The 48th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council
13 September - 8 October 2021
ITEM 4 – The situation of Human Rights in Burundi
Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi
23 and 24 September
By: Amie Sillito/GICJ
The 18th and 19th meeting of the 48th Regular Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council examined the report of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, focusing on the extent of human rights violations and abuses committed since June 2020. The Commission identified developments made in areas such as the fight against corruption, impunity, the rule of law and the upholding of fundamental human rights. The report also provided recommendations to the Burundi government and the UN Council to build upon improvements seen in the country.
Little progress was identified in the report regarding the promotion and protection of human rights despite the governments promises to improve the situation in Burundi. The report highlighted the rise in the number of human rights violations including persons subjected to torture, enforced disappearances and imprisonment since the beginning of 2021.
Numerous delegations commended the Commission’s report and its work in Burundi whilst a handful of delegations denounced the report and claimed the UN Council was interfering in the domestic politics of Burundi. All NGOs present recommended that the Council continue its mandate on Burundi and condemned the Burundi government’s lack of action regarding the numerous violations. The government was also encouraged to uphold judicial mechanisms to ensure perpetrators of human rights abuses are held accountable and to secure justice for all victims. The Commission concluded the meeting by urging the Council to continue its mandate and for the international community to maintain its oversight over Burundi.
The Commission of Inquiry on Burundi was established by Human Rights Council resolution 33/24, adopted on 30 September 2016. It was created for the purpose of conducting a thorough investigation into human rights violations and abuses committed in Burundi since April 2015. The Commission was also responsible for determining whether any human rights violations and abuse constituted international crimes and identifying the alleged perpetrators of these crimes. Their final task was to make recommendations to hold perpetrators accountable and prevent impunity.
The Commission’s mandate has been renewed four times, each for a period of one year. In accordance with provisions in Council resolution 45/19, the Commission submitted the current report on 6 October 2020 and provided an oral presentation at the Council’s forty-sixth session in March 2021.
The Commission is perceived as the only independent international mechanism capable of conducting impartial investigations into human rights violations committed recently in Burundi and providing in-depth analysis of the human rights situation in the country. In the recent report, the commission faced challenges such as the liquidity crisis at the United Nations, ensuing staff reductions and the recruitment freeze which delayed the establishment of its secretariat. These issues, combined with travel restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, impacted the conduct of investigations in the field, particularly economic underpinnings of the state as well as gender-based and sexual violence.
The current report examines human rights violations and abuses committed since the inauguration of President Evariste Ndayishimiye on 18 June 2020 and identifies developments in areas such as human rights, the fight against impunity, corruption, and the rule of law.
Report of the Commission of Inquiry
Report A/HRC/48/68 on the situation of human rights in Burundi.
Since the appointment of President Ndayishimiye, Burundi’s democratic platform has remained highly restricted and the state’s tolerance for criticism remains limited, however international relations between Burundi and the international community have advanced. Nevertheless, only a few isolated gestures have occurred in the domain of human rights and the country lacks structural reform to improve the situation. Grave human rights violations continue to be committed by State officials and members of the Imbonerakure with the acquiescence of the authorities. The rule of law is continually eroded with worsening human rights and complicit state officials that show little sign of amelioration.
Human rights violations still persist, however they occur on a smaller scale than seen during election periods. The democratic arena remains closed for discussion and authorities maintain tight control over the media and civil society despite isolated symbolic gestures of openness made by the President. The report shows that documented violations were targeted at members of opposition political parties and individuals suspected of being involved in armed attacks or collaborating with armed groups. The main perpetrators of executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, detention, and torture in connection with armed attacks have been identified as agents of the National Intelligence Service, placed under the direct responsibility of President Ndayishimiye. These agents continue to act with impunity, alongside police officers of the Rapid Mobile Intervention Group and members of the Imbonerakure involved in some of the cases of execution, arrest, and torture.
The Commission found that since the beginning of August 2020, security incidents have regularly been reported in Burundi, including exchanges of gunfire between members of the security forces, and armed groups. The report highlighted that the right to life has been under significant threat in Burundi. Men suspected of assisting armed groups involved in security incidents were executed by police or agents of the National Intelligence Service. Members of the Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL), have also been victims of enforced disappearance. Notably, members of civil society have been arbitrarily arrested and detained following security incidents on the sole basis of their political affiliation or ethnic background and accused of collaborating with or supporting armed groups.
Nevertheless, advances have been made since President Ndayishimiye’s accession to power concerning the media. The report emphasised that restrictions have been loosened however these measures do not guarantee freedom of information and expression. Sanctions against media broadcasters have been lifted and have been able to resume broadcasting. However, journalists are still vilified for criticising government or exposing poor governance structures. The report concluded that any advancements made regarding the media are ad hoc symbolic gestures opposed to fundamental changes.
