Burundi accuses Belgium and France as UN launches human rights investigation

Burundi accuses Belgium and France as UN launches human rights investigation©UNHCR/Benjamin Loyseau
Burundian refugee family in the Ndutu camp in Tanzania
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“Pierre Nkurunziza, his supporters, and all those who chose the path of violence should be aware that they will not get away with their crimes.” This is how Dimitris Christopoulos,  new president of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) welcomed a September 30 UN Human Rights Council resolution setting up an international commission of inquiry on grave crimes committed in Burundi since last year. The Burundian government has accused Belgium and France of being behind this resolution.  

International human rights organizations stepped up their calls for action on the eve of this UN “dialogue” on Burundi. The regime in Bujumbura also stepped up its lobbying as soon as the three independent experts appointed by the UN released their final report on September 20. Their report says “gross human rights violations have and are taking place, committed primarily by State agents and those linked to them”. It warns that these are possible crimes against humanity, adding that “given the country’s history, the danger of the crime of genocide also looms large”.  

Burundi has been in deep crisis since President Nkurunziza announced in April 2015 that he would run for a third term, which the opposition says is unconstitutional. He managed to get himself re-elected three months later.

In its September 30 resolution, the UN Human Rights Council decided to create for a period of one year a commission to conduct an in-depth investigation into serious crimes committed in Burundi since 2015. The commission is also charged with identifying the suspected perpetrators and drawing up recommendations on what should be done to bring them to justice. The Human Rights Council issued an urgent call to the Burundian government to cooperate fully with the investigation commission, authorize it to visit the country and provide it with all information necessary for the execution of its mandate.

It calls for the commission to be set up without delay, and for all the necessary resources to be provided for the execution of its mandate, including specialized expertise in ballistics, forensics and sexual and gender-based violence.

The commission of inquiry is to make oral presentations to the Council in March and June 2017 and present its final report in September 2017.

“Responsible action” 

FIDH and Burundian human rights league Iteka say the UN Human Rights Council has taken “responsible action to try and prevent the worst” as Burundi slides further into violence. The international commission of inquiry “will be able to transmit evidence it gathers to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and contribute to bringing those responsible for crimes to justice”, they say in a joint press release. This leads new FIDH president Dimitris Christopoulos to warn that “Pierre Nkurunziza, his supporters, and all those who chose the path of violence should be aware that they will not get away with their crimes”. “The ICC, which opened a preliminary examination of the situation in Burundi and should now open an investigation, will be able to make use of the work of the new commission of inquiry in order to prosecute perpetrators of international crimes and to send a signal to those who may be tempted to follow suit,” continues the activist and Greek academic. 

The resolution was also hailed by the National Council for Respect of the Arusha Accord for Peace and Reconciliation in Burundi (CNARED), a Burundian opposition platform. “Even if it is not enough to end the abominable crimes being perpetrated in Burundi, this resolution is an important step because it will force the authors of these crimes to account for their acts and one day be brought to justice,” says CNARED communication commissioner Jérémie Minani, as quoted by Burundian press group Iwacu. 

Government counter-attack 

The Burundian government counter attacked by organizing a protest on October 1 in front of the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in  Bujumbura. Willy Nyamitwe, communication advisor to President Pierre Nkurunziza, tried to rally support after the adoption of the UN resolution sponsored by Slovakia on behalf of the European Union (EU). “The fact that, faced with the EU, Burundi managed to get 7 votes against and 21 States abstaining is a victory,” he tweeted. 

The day before, as UN Human Rights Council discussions on Burundi were continuing in Geneva, spokesmen for the President, police and army invited the press to Cibitoke, in the north of the country, for a press conference on the same subject. “These reports are targeting nothing but the occupation of Burundi by foreign troops,” said government spokesman Philippe Nzobonariba. “It is Belgium and France that are behind them.” It came as a surprise that France, previously seen as an ally of Bujumbura, was singled out for attack. “We have already condemned Belgium’s role in the misfortunes of Burundi,” explained Nzobonariba, “and now France is trying to take up the baton to destabilize Burundi.”

So will Burundi allow members of the international commission of inquiry to visit and conduct its investigations freely? It remains to be seen.