46TH Session of the Human Rights Council, 11 March 2021
By: Diletta Deli / GICJ
On 11 March, Mr. Doudou Diène, Chairperson, Ms. Françoise Hampson and Ms. Lucy Asuagbor, members of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) on Burundi, established under HRC resolution 33/24, held an interactive dialogue with the HRC presenting their update on the human rights situation in the country.
Mr. Doudou Diène, representing the COI, opened the discussion by thanking the Council for extending the mandate of the Commission and by highlighting the very challenging conditions in which the investigations were conducted, in particular the COVID-19 pandemic and the UN liquidity crisis. He then stressed that some developments have taken place since the presentation of the previous report, including the decision of the Security Council to withdraw Burundi from its agenda due to the improved security situation. Mr. Diéne commended the President Ndayishimiye, noting that since he has been in office some progresses have been reported, particularly in relation to impunity and socio-economic development. This being said, he also stressed that there is still important work to be done to advance national reconciliation, respect fundamental freedoms, preserve democratic space, and promote rule of law.
Mr. Diène welcomed the efforts of the Burundian Government to hold the Imbonerakure accountable for their crimes, as shown by recent arrests and convictions, describing this as an encouraging sign in the fight against impunity. However, he also highlighted that serious security accidents have been documented over the past few months, including cases of attacks on civilians by unidentified armed groups. This resulted in an increase in the hunt for rebels, generally based on ethnic and/or political profiling, targeting persons suspected of belonging to or supporting the armed opposition groups responsible for the attacks. As a consequence, since September 2020, Ex-Fabs soldiers (members of the former Burundian Armed Forces) and members of their families, often of Tutsi origin, as well as members of opposition parties, mainly from the Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL), became victims of extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary detentions often accompanied by acts of torture. Agents of the National Intelligence Service (SNR), sometimes backed by the Imbonerakure, have been identified as the main perpetrators of these violations but continue to operate unchallenged. On this, the COI called on the government to recognize the seriousness of the situation and act to rectify it. Similarly, the Commission also asked the government to recognize and adequately investigate all the human rights violations committed since 2015, because only by doing so the Burundian society will be able to move forward toward peace and reconciliation.
Further, Mr. Diène welcomed the release in December 2020 of four IWACU journalists and encouraged the Burundian authorities to continue working on guaranteeing freedom of opinion and freedom of the press. Along the same lines, he appreciated President Ndayishimiye’s appeal to the congress to not consider political opponents enemies, yet he reminded the Council that several CNL members have been arbitrarily arrested and detained over the course of 2020. In this regard, Mr. Diène reiterated that, while the presidential pardon granted on 5 March 2021 to more than 5,000 prisoners is a positive development, it is unfortunate that human rights defenders and political opponents, generally convicted of "undermining the internal security of the State", are excluded.
Finally, Mr. Diène explained that cooperation with the United Nations remains random and partial, since the authorities seem open to collaborate in the areas of economic development and humanitarian assistance but remain opposed to any cooperation at the political level and in the field of human rights. Indeed, no progress has been made on the reopening of the country office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which was unilaterally closed by the government on 28 February 2019. On this, the COI urged the Burundian authorities to fully resume cooperation with international mechanisms, including human rights expert bodies, and encouraged the international community to do everything possible to constructively help Burundi to assume its responsibilities in terms of human rights, including by maintaining impartial vigilance on the country.
Statement by the Country Concerned
The representative of Burundi, Mr. Rénovat Tabu, rejected the mandate of the COI, defining it a mechanism with a specific geopolitical agenda and a strongly politicized approach, which continues to refuse to see the results achieved by the country. He then stressed the progresses made by the Burundian Government at the national level in relation to public health, justice and impunity, poverty and unemployment, social protection and social cohesion. At the diplomatic level, Mr. Tabu reiterated Burundi’s commitment to cooperate with bilateral and multilateral partners, welcoming the decision of the Security Council to remove the country from its agenda. Finally, he called on the international community to maintain positive and constructive engagement, helping Burundi to move towards peace, stability and development.
The Position of Member States
The European Union, together with the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Ireland and Norway (on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries) commended the COI for its rigorous work and urged the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure the necessary resources to fulfill its mandate, encouraging the Burundian Government to resume collaboration with international human rights bodies. The representatives welcomed the efforts of Burundi to engage with the international community and the UN, taking note of the progresses made by the country in particular in relation to impunity, national reconciliation and the overall security situation. Further, they showed appreciation for the measures taken by the government to guarantee freedom of the press and to strengthen the role of the media in society, including the recent release of the four IWACU journalists. However, the representatives expressed concerns over the continuous violations reported against political opponents and human rights defenders, as well as the restrictions on fundamental freedoms and democratic space faced by the Burundian population. They called on the government to promptly address all instances of arbitrary detentions, torture, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings and SGBV by conducting tough investigations and bringing perpetrators to justice, in order to establish a climate of trust and stability.
