The 51st Session of the Human Rights Council
12 September – 7 October 2022
Agenda Item 4: Human rights situations that require the Council's attention
Interactive Dialogue with Special Rapporteur on Burundi
23 September 2022
By Jamel Nampijja / GICJ
On the 23rd of September 2022, Mr Fortuné Gaetan Zongo, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi, delivered his report during the 19th Meeting of the 51st Regular Session of the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/51/44). The report highlighted the State's cooperation with international human rights mechanisms, human rights concerns, general progress achieved in these areas, as well as the economic and social well-being of the country.
Noted was the progress made in the fight against trafficking of human beings, institutionalising anti-trafficking training for law enforcement officers, and launching effective judicial procedures whereby several investigations and prosecutions have been pursued, and victims were receiving assistance.
The country concerned alleged that the State complied with its international obligations by promoting and protecting human rights. The social, political, economic, and human rights situations have been steadily improving since 2015. Several amendments in good governance, social justice, freedom of the press, civil and political rights, and national reconciliations, among others, have been initiated. As a result, Burundi requested the Human Rights Council to withdraw Burundi from its special mechanism agenda and end the mandate of the Special Rapporteur.
During the interactive dialogue, delegates, international organisations, and NGOs welcomed the report of the SR and commended him for his oral update. They applauded the government of Burundi for the extensive progress made, mainly through improved governance structures, promotion of human rights, and cooperation with the human rights mechanisms, particularly the increased participation in decisions at the international, regional, and sub-regional level.
The delegates encouraged the government of Burundi to fully implement the recommendations made by the Commission of Inquiry, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the African Union, and several competent regional institutions.
Several questions were raised regarding how the special rapporteur will assess the situation of civil society in Burundi. Questions asked included what plan of action the SR has for the months ahead, what priority areas would the SR like to focus on, and what the recommendations are for the international community to promote a meaningful improvement in the human rights situation in Burundi in the medium and long term. Some delegates wondered if the SR has already established frequent contacts with the Independent National Human Rights Commission and, if so, how the SR assesses this cooperation. Furthermore, delegates questioned how the government can better equip itself to avoid a surge of human rights violations during the pre-electoral period.
Several international organisations and NGOs expressed concern over human rights violations and abuses committed by the Imbonerakure youth group, who continue to commit abuses with complete impunity. These human rights violations include torture, killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests, and sexual violence with the complicity of the intelligence service in the police.
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) condemns all human rights violations and abuses in Burundi. We urge the State to take all necessary measures to conduct impartial and effective investigations to identify those responsible for the violations of basic rights and hold perpetrators accountable.
To address the root causes of instability after the country’s civil war between 1993 to 2005 and its aftermath, Burundi adopted the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement to create a comprehensive peacebuilding framework in 2000. The framework ushered in a period of peace and hope. It marked a smooth leadership transition from President Pierre Buyoya to President Domitien Ndayizeye, who ruled for 18 months each before Pierre Nkurunziza came to power in 2005. Nkurunziza was unwilling to step down after his second term in office in 2015 and set the country into the current crisis.
Since 2016 the Commission of Inquiry has been investigating the crisis in Burundi; the findings of their investigations indicated that former President Nkurunziza, state agents, and groups implementing state policies had launched widespread and systematic attacks against the civilian population. These attacks included executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, sexual violence, and forced disappearances. A report by the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi in September 2019 indicated that crimes against humanity committed by the State and their allies continues to occur across the country.
On the 30th of September 2016, the Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi through resolution A/HRC/RES/33/24. Since then, the mandate has been renewed four times. The Special Rapporteur on the human rights situation in Burundi is appointed by the Human Rights Council under resolution 48/16 paragraph 20 to monitor the status of human rights in the country and make recommendations for its improvement, as well as to conduct an investigation into human rights violations and abuses committed since April 2015, including evaluating whether they constitute crimes against humanity.
The SR engages with state authorities, the United Nations and its related agencies, civil society, refugees, the Office of the High Commissioner on the ground in Burundi, and the African Union to provide the support and expertise to improve the human rights situation. Additionally, the SR is responsible for identifying alleged perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses to ensure full accountability and the fight against impunity.
On the 1st of April 2022, Mr Fortuné Gaetan Zongo was appointed as the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi.
Report of the Special Rapporteur
In his report, Mr. Zongo noted an increase in Burundi's participation and desire to resume dialogue in the sessions of international, regional, subregional, and international partners to improve diplomatic relations between Burundi and Rwanda, the African Union, and the international community.
He commended the State for implementing multilateral agreements on the repatriation of Burundian refugees signed by Burundi with the United Nations Office of the Refugees and Tanzania. Additionally, he praised the contract with the Office of the High Commissioner and Rwanda for the gradual return of refugees back to Burundi. Furthermore, the report called for more support to attain sustainable reintegration for Burundi returnees and societies.
