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Burundi: New Government, but no progress insight on the human rights front

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Following the 2020 presidential, legislative and local elections, the fifteen-year presidency of Pierre Nkurunziza came to a close and a new era under President Évariste Ndayishimiye began. The resulting new policy shifts, appointments, and public statements by the new Government show more cause for concern and warning than promise.

“We have been following events very closely to see whether the new Government would reverse the destructive path taken since 2015. We made some very concrete suggestions when we last updated the Human Rights Council in July. But so far we see little positive changes since President Ndayishimiye assumed office”, said Doudou Diène, Chairperson of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi today (17 September) at the launch of the Commission’s fourth report at the United Nations in Geneva. “The democratic space remains very narrow, impunity persists, and there is no indication that the level of human rights violations has abated under the new Government.” On the contrary, he added, “some individuals subject to international sanctions for their alleged responsibility in human rights violations in 2015 have actually been appointed to senior positions in the Ndayishimiye administration.”

The Commission’s report outlines the serious human rights violations occurring in the context of the 2020 elections, including summary executions, arbitrary detentions and arrests, torture and sexual violence. With so much at stake at these multiple elections, the aim was to prevent Burundi’s main opposition party, the CNL (National Freedom Council), from gaining seats. To that end, authorities targeted not only CNL members and supporters, while at the same time muzzling independent observers, including journalists and civil society representatives, and imposing tight control over ordinary people.

This year, the Commission looked for the first time into the issue of sexual violence committed against men in Burundi. The Commission has found that it is a common intelligence gathering tool, often inflicted during detention at the National Intelligence Service. The physical pain is compounded by the psychological scars of stigma, or fear thereof, which touch upon deeply held cultural taboos.

With over half of the Burundian population under 18 years of age, the investigators also focused this year on the serious violations of human rights committed on children and adolescents. Sometimes children and adolescents were specifically targeted, such as when they are forcibly recruited into the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, other times they were harmed when other family members are the real targets. “We very much fear the consequences of the 2015 crisis for Burundi’s future, not least because of the long-term impact it will have on the children,” said Commissioner Lucy Asuagbor.

In updating its analysis of the risk factors of further deterioration of the human rights situation, the Commission has found that all eight common risk factors are still present in Burundi even after the 2020 elections were held. Their presence is supported, for instance, by numerous recent security incidents; the continued domination of the public sphere by the Imbonerakure, who in many rural areas actually act as de facto security agents; as well as the proliferation of hate speech during the electoral process, including hate speech with an ethnic dimension, which remains a tool that could be resorted to by the authorities whenever politically expedient.

In fulfilling a new dimension of its mandate to report on “the economic underpinnings of the State”, the Commission has found that the realization of human rights is impacted by widespread economic malpractices. The effects are profound when 74% of the population lives in multidimensional poverty. Elaborating on the implications for Burundi’s partners, Commissioner Françoise Hampson stated that “According to our findings, the level of corruption appears to be so widespread that every organization, company, or individual bringing funds to Burundi should be exercising the utmost due diligence.”

Reflecting on the overall situation, Diène stated that “The transfer of power offers an opportunity for re-engagement with the UN and the international community and to commit to a pathway of change based on respect for human rights, fundamental freedoms, democratic principles and the rule of law.” He added, “We sincerely hope that the new Government will take concrete actions to mitigate the risk factors, most importantly by allowing civil society, the media and the opposition to effectively play their crucial roles in a democratic society. But if that role can only be played at the risk of life or liberty, the international community must continue to be very concerned.”

During the past four years, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi has been the only independent international mechanism to document, monitor, and report on human rights violations in Burundi.

Today’s report is based on more than 1,500 testimonies collected since the start of its work, including more than 300 during the current term of office, despite the constraints related to the COVID-19 pandemic that has resulted in the cancellation of some field missions.

The Commission is due to present its final report to the Human Rights Council on 23 September 2020.

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