Severe repression and persecution of alleged government opponents leaves populations in Burundi at risk of crimes against humanity.
Since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would seek a third presidential term in 2015, Burundi has been trapped in a protracted political crisis. A failed coup and subsequent widespread protests and violence between 2015 and 2017 resulted in more than 1,200 people being killed and 10,000 arbitrarily detained. Since then the government has continued to persecute alleged government opponents, including civil society activists. More than 335,000 Burundian refugees also remain in neighboring countries.
The Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi has found that potential crimes against humanity have been committed since April 2015, including extrajudicial killings and summary executions, sexual violence, arbitrary detention and torture of suspected dissidents. Such acts have primarily been carried out by the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party, together with members of the National Intelligence Service and police.
The CoI has warned that elections scheduled for May 2020 could trigger further violations and abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity. In recent months the Imbonerakure has intensified its persecution of alleged opponents. The government also intensified its repression of independent journalists and media outlets, further limiting civic space.
President 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 that claimed over 350,000 lives between 1993-2005 and was fought largely between ethnic Hutu armed groups and the Tutsi-dominated army. Since President Nkurunziza was re-elected during July 2015, the East African Community (EAC) has attempted to mediate between the government and opposition parties, but with little success.
President Nkurunziza has indicated that he will not run for another term in 2020.
The current political environment, characterized by political intolerance, public threats and hate speech, is not conducive to holding free and fair elections. Utilizing the UN’s “Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes,” during September 2019 the CoI found that the government and its supporters have created an environment that could enable the commission of atrocities. On 9 March 2020 the CoI reiterated this warning and said that risk factors had increased significantly since September.
Ongoing hostility towards UN mechanisms and institutions is a disturbing indication of the government’s unwillingness to engage with the international community. The government has refused to cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), the HRC and International Criminal Court (ICC), and has openly threatened members of the CoI. The lack of constructive engagement with regional mechanisms, including the African Union (AU) and EAC, has contributed to further isolation.
The government is failing to uphold its responsibility to protect all Burundians, regardless of ethnicity or political affiliation.
On 18 October 2016 President Nkurunziza initiated Burundi’s withdrawal from the Rome Statute, which came into effect during October 2017. Prior to withdrawal, the ICC 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. On 27 September 2019 the HRC extended the mandate of the CoI despite the refusal of the government to allow the Commissioners to enter Burundi.
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, adopted a resolution condemning ongoing violations of human rights ahead of the elections.
It is essential that the government ends the violent targeting of its political opponents and engages in inclusive dialogue with civil society and opposition parties. The CoI should be granted immediate access to the country.
With elections scheduled to take place in two months’ time, regional and international actors, including the EAC, AU and UN, should intensify mediation efforts and support measures to ensure free and fair elections. The AU should increase the number of human rights observers deployed to the country.
The UN Security Council should invite the CoI to brief the Council and impose targeted sanctions against all those who continue to threaten peace and security in Burundi, including the list of suspected perpetrators of crimes against humanity produced by the CoI in 2018.
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