The Russian Federation, echoed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, China, Venezuela, Cuba, Belarus, Iran, Sri Lanka, and Egypt commended the Burundian Government for the efforts made toward national stability, domestic reconciliation and socio-economic development, welcoming the decision of the Security Council to remove the country from its agenda. Moreover, the representatives praised the smooth conduct of the elections in 2020 and called on the international community to respect Burundi’s sovereignty without interfering in internal matters, reminding that human rights issues are a responsibility of the national authorities. They reiterated their strong opposition to the imposition of the COI, defining this an unacceptable and counterproductive politicized approach, stressing the need to support Burundi in the form of technical assistance and capacity building at the request of the government.
Sudan, South Sudan, Tanzania and Cameroon commended the progress made by Burundi with regards to its socio-economic and human rights situation, as well as the democratic transition which led successfully to the formation of the new government, defining these essential factors for the achievement of peace and stability. The representatives called on the international community to recognize the efforts made by the Burundian authorities to allow a room for the positive democratic change that is taking place in the country to be fully realized. Additionally, Tanzania reiterated its call to UNHCR and the international community at large to continue supporting the voluntary repatriation of Burundian refugees, helping with their reintegration process in Burundi.
The Contributions of Non-Governmental Organizations
Several Non-Governmental Organizations participated in the discussion and delivered statements, including: Centre pour les Droits Civils et Politiques (CCPR); East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project; International Service for Human Rights; Rencontre Africaine pour la Defense des Droits de l’Homme; CIVICUS; Advocates for Human Rights; and Amnesty International.
The NGOs commended the work of the Commission and reiterated their support to the mandate, regretting Burundi’s lack of cooperation with international human rights bodies. They expressed serious concern over the numerous violations documented in the country that have continued with near total impunity, and in particular over the cases of torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention faced by political opponents, human rights defenders, and journalists. Moreover, the speakers condemned the proliferation of ethnic hate speech, the ethnic census of civil servants and the increasing ethnic discrimination observed in the appointment of officials of state services. The NGOs called on the HRC to urge the newly elected government to take concrete actions to end the widespread abuses, and the international community to ensure the continuation of an independent mechanism to investigate, identify perpetrators of, and regularly report on human rights violations in Burundi.
In the final remarks, Ms. Françoise Hampson, Member of the Commission, acknowledged the progresses recently made by Burundi, stressing however the need of meaningful change in order to properly address the human rights situation in the country, which remains concerning. On this, she encouraged President Ndayishimiye to work on structural reforms and, in particular, to reopen the democratic space and to strengthen the judiciary system, guaranteeing its full independence. Further, Ms. Hampson emphasized the importance of ensuring better protection to witnesses and victims as well as of ending arbitrary arrests and abusive pre-trial detentions. She regretted the lack of improvement in the attitude of the Burundian Government with regards to cooperation with international human rights mechanisms, reiterating the COI’s willingness to engage with the local authorities and to establish a constructive dialogue. Finally, Ms. Hampson called on the international community to encourage Burundi to assume responsibility for the human rights violations reported in the country and to make the required structural changes.
Mr. Doudou Diène, Chairperson of the COI, noted that the possibility of real change following the appointment of President Ndayishimiye exists, but that the international community must remain vigilant and continue promoting and protecting human rights in Burundi. He expressed concern over the persistent culture of violence in the country, urging the government to respect democracy and basic freedoms. Finally, Mr. Diène reiterated the COI’s commitment, showing some disappointment for the change of position manifested by almost half of the Council toward Burundi, as the situation in the country remains worrisome.
The Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice acknowledges the important work of the COI and welcomes its update, noting the continued refusal of Burundi to collaborate with international human rights bodies. GICJ commends the Burundian Government for the progresses achieved so far, especially with the prosecution of crimes committed by the Imbonerakure, yet regrets to hear that, despite the numerous appeals of this Council, human rights violations in the country continue to be widespread and to go unpunished. In particular, GICJ echoes the other NGOs in their concern over the cases of torture, enforced disappearances and arbitrary detention faced by political opponents, human rights defenders, and journalists. We urge the government of Burundi to protect freedom of expression and assembly and to uphold its obligations and to resume cooperation with international mechanisms. Burundian authorities must take responsibility for current state of abuses in the country and take proactive steps towards improving the human rights situation. GICJ supports the COI’s appeal to the elected government to reform the judicial system, combating impunity and corruption while ensuring victims the justice they deserve, and strongly encourages the international community to assist with this matter.
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