Severe repression and persecution of alleged government opponents leaves populations in Burundi at imminent 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. Almost 335,000 Burundian refugees remain in neighboring countries.
The Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission of Inquiry (CoI) on Burundi has warned that general elections scheduled for 20 May could trigger further violations and abuses that may amount to crimes against humanity. 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 the CoI reiterated this warning and said that risk factors had increased significantly.
In the lead up to the elections, the Imbonerakure – the youth wing of the ruling party – has intensified its targeting of alleged opponents. Since the start of the official campaign period on 27 April, violent confrontations between Imbonerakure activists and opposition supporters have been reported across the country.
The government also increased its repression of independent journalists and media outlets, further limiting civic space. Since late March, the authorities have responded to the spread of COVID-19 by restricting the flow of information even further and threatening individuals accused of spreading news about the government’s poor response to the crisis. On 12 May the government expelled the World Health Organization from Burundi.
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 2015, the East African Community (EAC) has attempted to mediate between the government and opposition parties, but without success. President Nkurunziza is not running for re-election in 2020, but on 22 January Burundi’s parliament voted to give him the honorary title of “supreme leader” after he steps down.
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.
The current political environment, characterized by intolerance, public threats and hate speech, is not conducive to holding free and fair elections and there is a risk of post-election violence. The restriction of information regarding COVID-19 is emblematic of existing state-led repression and leaves Burundians extremely vulnerable to the pandemic.
Ongoing hostility towards UN mechanisms and institutions, as well as a lack of constructive engagement with regional mechanisms, has isolated Burundi and is a disturbing indication of the government’s unwillingness to cooperate with the international community.
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 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 continuously refused to allow the Commissioners to enter.
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 ahead of the elections.
It is essential that the government ends the violent targeting of its political opponents, demobilizes the Imbonerakure and engages in inclusive dialogue with civil society and opposition parties. The CoI should be granted immediate and unrestricted access to the country.
Regional and international actors, including the EAC, African Union and UN, should urge the government to end political persecution and intensify efforts to ensure a stable post-election environment.
The UNSC should invite the CoI to brief the Council and impose targeted sanctions on all those who 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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