Dispatches: Why is Burundi Ducking Questions About Torture?

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In response to the human rights crisis in Burundi, the UN Committee Against Torture held a special session last week to review allegations of torture and other abuses in the country. But the Burundian government shocked everyone in the room by failing to turn up for the review’s second day – apparently the first country ever to do so.

On July 28, a government delegation, headed by Justice Minister Aimée Laurentine Kanyana, had attended the first part of the UN Committee Against Torture’s (CAT) review. In her opening speech, she stated that Burundian law prohibits torture and that anyone responsible for torture would be prosecuted. She attempted to discredit “tendentious” reports based on anonymous sources or originating from political opponents, and asked the CAT to disqualify reports to which the Burundian government had not had the opportunity to react.

She then listened as CAT members raised serious concerns – including torture, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, rape, and crackdowns on human rights defenders and opposition party members – and asked numerous, precise questions about the Burundian government’s actions. CAT members spoke scathingly about the Burundian justice system’s lack of independence and the authorities’ failure to end impunity.

It was clear Burundi’s minister would have a hard time answering their questions.

When the CAT reconvened on July 29, the Burundian delegation was nowhere to be seen. Eventually, the chair announced that the delegation had sent a written statement, asking for more time to respond. In the statement, the Burundian delegation complained that the CAT had raised questions which allegedly went beyond the issues it had set out beforehand. It also claimed the CAT was largely basing its questions on an alternative report, submitted by Burundian civil society organizations, which, it said, had not shared the report with the government.

In fact, the CAT had submitted its concerns well in advance. Furthermore, reports by Burundian and international human rights organizations documenting torture were already in the public domain. In July 2016 alone, Human Rights Watch published two reports, one on torture of suspected government opponents by the Burundian intelligence services and police and another on rape by members of the youth league of the ruling party. The concerns documented go to the core of the CAT’s review, and the Burundian government should not have been surprised by the issues raised.

The CAT decided to proceed to its concluding observations and not reward the Burundian government’s non-cooperation by delaying the hearing.

The Burundian government’s message last week was clear: it prefers to duck tough questions rather than engage with the UN on human rights, or take meaningful action to prevent torture.