Regarding human trafficking, Burundi has implemented institutionalised anti-trafficking training for law enforcement officers, launched several investigations and prosecutions of alleged perpetrators, and referred victims for assistance.
Though the country has made notable progress overall, numerous human rights violations and abuses have been committed since 2015 and remain of great concern. Cases of torture, and cruel or degrading treatment, including sexual violence against both men and women, took place mainly at the headquarters of the National Intelligence Service in Bujumbura or secret detention centres. Most victims live with physical and psychological trauma.
Arbitrary arrests, detentions and executions are the most documented violations by the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. These have led to several other offences, such as extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, cases of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and sexual violence.
The Commission of Inquiry also documented testimonies of unofficial places of detention where victims are subjected to torture or sexual violence. The Special Rapporteur is concerned about the case of lawyer Tony Germain Nkina, whose sentence to five years imprisonment is allegedly in connection with his duties within the Burundi Association for prosecuting human rights.
Several cases of enforced disappearances of political opponents and Imbonerakure suspected of collaborating with armed opposition groups or returnees have been documented by the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. The report confirmed that Marie-Claudette Kwizera, the treasurer of the Iteka League, and Oscar Ntasano, a businessman and member of the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), are victims of enforced disappearances. The Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reported 250 cases concerning Burundi in August 2021.
The Commission of Inquiry identified arbitrary executions committed by the defence and security forces, where, in some cases, they had collaborated with the Imbonerakure, a political initiative of Burundian youth affiliated with the CNDD-FDD. Corpses have been consistently found in public spaces, particularly by roads or rivers. Local authorities do not investigate possible causes of death, yet the remains have displayed signs of violent death. The bodies are buried hastily without identification.
The judiciary is facing corruption, influence peddling, interference by various authorities and members of the CNDD-FDD, non-compliance with legal procedures and deadlines, non-execution of court decisions, and victims of violations remain denied effective remedy and continue to be threatened and intimidated.
Mr. Zongo stated that he continues to follow Burundi's human rights situation with the utmost attention in order to identify actionable areas and propose recommendations for improvement. He remains committed to working alongside Burundi's government to improve that country's human rights situation.
The Special Rapporteur made several recommendations to Burundi, including ratifying the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance and implementing the recommendations made by treaty bodies, special procedures, and international human rights bodies, including the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. Additional recommendations include, but are not limited to, strengthening cooperation to foster constructive dialogue with international human rights mechanisms, permitting the Office of the High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs to reopen in the country, and strengthening the rule of law and the administration of justice through an inventory of access to justice in Burundi,
The representative of Burundi asserted that under president Évariste Ndayishimiye, several reforms had been initiated in the field of good governance, justice, social justice, freedom of opinion and the press, promotion of social and economic rights, civil and political rights of national reconciliation at the judicial level.
The representative asserted the government is encouraging full participation of civil society organisations suspended since 2015 and promoting the voluntary return of human rights defenders and political actors. He went on to highlight how the State has taken appropriate measures to reduce prison congestion by ordering the conditional release of more than 5000 prisoners since 2020. Several corrupt magistrates were relieved of their duties, and several instruments were reviewed to establish a good administration of justice.
The representative affirmed that gender equality is among the top priorities in all sectors of national life, both public and private. Women have a constitutional quota of 30% in the country's major public institutions. A bank specifically for women was created to promote women's entrepreneurship and economic empowerment for the first time in the country's history.
The representative called on the Council to remove Burundi from its agenda and suspend the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Burundi. The representative declared that the mechanisms imposed on the country are unproductive and unfair. He stated that Burundi collaborates with the international mechanisms recognised as the Universal Periodic Review and the UNHCR. He asserted that the State already has several national mechanisms to promote and protect human rights.
Interactive dialogue on the Special Rapporteur’s report
National Human Rights Commission noted with satisfaction the efforts made by the justice system to prosecute the alleged perpetrators of human rights violations accused of human trafficking and torture, whereby approximately thirty magistrates were convicted of acts of corruption. He commended the policy of decongestion of prisons aimed at improving prison conditions.
He welcomed the continued support of the Burundian government and its partners, including the African Union, the EU, Switzerland, and international and regional human rights agencies. He urged the international community to recognise the efforts of Burundi and continue providing all necessary support for the improvement of the human rights situation in the country.
The representative of the European Union was concerned by the persistent allegations of acts of torture, enforced disappearances, and unjustified restrictions on fundamental freedoms by state agents, youth groups affiliated to the ruling party, and rebel groups who continue to benefit from impunity. The representative called for independent and impartial investigations into human rights violations, particularly sexual violence committed against women by the Imbonerakure.
He called on the government to fully cooperate with the Special Rapporteur by granting them full access to the country to continue monitoring the human rights situation in Burundi, with the aim of fostering openness and constructive dialogue.
The representative of Switzerland expressed concern over Burundi's human rights violations, particularly by cases of enforced disappearance and arbitrary arrests. The representative called on the government to strengthen cooperation with human rights mechanisms and to initiate a constructive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur.
