The findings of the experts comprising the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi “suggest widespread and systemic patterns of violations,” which, added to the country’s history of inter-ethnic violence and impunity, and the danger of a spiral of mass violence, have prompted the experts to urge the Government of Burundi, the African Union, the UN Human Rights Council, the Security Council and other international actors to take “a series of robust actions to preserve the achievements made in the Arusha Accord and in the 2005 Constitution, which led to the longest period of peace Burundi has known since its independence, the experts said in a press release issued by the Office of the UN Higher Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The recommended actions, detailed in the new report by the experts, include the immediate setting up of an international commission of inquiry, the involvement of other independent international judicial processes, reconsideration of Burundi’s membership on the Human Rights Council, and possible invocation of Chapter VII of the UN Charter if the violations continue and the Government continues to fail to comply with a Security Council resolution from July authorizing the deployment of a UN police force.
Because the patterns of violations clearly suggest they are deliberate and the result of conscious decisions, it is in the Government’s power to stop them, the experts emphasized.
Burundi was thrown into crisis more than a year ago when President Nkurunziza decided to run for a controversial third term that he went on to win. To date, it has been reported that hundreds of people have been killed, more than 240,000 have fled the nation, and thousands more have been arrested and possibly subjected to human rights violations.
Investigation team documents hundreds of human rights violations
Noting the Burundian Government’s “blanket denial” of almost all alleged human rights violations and the difficulty of precisely quantifying all the violations that have taken place, and may continue to take place, in a “situation as closed and repressive as Burundi,” the experts documented hundreds of cases of summary executions, targeted assassinations, arbitrary detention, torture and sexual violence.
Executions have been committed on a large scale by the security forces, often supported by the ruling party’s youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure, the report says, adding that the majority of the victims were opposed, or perceived to be opposed, to the third mandate of President Nkurunziza. The report cites the testimony of a former senior officer of the National Defence Force, who confirmed the existence of several lists of people to be eliminated by security forces, and notes the widespread reports of mass graves.
Enforced disappearances have been another common feature of the crisis, the report says, with information and names received from witnesses concerning a group of 12 senior members of the Government and agents of the Service national de renseignements (SNR), police and army “who have allegedly been responsible for many cases of enforced disappearances, and who report directly to the inner circle of the Executive.”
Members of civil society, especially human rights defenders and journalists, have been primary targets of systematic repression by the authorities, but there is also no room for dissenting positions within government circles or the ruling party, the report says, adding that “there are worrying signs of a personality cult being built around the President.”
The experts interviewed witnesses and victims who identified the location of many unofficial places of detention, including within properties of top government officials, in secret SNR premises, in the ‘Permanence’ of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD in Ngagara, as well in numerous other locations, including two bars and a building belonging to a water supply company.
The report also documents the widespread use of torture and ill-treatment. Elements of the intelligence services, the police, the Imbonerakure and, to a lesser extent, the army were “consistently identified as the perpetrators, and some individuals, including senior figures of the security apparatus, have been repeatedly cited,” according to the report.
The UN investigation team also identified a pattern of sexual and gender-based violence, including numerous reports of sexual violence against women and girls trying to flee the country. Others were apparently targeted because they were “related to males who opposed the third term, or were perceived as political dissidents.”
The team also documented cases involving extreme sexual mutilation, as well as allegations of sexual violence against men, particularly in detention.
“Any semblance of opposition to the Government is dealt with ruthlessly and seemingly without fear of accountability,” the report says, noting that “the accountability mechanisms are exceedingly weak and impunity is endemic.”
“In light of the ineffectual accountability institutions set up by the Government, independent international judicial processes must consider whether international crimes were committed,” the report says.
“We are gravely concerned about the general trend of ethnically divisive rhetoric by the Government, as well as others, which may carry a serious potential of the situation spiralling out of control, including beyond Burundi’s borders,” the experts said. The report also outlines the massive displacement of almost 400,000 people as refugees and internally displaced people, and the devastating impact of the crisis on the country’s economy and social systems.
Expressing their “alarm about the potential threat to peace and security in the Great Lakes region,” the independent experts called on “the United Nations, particularly the Security Council, to discharge effectively its mandate to ensure peace and security, and to protect… the civilian population from threat of physical violence, under chapter VII of the United Nations Charter.”
They also recommend that the Human Rights Council “consider whether Burundi can remain a member of the Council” if the situation prevailing in the country does not change radically and the violations that have already occurred are not effectively addressed.