Political instability and state-led repression leaves populations in Burundi at risk of crimes against humanity.
Burundi has endured a protracted political crisis since late President Pierre 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 (CNDD-FDD), together with its youth wing, the Imbonerakure, has persecuted alleged government opponents and civil society activists. The UN 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, disappearances, sexual violence, arbitrary detention and torture. More than 330,000 Burundian refugees remain in neighboring countries.
On 20 May 2020 Burundians voted for a new president, electing the CNDD-FDD candidate Évariste Ndayishimiye. In the lead up to the May elections, the government intensified its repression of alleged opponents, as well as journalists and human rights defenders. Such acts were primarily carried out by the Imbonerakure with members of the National Intelligence Service and police. Following the sudden death of President Nkurunziza on 8 June, Ndayishimiye was sworn in on 18 June.
During July 2020 the CoI warned that despite the change in president, structural risk factors remain, including the governance system under the CNDD-FDD, the appointment to senior government positions of individuals under international sanctions for serious human rights violations, and the refusal to release detained journalists and human rights defenders.
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. Nkurunziza’s third term was also regarded by many as violating the 2000 Arusha Peace Agreement, which ended a civil war that claimed over 350,000 lives between 1993-2005.
While the election of President Ndayishimiye offers an opportunity to restore peace and stability to Burundi, no tangible progress in the human rights situation has been achieved so far. The new government has continued a pattern of open hostility towards UN mechanisms and institutions. The government has not held perpetrators of past crimes accountable or implemented structural reforms to address the root causes of atrocities and prevent their recurrence.
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 openly threatened the Commissioners and ceased its cooperation with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. The new government has thus far refused to cooperate with the CoI.
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 new government must end the violent targeting of its political opponents. It should also disarm and demobilize the Imbonerakure and engage in inclusive dialogue with civil society and opposition parties. The government should ensure credible investigations into all human rights violations and abuses since 2015 and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable, regardless of affiliation.
The East African Community, African Union and UN should urge the government to end its policy of international isolation and commit to strengthening human rights protections, re-opening democratic space and reforming the judiciary and security sector.
During its September session, the HRC should renew the mandate of the CoI.
Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date on R2P news and alerts
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue, Suite 5203
New York, NY 10016-4309, USA