The representative expressed regret that the government of Burundi did not respond to communications from the Special Rapporteur, nor did it grant him access to the country. He encouraged the government to implement the recommendations by the national independent Human Rights Commission to end human rights violations. The representative inquired if there were any relevant areas in which Burundi would be open to human rights collaboration.
The Representative of Egypt reiterated its rejection of the Human Rights Council mechanisms that Burundi disapproves of. She maintained that these mechanisms are politicised without considering the positive steps taken by the country. She urged the Council to engage in constructive dialogue with the states concerned to become aware of their concerns and devise the best possible solutions.
The representative of China urged the international community to respect Burundi's national sovereignty and its independent efforts to solve its domestic problems. He reaffirmed that China has consistently advocated for constructive dialogue and cooperation in addressing human rights differences and is against the politicisation of human rights issues.
He stated that some countries have disregarded Burundi's repeated request not to set up human rights mechanisms such as the Special Rapporteur's mandate, which the Council has turned into a political tool against developing countries.
He called on the Council to eliminate double standards and uphold non-selectivity and non-politicisation of the human rights development paths chosen by the people of Burundi.
He further urged relevant countries to stop using human rights as a pretext to interfere in the country's internal affairs.
The representative of Venezuela acknowledged the progress achieved by Burundi towards consolidating peace and attaining political and social stability, as well as its efforts to strengthen institutions such as the independent national Human Rights Commission, established per the Paris principles.
He objected to the politicisation and the selective approach of the Council against Burundi, declaring their use of unfounded allegations and the manipulation of human rights a pretext for interference. He stated that Burundi deserves international solidarity and cooperation to help it progress in terms of human rights instead of hostile mechanisms doomed to failure. He affirmed that the mandate is a political agenda with nothing to protect human rights. He stated it is an apparent violation of the principles of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs of states enshrined in the UN charter.
The representative of the Russian Federation rejected the imposition of unilateral approaches to organisations, corporations, and international human rights institutions. He opposed the establishment of the Special Rapporteur's position without the approval of Burundi. Further, he stated that the Special Rapporteur's report could not be objective or reflect the actual situation in Burundi, given that this is a mandate that is imposed. He called for constructive and impartial support towards social cohesiveness, national reconciliation, resolving humanitarian challenges, and ensuring social and economic development. He acknowledged Russia's support for the core principle of solving African problems through African solutions.
The representative of Belgium commended the government of Burundi for the initiatives undertaken, particularly in the fight against human trafficking. He stated that significant concerns include human rights violations such as enforced disappearance, arbitrary arrests, detention, acts of torture by security forces, and gender-based violence. He encouraged the authorities to step up their efforts in fighting impunity and strengthen the independence of the judiciary to ensure that alleged perpetrators are held to account .
The representative of the United States stated that the persistent human rights violations and abuses by state security forces and their proxies remain of great concern. The delegate referenced the numerous reports of harassment and abuses against opposition party representatives, unlawful killings, enforced disappearances and torture. He expressed concern that the state authorities lack a consistent approach to investigating and holding perpetrators accountable. He called on Burundi's newly formed government to cooperate with UN mechanisms and the Special Rapporteur.
Mr. Zongo responded to questions and remarks by the country concerned, delegates, and civil society organisations.
He stated that since 2015 when the crisis broke out, the State has been struggling to recover. He explained that Burundi has two kinds of civil society: one within the country and one within the diaspora. He stated that he has been unable to cooperate with the civil society within the country.
Mr. Zongo asserted that Burundi needs to strengthen the rule of law and state institutions to ensure that they are resilient enough to deal with the crisis. He called for support and collaboration to build systems and institutions such as the police, the intelligence service, and a robust, independent, and impartial justice system to systematically document all human rights violations appropriately and apply the law in a consistent manner.
He concluded by stating that his report is just a foundation that requires deepening, especially regarding refugees, children's rights, women's rights, civil and political rights, and economic, social and cultural rights, which are of paramount priority for Burundi.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) welcomes the report and oral update of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi. GICJ is greatly concerned with the persistent and grave human rights abuses and violations in Burundi, especially extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, and sexual violence against women and girls.
We urge the government of Burundi to ensure that all human rights abuses and violations against its citizens, human rights defenders, and journalists are thoroughly and impartially investigated and perpetrators are held accountable.
Additionally, we align with the recommendation by the Special Rapporteur for Burundi to strengthen cooperation in a spirit of constructive dialogue with international human rights mechanisms, in particular special procedures. We urge the government of Burundi to cooperate fully with the Special Rapporteur and to agree to a country visit for the Special Rapporteur to continue assessing the human rights situation in the country.
Special Rapporteur, Interactive Dialogue, Burundi, Human Rights in Burundi, Human rights Council, HRC51, Regular Session, Human Rights, Geneva International Centre for Justice, GICJ, Geneva4Justice