Regarding the issue of nationals returning to Burundi, 164,990 refugees have been repatriated under the tripartite voluntary repatriation programme including 42,299 since January 2021. Refugees primarily returned from Tanzania, Rwanda and have been reported to have been subjected to hostility and mistreatment upon return. It is estimated that 70% of returnees are in serious humanitarian need as the country is unable to absorb refugees at such a capacity. Returnees face inter alia, a lack of livelihoods, shelter and land and limited access to schools and health-care services, as well as security problems including land and intrafamily disputes that have gone unresolved due to justice system dysfunctions.
The judicial system remains flawed, with a lack of progress made to fight impunity. The principle of stare decisis is regularly ignored and police officers and military personnel convicted of offences are released or subjected to internal ‘punishment’. Corruption and interference plague the judicial system leaving victims of violations with no remedy, leaving them vulnerable to threats and intimidation. The judiciary’s lack of independence has worsened under President Ndayishimiye and the government also plans to abolish the specialized anti-corruption entities, namely, the Special Court and the Special Brigade, which has been deemed a step backwards in the fight against economic malfeasance. In its previous report, the Commission noted that corruption, misappropriation of public funds, conflicts of interest and illegal protection of interests underpin the functioning of the Burundian economy, depriving the State of the resources necessary to finance the protection and realization of human rights. Checks and balances upon the legislature are absent, with CNDD-FDD-controlled parliament adopting bills almost unanimously, leaving no space for discussion or a means of overseeing the executive branch.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has continued to exhume the mass graves containing victims of the 1972 massacres with urgent calls by the Senate to consider the massacres as constituting genocide against the Hutu. The commission noted that the indisputably one-sided and biased view of the country’s history that dominates the transitional justice process magnifies the risk of the events being remembered from an ethnic perspective and the victimization of one ethnic group in relation to the other. This has reignited tensions within Burundian society and increased the risk of incitement to ethnic hatred. The commission analysed the risk factors in Burundi, calling for special vigilance due to the instability of the political and social climate.
Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry
Geneva, 23 and 24 September 2021.- At the 18th and 19th meeting of the 48th Regular session of the Human Rights Council, the Commission on Inquiry held an interactive dialogue regarding developments in Burundi under Item 4 of the Agenda.
Mr. Doudou Diène, Chair of the Commission of Inquiry presented the update on the report into the Human Rights situation in Burundi. The Commission focused on the most serious human rights violations committed since President Ndayishimiye took power, with over 170 testimonies collected since September 2020. Mr. Diène emphasised that little progress was identified in the sphere of human rights and despite the president’s numerous promises to improve the human rights situation in Burundi, instead, only symbolic gestures have been made. Since the beginning of 2021 there has been a rise in the number of human rights violations in response to attacks made by armed groups. Burundian returnees and opposition political groups were also targeted by the national intelligence service under the current government. Hate speech subjected at political opponents has, in general, been replaced with official calls for tolerance in the political arena however there are still occasional statements made regarding political opponents labelled enemies of the state.
The commission expressed its regret that the situation in Burundi has not improved. It made recommendations to the Burundi government not to rely on the Independent National Human Rights Commission, whose A status is encouraging, but rather demonstrate that the government is able to function in accordance with the Paris Principles. It urged the international community to remain vigilant concerning the situation in Burundi and emphasised that the cycle of violence needs to be broken in Burundi. The Commission also stated that the level of political intolerance had not improved over the last 5 years. It made the recommendation to members of the UN Human Rights Council to avail themselves of the necessary means to monitor and evaluate the situation in Burundi closely and objectively.
The Chair of the commission concluded that it is imperative to give the people of Burundi a platform to be heard and ensure they are given redress. He stressed it is important to bring to justice the main perpetrators of crimes against humanity and serious human rights violations in due course and to secure justice for all victims.
The representative for Burundi opened the interactive dialogue pointing out several advancements the country made, stating the Council should rest assured the government is competent enough to manage its national and foreign relations. He declared that the government of Burundi has adopted a zero-tolerance policy for poor governance, corruption, and other forms of malpractice. He emphasised that multiple reforms implemented, such as the Code of Civil Procedure concerning the elders of the hills have enabled community-based justice. The representative maintained that the state prioritises social care, providing free health care to children under five and women who give birth in public health facilities. Primary level education has been provisioned free of charge and the government has made significant efforts to implement youth employment programmes to tackle unemployment.
The representative emphasised that no mechanism or external body for human rights is warranted, instead, cooperative dialogue, technical assistance and capacity building for human rights bodies are the best methods for upholding and ensuring human rights for all in Burundi. He concluded that Burundi is committed to cooperating with the international community to protect and promote human rights through mutually agreed upon mechanisms and in accordance with the principles and rules set out by the UN Charter and regional instruments to which Burundi is a party.
The vice-president of the Human Rights Council then opened the floor to interested delegations to ask the commission of inquiry questions and comment on the presentation.
