Dismas Kitenge Senga, a research professor at Kisangani University in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is also vice-president of the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH), which has been alerting the world for months on the situation in Burundi. In an interview with JusticeInfo.Net, he calls for "urgent, coordinated action” from the international community to stop this small African country descending further into violence.
JusticeInfo.Net: What is your analysis of the situation in Burundi today?
Dismas Kitenge Senga: The situation in Burundi today is alarming. Extremely serious acts of violence are being committed every day. The cases of summary executions, acts of torture – including against detainees --, and attacks on human rights defenders and their families are particularly worrying, especially since the perpetrators enjoy total impunity. On the political level, the breakdown of dialogue between the authorities and opposition parties does not bode well for an improvement in the situation. Inflammatory words by representatives of the authorities and the issuing of arrest warrants against political opponents, journalists and human rights defenders are not likely to promote dialogue. So the priority today is action on both the security and political levels. The violence must be stopped immediately, rule of law respected in Burundi, and efforts made to promote effective, inclusive political dialogue in which human rights defenders and journalists also have a voice.
JusticeInfo.Net: Is it still possible to avert a cycle of violence in this country, given the situation? If so, how can we stop the worst from happening?
D.K.S: Yes, it is still possible to stop Burundi catching alight and to prevent the irreparable. But the gravity of the situation requires urgent, coordinated action by the international community. It is important to condemn abuses and incitement to violence, but now it is also time to act. Sanctions need to be put in place, and investigations, and political dialogue needs to be relaunched with those who are willing to participate in good faith.
There must be targeted sanctions against those who incite or commit acts of violence. The African Union has initiated the drawing up of a list of people who could be subject to an assets freeze and travel ban. These measures should be put in place as soon as possible to help weaken the instigators of violence. The European Union has launched a consultation process. It should lead to the suspension of aid to the Burundian government for as long as it is failing in its responsibility to respect and protect human rights.
JusticeInfo.Net: And on the judicial front?
D.K.S: Independent investigations into the crimes committed must also be carried out, which would allow responsibilities to be established and judicial procedures launched before competent, independent, impartial courts. Declarations by International Criminal Court (ICC) Prosecutor are on the right lines. Those who incite or commit mass violence must be made to understand that they risk prosecution by the ICC. Similarly, we hail once again the decision of the African Union Peace and Security Council to launch an investigation into human rights abuses in Burundi and to increase the number of its human rights observers there. This investigation, to be carried out by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights, must be done as soon as possible and shed light on abuses committed across the whole country, including in the run-up to elections, when the FIDH and Burundian human rights league ITEKA documented several cases of politically motivated abuses.
Political dialogue also needs to be jump-started between the authorities and opposition parties, so as to draw up a road map to end the crisis. The African Union and United Nations need to show leadership here.
JusticeInfo.Net: What could be the consequences for the region if nothing is done in time?
D.K.S: Widespread violence in Burundi would have heavy consequences for a region that is already fragile. From South Sudan to the Central African Republic (CAR) and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), crimes committed on a wide scale have helped to destabilize the region. Today there are more than 200,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda, Tanzania and the DRC, and this number could increase if there are no guarantees of security in Burundi. Once again, the international community needs to realize what is at stake.
JusticeInfo.Net: Looking at what’s happening in Burundi and the CAR, do you think Africa has learned lessons from the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda?
D.K.S: While there has been in recent years a process of democratization in Africa and development of regulatory frameworks, notably on protection of human rights, we still face big deficits in good governance which are essentially at the root of instability and eruptions of violence. That is what is happening in Burundi, where the authorities have gone against demands from civil society movements. When legitimate demands for political change are met with repression, violence, incitement to hatred and commission of crimes, it is to be strongly condemned and is reminiscent of the darkest hours of African history. But I would say that Africa has learned lessons from the mass crimes of the past. Africa is bringing its torturers to justice – look at Hissène Habré in Senegal or the plans for a Special Criminal Court in the CAR. It seems to me rather that Burundi’s political leaders, who have for several weeks been using ethnic rhetoric for political ends, have not realized the extent of these changes. They have not understood that demands for political change from Burundians fed up with economic inequality and stagnation, lack of access to education, jobs and basic services do not come only from Tutsis or Hutus. They have not understood that stirring up ethnic division could expose them to criminal prosecutions. As we prepare for more high-risk elections – in the DRC and Uganda –, African leaders must understand and listen to the demands of their people. Their longstanding attempts to divide as soon as they have trouble ruling now seem pathetic in the face of the determination of African people.