Burundi’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, launched in March by President Pierre Nkurunziza, is seeking 34 million dollars to fund its activities. But former President and Senator for life Sylvestre Ntibantunganya says the priority right now is not to fund a Commission whose mandate and composition are controversial. In an interview with JusticeInfo, he says the current political and security situation is “not conducive to the Commission’s work”. This comes amid a resurgence of violence in Burundi, the assassination of a Tutsi General and the announcement by the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) that she is opening a preliminary examination into the situation in Burundi. Ntibantunganya, who survived the October 1993 coup that killed Burundi’s first democratically elected president Melchior Ndadaye, also says it is “shocking that some victims of the dark years in our country’s history are now trying to use their suffering of the past to justify crimes they are committing today.”
JusticeInfo: Truth is an often-used word these days. But what truth do Burundians need?
Sylvestre Ntibantunganya: We need to recognize Burundians’ urgent need to know the truth about the extremely painful episodes of their past. This need is reflected in the way evocations of 1965, 1972, 1988 and 1993 fuel emotions and are being manipulated. But the most important thing is not to know who was responsible and who was a victim of what. The truth people want should aim to “liberate” all the Burundian people, including and especially the perpetrators and the victims. That is why the search for truth should not be subject to manipulation for political ends. Unfortunately that is what we fear, given the crisis the country has been going through for a year now. The appointment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s members has already been done in questionable conditions that are not very reassuring in light of the government’s desire to control it.
JusticeInfo: So the composition of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission doesn’t inspire trust in all Burundians?
SN: While I recognize the qualities of certain members, there are people in the Commission suspected of being there only because of their links with the government or the parties that support it. This issue has just been highlighted by the fact the Jesuit community of former Commission spokesman Father Yamuremye Désiré has distanced itself from him (Editor’s note: The Jesuit Father was accused of being too close to the government, is no longer spokesman and is reportedly living in Kenya). We know too that MPs from UPRONA (an opposition party) did not support their nomination. The current crisis is not conducive to a productive search for truth by this Commission, given that there are political, social, ethical and civilian players that it will not easily be able to reach, and that at least 2.5% of the Burundian population are currently refugees in neighbouring countries. This situation is not conducive to unveiling a complete and liberating truth. As a result, before raising the necessary funds, we need first to put an end to the crisis and re-evaluate the Commission.
JusticeInfo: At the donor round table, some diplomats called for guarantees of protection for witnesses…
SN: That’s why we need a mid-term assessment (after two years of the four-year mandate) of this Commission’s composition and its work. Even if such protection mechanisms were in place, there is no guarantee that truth will be revealed, especially by people who may think they are talking to individuals working for their political adversaries. In fact, the first guarantee of witness protection is the neutrality of Commission members. Witness protection also requires trust between the various parties, which is not there today. I will say again that I think the Commission could work better after a political agreement to end the crisis Burundi has been going through for a year. Everyone, and especially the members of the Commission, should recognize that.
JusticeInfo: Some Burundians say that crimes committed by the party currently in power should also be covered...
SN: These concerns exist and are founded, in light of the political strategy of those in power. The communiqués issued by the ruling CNDD-FDD party in recent months are quite indicative in this regard. If we want sustainable peace and reconciliation, it is clear that we must act against impunity for crimes committed between 2008 (end of the period covered by the Commission’s mandate) and now.
JusticeInfo: Do you have a message for Burundian politicians?
SN: Burundi’s leadership needs to show wisdom and discretion. It should make an effort not to manipulate public opinion in a negative way and stop people using the painful chapters of our past for their own ends. It is shocking that some victims of the dark years in our country’s history are now trying to use their suffering of the past to justify crimes they are committing today. The suffering of the past can never be a justification for the lapses we have seen in the last few months from some State leaders and actors.