Populations at Risk Serious Concern


Civilians in Burundi face a risk of potential mass atrocity crimes as ongoing political violence and targeted killings continue to destabilize the country.
There is an ongoing risk of mass atrocity crimes in Burundi as a result of widespread violations of human rights, targeted killings and growing tension within the security forces. As reported by the United Nations Independent Investigation on Burundi (UNIIB), human rights abuses are primarily carried out "by State agents and those linked to them," including the police, intelligence services and the ruling party's youth wing, Imbonerakure.

Violations include disappearances, torture, sexual violence and arbitrary arrests and killings of political opponents. Freedom of expression is severely hampered by the government shutting down independent media outlets, as well as the suspension of permits for local human rights groups. Members of the current Burundian army and police, as well as of the ruling Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie–Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD), have also been assassinated in suspected reprisal killings.

During 2016 the government undertook various measures to isolate itself from the international community. In July the government rejected a UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated international police force. During October 2016 the government announced it would no longer cooperate with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and President Pierre Nkurunziza signed legislation to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Since 26 April 2015 at least 1,000 people have been killed in politically-inspired violence. Over 380,000 people have fled Burundi and over 140,000 remain internally displaced. The crisis developed following the announcement by the CNDD-FDD that Nkurunziza would seek a third presidential term. Nkurunziza's candidacy was regarded by the political opposition and many civil society groups as violating the constitution and the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, which brought an end to a civil war that claimed over 350,000 lives between 1993 and 2005.

Regional organizations, particularly the East African Community (EAC), have attempted to mediate the conflict, but on 13 December 2016 the opposition coalition Conseil National pour le respect de l'Accord d'Arusha pour la Paix et la Réconciliation au Burundi et de l'Etat de droit (CNARED) rejected the EAC facilitator, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. The dialogue is set to resume on 16 February 2017, but CNARED has indicated it will not participate.

The refusal to cooperate with the UNSC, OHCHR and ICC is a disturbing indication of the government's unwillingness to accept international scrutiny and adhere to international accountability mechanisms. There is also a risk that the ongoing political crisis in Burundi could deteriorate into an open armed conflict that would significantly increase the risk of mass atrocity crimes.

Despite a sustained period of stability since the end of the 1993-2005 civil war, recurring political and ethnic conflict have previously caused mass atrocity crimes in Burundi. There is a risk that the army could further fracture along political and ethnic lines. Tensions between the army, traditionally dominated by the ethnic Tutsi minority, and ethnic Hutu political organizations have previously been a perennial source of conflict.

The Burundian government must take urgent action to reengage with the international community and uphold its Responsibility to Protect.

On 25 April 2016 the ICC's chief prosecutor said she would open a preliminary examination into the situation in Burundi. On 18 October, Nkurunziza signed legislation calling for the withdrawal from the court.

On 29 July the UNSC passed Resolution 2303 urging Burundi to accept the deployment of up to 228 UN police, including those mandated to provide protection and assistance to OHCHR and African Union (AU) monitors. The government rejected the proposal.

On 30 September the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution authorizing the creation of a commission of inquiry to conduct investigations into human rights violations and abuses in Burundi since April 2015. The government has refused to cooperate with the commission.

On 29 November the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination issued a warning amid reports of armed militias intimidating civilians, urging the government to stop activities that could be "a precursor to mass atrocities."

Most of Burundi's major donors – including the European Union (EU), Belgium and the Netherlands – have suspended financial aid. The EU and United States have also adopted targeted sanctions, including travel bans and assets freezes.

Immediate steps must be taken by the government and opposition to avoid further militarization and/or ethnicization of the political crisis. Allegations of human rights abuses, torture and extrajudicial arrests and killings should be subject to thorough and independent investigation. The government should collaborate with the UNSC, the commission of inquiry and OHCHR, and reconsider its decision to withdraw from the ICC. The government should also ensure civil society and independence media can operate freely.

Action taken by the UN, AU and EAC should be streamlined by setting up a contact group on Burundi. The UNSC should condemn recent actions by the government to block OHCHR and the ICC from investigating human rights violations in the country, and work with the government of Burundi to implement Resolution 2303. The AU should impose targeted sanctions as decided by its Peace and Security Council on 17 October 2015. The UNSC and individual states should also impose additional targeted sanctions against any individuals implicated in targeted killings, inciting violence or breaching the Arusha Peace Agreement.

Last Updated: 15 February 2017