Despite numerous mediation attempts, Burundi’s government and President do not intend to talk to the opposition, and repression is continuing. The authorities are showing the same intransigence with regard to the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, which has not been able to go to the country or hold talks with Bujumbura. Fatsah Ouguergouz, president of the Commission, gives this worrying assessment ahead of the final report which he is due to present to the 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in mid-September.
How hard it is to give up power, even when the Constitution demands it and clinging on brings bloody repression. This is the situation personified by Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, as Human Rights Watch writes: “Security forces and members of the youth wing of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure, target opponents and perceived opponents, who they kill, rape, torture, forcibly disappear, or ill-treat. Unknown assailants have also attacked or killed senior government officials. The ruling party has banned the most prominent Burundian human rights organizations and allowed the Imbonerakure to control illegal roadblocks and extort money from businesses and civilians. The justice system is deeply manipulated by the ruling party, and impunity is widespread.”
This concurs with the findings of Fatsah Ouguergouz, President of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, a panel of three experts set up by the UN Human Rights Council a year ago.
JusticeInfo.net: What is the current situation in Burundi with regard to human rights?
Fatsah Ouguergouz: Since our last statement in June, we have seen the continuation of violations which are taking place in a more secretive way than in 2015 and 2016. This situation is ongoing. There is no sign of a positive development in this domain. We have received several testimonies since June to serious human rights violations. So there is no reason to be less worried than before. Despite numerous appeals, the government of Burundi has refused to communicate with us.
So your final report is likely to highlight this negative trend?
In March we raised allegations, whilst remaining relatively cautious. In June we expressed deeper concern after examining these allegations and reaching provisional conclusions that show these violations have been ongoing since 2015. Our report will contain our final conclusions, as well as a series of recommendations.
The Burundian President apparently does not mean to leave power, despite the Constitution. Is that the reason for these abuses?
Of course. The human rights crisis in Burundi has come with the political crisis. A solution to end these violations can only come about through a solution to the political crisis. It was the announcement of President Nkurunziza’s candidacy for a third mandate in March 2015 that led to demonstrations and a clampdown. The President was re-elected in 2015 despite everything. So there is no change on the political front and no sign of any political dialogue about to start, although the international community has called continually for this. There is no sign that the Burundian government is opening up
There have been a certain number of diplomatic initiatives. Are these initiatives enough?
The international community has deployed a lot of energy, both on the institutional and bilateral levels. Special envoys on Burundi have been appointed by countries, by the UN and the African Union. The East African Community has appointed a mediator. But it has not changed anything.
Has the Burundian justice system done anything with regard to the crimes already committed?
Nothing is done to fight against impunity, because of the lack of independence of the judges and other weaknesses in the judicial system. The independent national human rights commission and the office of the Ombudsman were promising institutions when they were set up 6 years ago. But they are no longer playing their role as independent, impartial institutions.
What about international justice?
Burundi has ratified the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). It has signalled its intention to pull out of the ICC, but the ICC still has jurisdiction to investigate any crimes committed before the date that the pull-out becomes effective. The ICC opened a preliminary examination on April 25, 2016, but it still has not opened an investigation as such. The UN Security Council could refer the Burundi situation to the ICC. States could also contribute to the fight against impunity under the principal of universal jurisdiction.
Is the Burundi situation a sign of the difficulties, or even powerlessness of these different international justice tools?
With regard to our commission and the impact our report can have, it is of course too early to talk of frustration. Concerning the contribution of commissions like ours, whose role is essentially judicial, we should not under-estimate the importance of political considerations. These commissions work within the framework of their prerogatives and they do the best they can. Once the report is presented, the ball is no longer in our court. It is up to the bodies and other actors to whom we address our recommendations to decide how to follow up our report, starting with the Human Rights Council which created our commission.
The commissions of inquiry are not judicial bodies. They report on the facts and categorize them in a judicial manner. They establish the veracity of these facts and prepare the ground for possible prosecutions.
How did you go about verifying the allegations of human rights violations in Burundi?
We were not able to go to Burundi, despite repeated requests. The government did not reply to our repeated requests for information concerning these allegations of violations committed in Burundi, even when it was Burundian security agents who were themselves victim of human rights abuses by non-identified attackers, armed groups.
The Burundian government’s attitude has made our task much more difficult, but not impossible. It is also not the first time that a commission has worked without the collaboration of the government concerned. It is the case, for example, of those working on Syria and Eritrea.
We have gathered more than 500 testimonies, not only from refugees in neighbouring countries but also the diaspora. We have also got some testimonies from victims and witnesses in Burundi via different channels of communication.
Spiral of violence
After the Arusha peace accord in 2000 which officially ended the civil war in Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza was elected President in 2005. In 2015, he decided to run for a third mandate, despite the fact that the 2005 Constitution does not allow more than two consecutive presidential mandates. This triggered a coup attempt, opposition demonstrations and a violent clampdown that left several hundred people dead and caused more than 425,000 refugees to flee to neighbouring countries.
According to the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and Iteka (the oldest Burundian human rights league, in exile) between 800 and 1,200 people have been forcibly disappeared in Burundi since the start of the crisis.
“On the political front, the government has clearly signalled its intention to put an end to the consensus democracy of Arusha, a system of compulsory power sharing between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority which was installed in 2000 to end the civil war and which has been the bedrock of the institutions in the last decade,” writes Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group.
The media have not been spared. “Most independent radio stations have remained closed since the May 2015 coup attempt but new government propaganda media outlets have been created,” writes Reporters without Borders. “Journalists find it hard to work freely and are often harassed by the security forces, who are encouraged by an official discourse associating non-aligned media with enemies of the nation. The journalist Jean Bigirimana’s disappearance in July 2016 has still not been solved.”