There is an ongoing risk of mass atrocity crimes in Burundi as a result of widespread violations and abuses of human rights, targeted killings and tensions within the armed forces that have resulted in a cycle of reprisal killings. As reported by the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi (UNIIB), human rights violations and abuses, which may amount to crimes against humanity, are primarily carried out "by State agents and those linked to them," including the ruling party's youth wing, Imbonerakure. Members of the Burundian army and police, and 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.
The UN Secretary-General's 23 February report on Burundi notes there have been frequent killings, enforced disappearances, gender-based violence, arbitrary arrests and detentions, and torture. Many of these crimes have been directed at political opposition members and members of the former armed forces (ex-FAB). Freedom of expression has been severely restricted by the government shutting down independent media outlets and suspending the permits of civil society groups. The government has also taken steps to isolate itself from the international community, including by rejecting a UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated police force and withdrawing from the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Since April 2015 at least 1,000 people have been killed in politically-inspired violence. Over 401,000 people have fled Burundi and more than 148,000 remain internally displaced, over 40 percent of whom fled their homes due to violence. The crisis developed following the announcement by the CNDD-FDD that President Pierre Nkurunziza would seek a third presidential term. This was regarded by the political opposition and many civil society groups as violating the constitution and the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, which ended a civil war that had claimed over 350,000 lives between 1993 and 2005. On 13 May 2015, elements of the army undertook a failed coup attempt, which further increased the government's crackdown. President Nkurunziza was elected for a third term in July 2015.
The East African Community (EAC) has attempted to mediate the ongoing 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 government refused to participate in the latest round of talks during February.
There is a risk that the ongoing political crisis could deteriorate into an open armed conflict that would significantly increase the risk of mass atrocity crimes. Recurring political and ethnic conflict have previously caused mass atrocity crimes in Burundi. Tensions between the army, traditionally dominated by the ethnic Tutsi minority, and ethnic Hutu political organizations, have been a perennial source of conflict. Incitement to violence and increased activity by the Imbonerakure, including enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial arrests and killings, have contributed to a climate of fear.
The government's ongoing refusal to cooperate with the UNSC, Commission of Inquiry for Burundi, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and ICC is a disturbing indication of its unwillingness to adhere to international law and collaborate with international institutions.
The Burundian government must take urgent steps to reengage with the international community, and uphold its Responsibility to Protect.
On 25 April 2016 the ICC announced its preliminary examination into the situation in Burundi. On 18 October President Nkurunziza signed legislation initiating Burundi's withdrawal from the court.
On 29 July the UNSC passed Resolution 2303 urging Burundi to accept the deployment of up to 228 UN police to monitor the security situation and assist OHCHR in human rights monitoring. The government rejected the proposal.
On 30 September the UN Human Rights Council passed Resolution 33/24, 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 urged the government to stop activities that could be "a precursor to mass atrocities."
Immediate steps must be taken by the government and opposition to avoid further militarization and ethnicization of the current political conflict. Allegations of human rights violations, torture and extrajudicial killings must be subject to independent investigation and perpetrators held accountable.
The government should collaborate with the UNSC, OHCHR and Commission of Inquiry, and reconsider its withdrawal from the ICC. The government should engage constructively with the political dialogue led by the EAC, facilitate the deployment of African Union (AU) human rights observers and ensure that civil society and independent media can operate freely.
The UNSC should condemn recent actions by the government to obstruct the Commission of Inquiry and ICC, and work with the government to implement Resolution 2303.
The AU should impose targeted sanctions as decided by its Peace and Security Council on 17 October 2015. The UNSC should also impose targeted sanctions against any individuals deemed responsible for ongoing serious human rights violations and abuses.
Last Updated: 14 April 2017