Burundi’s re-entry into the international community
Since his inauguration in 2020, President Évariste Ndayishimiye has implemented a slew of foreign and domestic policy changes aimed at restoring Burundi’s international standing and economic relationships.
His efforts seem to be bearing fruit, as the European Union (EU) announced on February 8 that it would withdraw the sanctions imposed on Burundi in 2016.
However, civil society organizations like Human Rights Watch have voiced dissatisfaction with the suspension of punishment.
They are concerned that lifting the embargoes without restrictions would disincentivize the regime from significantly improving human rights and expanding political freedom.
The United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Burundi’s September 2021 report, which labels the country’s human rights situation as “dreadful,” validates civil society organizations’ concerns.
According to the study, the National Intelligence Service has conducted arbitrary arrests and forced disappearances, as well as violent assaults on citizens by the government-affiliated Imbonerakure youth militia and harassment of journalists.
The UN report and civil society issues cast doubt on whether the new government’s policies can withstand examination. And, to what degree are Burundi’s policy adjustments driven simply by the desire to rehabilitate its international image and lift sanctions?
Are Burundi’s policy adjustments driven largely by the desire to lift sanctions?
Burundi was sanctioned by the international community after Pierre Nkurunziza’s third presidential term campaign in 2015 sparked a deadly political crisis.
This erupted into street protests, a botched coup, and armed assaults on military bases, displacing over 300,000 people by 2018. Burundi’s government retaliated by cracking down on demonstrators and enacting restrictive laws targeting the media and civil society organizations.
As the situation worsened, foreign observers and civil society organizations reported a slew of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, torture, and state-sanctioned extrajudicial murders. These human rights crimes, as well as the restriction of the political space, resulted in a slew of international sanctions levied against the country.
In a statement issued in February, the EU cited improvements in Burundi’s political stability and human rights record since 2020 as justification for suspending the embargoes.
The EU will now begin development cooperation and financial assistance to the government. Four high-level officials, including Prime Minister Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni and Chief Police Commissioner Godefroid Bizimana, have also been granted permission to travel by the European Union.
The lifting of sanctions is a welcome reprieve for Burundi’s economy, which has been in a slump since 2015. Burundi’s GDP per capita has shrunk by 16% in the last five years, owing in part to economic sanctions, assistance cutbacks, and worldwide impact from COVID-19. Its trade imbalance widened as the nation grew more reliant on imports, which depleted public finances.
The country’s foreign policy varies dramatically from Nkurunziza’s isolationist stance.
Burundi’s economic troubles spurred Ndayishimiye and Foreign Minister Albert Shingiro to launch a prolonged international charm offensive to campaign for sanctions relief. The country’s foreign policy has shifted dramatically from Nkurunziza’s isolationist stance during the political crisis.
Burundi has been networking with global organizations in addition to its political engagement with the EU and the US on sanctions relief. It altered its passive Nkurunziza-era COVID-19 approach in 2020 and began working with the World Health Organization and the World Bank. To demonstrate to the world community that the administration is dedicated to good governance, the country has also joined the African Peer Review Mechanism.
Ndayishimiye’s recent measures also demonstrate his desire to re-establish regional ties with his East African Community peers. In 2021, the president will go to Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and Uganda. Rwanda’s prime minister attended Burundi’s 59th Independence Day celebrations, which would have been inconceivable before Nkurunziza accused Kigali of aiding Burundian dissidents.
Burundi’s attempts to get sanctions removed were aided by a slew of internal policy changes. Ndayishimiye has reversed several of Nkurunziza’s restrictive policies enacted during the 2015 political crisis. These changes include the removal of limitations on the media and civil society, as well as the pardoning of some journalists and human rights campaigners.
The administration has not interacted with civil society or opposition leaders who have been banished as a result of Nkurunziza’s rule.
Burundi’s international effort has so far generated favorable results. After US President Joe Biden repealed Executive Order 13712 in November 2021, essentially eliminating his country’s sanctions against Burundi, the EU sanctions were lifted. The decision implies that the United States will relax travel restrictions and asset freezes on 11 high-level officials.
The United States will also resume financial and technical assistance to Burundi’s security forces involved in peacekeeping operations under the African Union Mission in Somalia. The decision by the United States and the European Union to restore direct financial assistance to the government offers much-needed foreign currency reserves.
While the international world has generally praised Burundi’s reforms, these changes may be primarily symbolic. Ndayishimiye, for example, is unlikely to alter Nkurunziza’s decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court.
The court has charged numerous prominent members of the governing party with abuses of human rights. Furthermore, the government has made no serious attempt to interact with the large percentage of Burundi’s civil society and opposition members who were exiled during Nkurunziza’s third term.
It remains to be seen if Ndayishimiye’s internal reforms will result in real improvements in the absence of international sanctions pressure.