In Burundi, the mandate and composition of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was already being criticized by the opposition and civil society. The decision to launch the Commission’s work at the beginning of March has brought accusations that the government is trying to divert attention away from the country’s dark, ongoing reality of summary executions, massive arrests, arbitrary detention and torture, which have been the reality in Burundi for the past year.
The Arusha peace accord of 2000 provides for both judicial and non-judicial mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the conflicts that have marked the country since independence from Belgium in 1962. Debates and discussions took place as of 2000 on the mandate, composition and functioning of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and Special Tribunal. The idea of a Tribunal was finally abandoned.
After years of delays, a law was finally passed in April 2014 to create a TRC. It was given a mandate to cover the period from 1962 to 2008, when a ceasefire was signed with the last rebel group.
In accordance with this law, the eleven members of the Commission were appointed by the National Assembly on December 3, 2014. However, the opposition boycotted the session, accusing the ruling party of setting up yet another institution that would not be independent.
“We refused to take part in the vote, to protest against the creation of a TRC that reflects only the will of the ruling CNDD-FDD party,” opposition MP Charles Nditije told AFP.
“Normally it takes two to reconcile,” he said, adding that “truth and reconciliation cannot happen without justice”. These views have also been expressed by civil society.
“The CNDD-FDD was a party to the conflict,” said human rights defender Pacifique Nininahazwe. “It is not normal that a party which played a role in past conflicts should decide reconciliation issues without consulting others in Burundi.”
“The law contains no provisions on justice or sanctions against perpetrators of grave human rights violations,” he added. “And the investigation mechanism has been dropped.”
ASF regrets exclusion of civil society
Reacting after the swearing in of TRC members, Avocats sans Frontières (Lawyers without Borders, ASF) hailed “an important step” towards transitional justice but also expressed some of the same concerns as the Burundian opposition and civil society. It said the law “contains no reference to creation of any judicial mechanism to try those (…) responsible for grave violations of human rights and international humanitarian law committed in Burundi”, whereas “such a mechanism was provided for in the Arusha Accords, in parallel with the creation of a TRC”. “Some see in this absence of reference to a judicial mechanism a tendency to promote only forgiveness whilst downplaying establishment of responsibilities,” says ASF, suggesting that the TRC should pay “particular attention” to this issue.
The lawyers’ association says it “had already noted with satisfaction the focus contained in the TRC’s Rules on full respect of victims’ decisions to grant forgiveness (or not)” and the fact that “the TRC will draw up recommendations on what should happen to presumed perpetrators and those who have been granted forgiveness”. Finally, ASF regrets that “the TRC members do not include a representative of civil society, contrary to the wishes expressed by a majority of the population in the 2009 national consultations”.
Now that the TRC has been launched, civil society still sees it as an empty vessel. “We can see that civil society has been ignored and that preference has been given to churchmen, who will give priority to forgiveness above justice and fighting impunity for the crimes of the past,” complains Vital Nshimirimana, president of the Forum for Strengthening Civil Society in Burundi (FORSC). The Commission is headed by Catholic bishop Jean-Louis Nahimana (president) and Anglican archbishop Bernard Ntahoturi (vice-president).
Speaking on RFI, Nshimirimana also said that “among the eleven Commissioners there are at least three – former members of governments – who are accused of various crimes.” With regard to the timing of the launch, Nshimirimana said it was a tactic by the regime to try and divert attention and international opinion at a time when Burundians are being killed every day, ever since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third mandate, which he won in July last year.
Such accusations were brushed aside in a March 10 statement from the CNDD-FDD which lumps together its favourite targets, namely the authors of the May 2015 coup attempt, Belgian politician Louis Michel and his country. “The TRC bothers the putschists, as well as their Burundian acolytes and international supporters, who have figured in the sad history of this country”, party president and head of the National Assembly Pascal Nyabyenda wrote in the statement.