Political instability and state-led repression leaves populations in Burundi at risk of crimes against humanity.
Amidst warnings by the Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi that elections on 20 May could trigger renewed crimes against humanity, Burundi voted for a new president. In the months leading up to the vote, serious human rights violations against perceived government opponents intensified and the government increased its repression of independent journalists and media outlets. While the main opposition party, the Congrès National pour la Liberté, accused the government of electoral fraud, on 4 June the Constitutional Court affirmed the victory of Évariste Ndayishimiye, the candidate of the ruling party. On 8 June President Pierre Nkurunziza suddenly died, prompting the Constitutional Court to expedite the swearing in of Ndayishimiye on 18 June.
Burundi has endured a protracted political crisis since late President Nkurunziza announced that he would seek a third presidential term in 2015. A failed coup and subsequent widespread protests and violence between 2015-2017 resulted in more than 1,200 people killed and 10,000 arbitrarily detained. Since then the government of the ruling party, Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie, together with its youth wing, the Imbonerakure, has persecuted alleged government opponents, including civil society activists. More than 330,000 Burundian refugees remain in neighboring countries.
Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third presidential term was regarded by many as violating the constitution and the 2000 Arusha Peace Agreement, which ended a civil war fought largely between ethnic Hutu armed groups and the Tutsi-dominated army between 1993-2005, claiming over 350,000 lives. Since 2015, the East African Community (EAC) has attempted to mediate between the government and opposition parties, without success.
The CoI has found that potential crimes against humanity have been committed since April 2015, including extrajudicial killings and summary executions, disappearances, sexual violence, arbitrary detention and torture. Such acts have primarily been carried out by the Imbonerakure together with members of the National Intelligence Service and police.
President Nkurunziza’s third term was marked by increased authoritarianism and large-scale human rights violations and abuses by state agents and the Imbonerakure, including potential crimes against humanity. Hostility towards UN mechanisms and institutions, as well as some regional mechanisms, has isolated Burundi from the international community.
While the election of President Ndayishimiye offers an opportunity to restore peace and stability in Burundi, structural reforms are needed to address the root causes of past atrocities and prevent their recurrence, including genuine processes to ensure truth, reconciliation and accountability. President Ndayishimiye’s decision to appoint individuals to his government who remain under international sanctions for human rights violations and abuses raises serious concerns.
The government is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect all Burundians, regardless of ethnicity or political affiliation.
During October 2017 Burundi withdrew from the Rome Statute. Prior to withdrawal, the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into crimes committed in Burundi from April 2015 until October 2017.
On 30 September 2016 the HRC created the CoI to investigate human rights violations and abuses in Burundi. The government has refused to allow the Commissioners to enter the country.
On 24 October 2019 the European Union renewed travel bans and asset freezes on four Burundians for serious human rights violations and incitement to violence.
On 16 January 2020 the European Parliament, referring to the findings of the CoI, condemned ongoing violations of human rights in Burundi.
The government must end the violent targeting of its political opponents, demobilize the Imbonerakure and engage in inclusive dialogue with civil society and opposition parties. The new government should ensure credible investigations into all human rights violations and abuses since 2015 and ensure that perpetrators – regardless of their affiliation – are held accountable.
The EAC, African Union and UN should urge the government to end its policy of international isolation and commit to strengthening human rights protections.
During its September session, the HRC should renew the mandate of the CoI.
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