “the persistence of extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, forced disappearances, torture, sexual violence and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in Burundi since April 2015.”

    Those responsible for these acts are mainly the security forces (police and army), the intelligence services, and the ruling party’s youth league, Imbonerakure. They are targeting opponents of the government, some are real opponents and others are alleged opponents. In addition to these attacks on the public, BBC Africa Eye has reported that the secret services of the Burundian government are running “secret torture houses.” A video from December 2016 which was widely circulated on social media platforms in December 2018 displayed blood running through a gutter outside one of these “secret torture houses.” Although this information is said to come from “former government intelligence agents,” Burundi’s authorities claim it is “fake news.” BBC Africa Eye reporters spoke with a witness who recalls being at the house from the video and saw two men beheaded and another killed after trying to escape. From other witness accounts, at least 21 other torture locations exist in Burundi. Another video emerged in April 2017, this time showing a few hundred members of the Imbonerakure singing about raping political opponents or their family members. These types of actions were reported by the Human Rights Watch years prior to the video. Their documents state that in 2015 and 2016 the Imbonerakure and the police raped women whose relatives were allegedly opposed to the government, sometimes with foreign objects. Not only are bodies with suspicious causes of death being found regularly across Burundi, but also the government refuses to cooperate with inquiries into the human rights abuses occurring in Burundi.

    The only case of the Burundian government’s cooperation was a façade. They agreed to allow a UN team in to Burundi in order to investigate the human rights abuses. The team began their mission in March of 2018, but the very next month their visas were cancelled. The reasoning behind this, given by the Burundian Ambassador Renovat Tabu, was that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein had changed the mission. This was a shock to the migration services in Burundi, who therefore declined to extend the visas of the team members. As well, he states that “Burundi regrets…the way in which events have been twisted in order to imply there has not been full cooperation.”

    As citizens of Burundi are facing a calamitous reality where their human rights and lives are being repressed and their lives are threatened, the government has also suspended international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in the country. After calling a UN report on the human rights abuses in Burundi a “bunch of lies” in September 2018, the government suspended 130 international NGOs for three months. This was to allow NGOs to comply with new laws which came into effect on December 31, 2018. These laws include meeting a 60% Hutu and 40% Tutsi quota for their staff, keeping their accounts at the central bank in foreign currencies and other strict financial rules. The deadline to make these changes was January 1, 2019. It has recently been reported that the National Security Council of Burundi has suspended 30 international NGOs for failing to follow the new laws. Besides those who have been suspended, other NGOs are leaving Burundi due to the difficulty of abiding by the new laws. An NGO which has been active in the country for 26 years, Handicap International, has left due to their indignation at keeping track of the ethnicities of their staff. The exit of the 30 NGOs which were suspended alone is estimated to take away almost $300 million in funding. It has become harder for the people of Burundi to seek help for the human rights abuses being committed against them.

    Can we hope for better days in Burundi soon? Or will the country collapse into a renewed conflict? Some believe that the trajectory Burundi is on will lead to genocide. This theory is not unsubstantiated, with President Nkurunziza being “implicated in inciting the hatred and violence” as well as the lack of accountability for those committing horrendous acts of violence. The Human Rights Watch is calling for the government to prevent the abuses by their own people, but that is unlikely to happen when the president himself is encouraging it. Burundi is not equipped for a National Preventive Mechanism against torture, as specified in the UN Convention Against Torture, and enforced disappearances cases remain unsolved. The Human Rights Watch also requests that the European Union, United States and UN Security Council act through targeted sanctions and encourages African leaders to speak out against Nkurunziza. Unfortunately, the world has paid little attention to Burundi as they suffered through a civil war not too long ago. There is no guarantee something will be done now, but action is necessary to avoid further human rights abuses.

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