The representative for Norway, on behalf of Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Sweden, and Norway, stated that they supported the Commission’s recommendations outlined in the report. It was emphasised that the improved dialogue between Burundian authorities and international communities was encouraging however little meaningful change has taken place regarding the preservation of human rights. The representative stated that they remained deeply concerned about the ongoing human rights violations and abuses as well as the shrinking civic platform. The government of Burundi was called upon to end human rights violations committed by security forces against political opposition, human rights defenders, civil society, and jurists. They concluded their statement by urging the government to fully cooperate with national and regional human rights mechanisms and permit them to conduct independent investigations, including on sensitive matters.
Luxembourg expressed its condolences to the Burundian victims of the recent grenade attack and emphasised that all people deserve to co-exist in a peaceful environment. The representative stated that despite positive gestures by the government, the report was damning in several areas. Civic society remains closed, economic foundations of the state remain unchanged and the population, which is already poor, is at the mercy of predatory economic mechanisms instituted by the people who are meant to be defending their interests. Luxembourg highlighted that the Burundi government needs to fully cooperate with the Commission and implement recommendations made over the last five years. The representative concluded by asking the Commission if it had any recommendations for the African Union and the international partners of Burundi.
Venezuela reaffirmed its firm opposition to the practice of politicising human rights against Burundi with ungrounded accusations and the constant interference in the country’s domestic affairs with human rights used as a pre-text. The representative went on to deplore the ongoing campaign of disinformation and manipulation of international opinion against Burundi. Venezuela solicited the Commission to end its mandate of the Commission of Inquiry, stating Burundi requires solidarity and international cooperation to continue progressing towards the protection and promotion of human rights instead of hostile or interfering mechanisms. The representative emphasised that Venezuela would continue to oppose the politicised mechanisms until they are fully rooted out from the work of the Council.
Belarus called attention to the fact that resolution 45/19 on Burundi under which the present discussion was held, was not supported by almost half of the members of the council, demonstrating UN members do not approve of the approaches taken. Belarus reaffirmed that it does not support the adoption of country resolutions without the agreement of the country’s government. Without visiting Burundi or cooperation with the Burundian government, a proper assessment cannot be made. The representative stated that accountability for human rights violations have been raised and that Belarus maintains that without universally applying these to all member countries of the UN, what this will do is become an abuse of the work of the HRC which is seen in the present instance. The representative called on the authors of resolution 45/19 to not politicize the situation of human rights in Burundi in their approaches to the state.
The Vice President then opened the floor to speakers from non-governmental organisations. One NGO in particular stated that the situation regarding human rights has not improved significantly in Burundi however the action taken by the Council has provided valuable information and contributed to the prevention of additional violations. The government was commended on its monitoring process of human rights violations, ensuring accountability, and providing hope to victims through the justice system. It was emphasized that the work of the council should be based on independent documentation and the Council should adopt a resolution that reflects the reality on the ground by ensuring independent monitoring of violations.
Vice-President, Monique Van Daalen closed 18th meeting of the 48th Regular Session of the UN Human Rights Council. The interactive dialogue recommenced at the 19th meeting, headed by Vice-President Yuri Sterk who handed the floor to the list of speakers.
The Council was encouraged to continue the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Burundi and retain the situation in Burundi on its agenda under item four. The Council was also urged to impose sanctions against individuals responsible for systemic human rights violations as well as the obstruction of UN mechanisms to document violations. The speakers concluded that the council must also encourage the implementation of effective justice mechanisms, to ensure that individuals responsible for these abuses are held accountable.
The Commission of Inquiry responded to the speakers asserting that none of the cases included in Commission’s 2001 report contained political bias. The Commission highlighted the A status of the National Human Rights Commission and stated that it hoped it will demonstrate its independence since this grading. The Commission concluded that the situation is worthy of attention and encourages the council to support the cause of Burundi.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
GICJ is deeply concerned about the numerous ongoing human rights violations in Burundi including torture and forced disappearances as well as the restrictions placed upon civil society and the media in reporting these abuses. We encourage Burundi to continue increasing its efforts in recognizing and investigating all human rights violations committed and hold perpetrators accountable; only by doing so Burundi can move towards peace, stability and development. It is regrettable to hear the continued refusal of Burundi to collaborate with international human rights bodies and the COI. Therefore, we urge all parties to resume progressive cooperation and Burundi to assume responsibility for the human rights violations reported in the country and to make the required structural changes.
The government of Burundi is urged to acknowledge the grave human rights violations taking place and implement recommendations made in the report, to put an end to the abuse. The government is also encouraged to weed out corruption and impunity in order to uphold the rule of law and preserve the legitimacy of judicial mechanisms. We specifically recommend implementing the recommendations of the Implementation Review Group of the United Nations Convention against Corruption in its efforts.
It is imperative that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is able to conduct its work in an impartial and objective manner to contribute towards national reconciliation and peace in Burundi. In this sense, the government must spare no effort in protecting the Commission and its directives.
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Previous Reports from the 48th Session of the UN Human Rights Council