Ongoing violations and abuses of human rights perpetrated by Burundian state forces and affiliated groups against alleged government opponents leave populations at risk of mass atrocity crimes. 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.
Since the February 2019 registration of a new opposition party – the Congrès national pour la liberté – human rights organizations have raised alarm about increasing repression. According to the CoI, elections scheduled for 2020 could trigger further violations and abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity. The CoI has found evidence of recent extrajudicial killings and summary executions, enforced disappearances, 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 Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie, together with members of the National Intelligence Service and police.
The crisis in Burundi developed following the April 2015 announcement that President Pierre Nkurunziza would seek a third presidential term. This was regarded by many as violating the 2000 Arusha Peace Agreement, which ended a civil war that claimed over 350,000 lives between 1993-2005. Following a failed coup, widespread protests and violence, President Nkurunziza was re-elected during July 2015. Since then, the East African Community (EAC) has attempted to mediate between the government and opposition parties, but with little success.
During August 2019, the governments of Burundi and Tanzania announced a plan for the repatriation of 200,000 Burundian refugees by 31 December 2019. UN Refugee Agency has warned that conditions in Burundi are not safe for refugee returns.
Despite President Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would not run for an additional 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,” on 4 September the CoI found that ongoing violence against alleged government opponents constitute systematic attacks that have created an environment that could enable the commission of atrocities.
Ongoing hostility directed 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, the HRC and International Criminal Court (ICC), and has openly threatened members of the CoI. The government has also banned most independent non-governmental organizations and media outlets.
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.
It remains essential that Burundi’s government ends the violent targeting of political opponents, opens up political space and engages in inclusive dialogue with civil society. The CoI should be granted immediate access to the country.
The EAC should intensify mediation efforts and, together with the African Union (AU) and UN, support measures to ensure free and fair elections in 2020. The AU should increase the number of human rights observers deployed to the country. Burundian refugees should only be voluntarily repatriated in compliance with international law.
The UN Security Council should invite the CoI to brief the Council and should 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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