Human Rights and Democracy Report 2015 - Human Rights Priority Country update report: July to December 2016 - Burundi

The human rights situation in Burundi showed no signs of improvement during the second half of 2016, despite claims by the Burundian government of normalised circumstances. The pattern of arrests, unlawful detentions, torture, enforced disappearances and killings continued.

Targets for these abuses included Burundi’s remaining independent media. Despite the squeezing of civil society space, local reporting of human rights abuses continued under extremely challenging circumstances. On 22 July, Jean Bigirimana, a journalist from the IWACU media group, was kidnapped, allegedly by the Burundian security services. The authorities subsequently denied that he had been detained, and as of the end of 2016 his whereabouts were still unknown.

Whilst many members of Burundi’s political opposition have been forced into exile, harassment and intimidation of opposition party members and supporters still inside Burundi continued, such as the arrest of FEDES-SANGIRA party president Gervais Niyongabo on 28 September. We therefore welcome December’s declaration by President Nkurunziza about the planned release of a number of detainees, and urge that this takes place without delay.

The politicisation of ethnicity and the risk of ethnically-motivated violence continued to be causes for concern. Former and current Tutsi members of the Burundian military were amongst those targeted for persecution by the authorities. In a further risk to fuelling ethnic divisions, the Burundian senate instructed the Civil Service Ministry to conduct an ethnic census for all 100,000 civil servants, despite this sector not being covered by the Arusha Accord ethnic quotas. In this repressive atmosphere there are serious concerns that key political processes currently underway, such as a newly-established commission to study constitutional amendments, and a national inter-Burundian dialogue will not be sufficiently democratic or inclusive.

On 28 and 29 July, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) met in Geneva for a special session on Burundi to review allegations of torture and other abuses in the country, which had earlier been alluded to in 2 reports published by Human Rights Watch. On the first day of the session the Burundian government’s report was presented by Justice Minister Kanyana, who then heard a range of follow-up questions posed by the Committee. However, on the session’s second day, and for the first time in the Committee’s history, the Burundian delegation failed to appear to answer the Committee’s questions, claiming that new topics had been raised and demanding more time to prepare a response.

The following month, a Burundian prosecutor proposed that 4 lawyers who had contributed to a report by Burundian NGOs for the CAT session be struck off the Bujumbura Bar Council, alleging that the 4 had committed several offences including involvement in an insurrectionist movement and attempted coup. Also in August, it was announced that the Burundian police would start investigating individuals who they deemed responsible for spreading rumours via social media. Nine students arrested and imprisoned for doodling on pictures of President Nkurunziza in school textbooks were released.

September’s UN Human Rights Council (HRC) session in Geneva saw the release of a report by the United Nations Independent Investigation on Burundi (UNIIB) that exposed grave, widespread human rights violations. Included in the report were allegations of appalling sexual violence perpetrated by the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth wing; the burial of unidentified corpses recovered from rivers, with no autopsies or investigations carried out by the authorities; and a network of undeclared detention sites with links to the very highest levels of government. The Burundian government strongly rejected the detail in the report.

The EU-led HRC resolution on Burundi that followed formally condemned the role of the Burundian authorities in the majority of cases, and agreed to establish a Commission of Enquiry to investigate abuses in more depth. It was the first time that a sitting HRC Member State had been the subject of a (more serious) Item 4 ”Countries of Concern” resolution. The Burundian government refused to cooperate with the Commission of Enquiry, and small-scale, state-sponsored street protests targeting the UN and EU took place in the capital Bujumbura.

Following the UNIIB report and HRC resolution, in October, the Burundian government suspended its co-operation with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Burundi and barred the 3 experts responsible for drafting the report. The same month, in a further crackdown on civil society activity, the Burundian government banned 5 human rights organisations including the Burundian Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detained Persons (APRODH) and temporarily suspended 5 others including Iteka, SOS-Torture/Burundi and the Burundian Union of Journalists.

Following the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry through the HRC resolution, state-sponsored protests decrying the decision took place in Bujumbura. This formed part of a wider Burundian narrative during this period, with the government accusing human rights organisations of attempting to destabilise the country and claiming to be the victim of an international conspiracy geared towards regime change. In October, the Burundian government began the process of withdrawing from the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The UK’s diplomatic activity on Burundi is centred on human rights, including a key role in the formulation and implementation of UN and HRC resolutions, and participation in dialogue with the Burundian government under the EU Article 96 process. The UK will continue to work through the UN and EU to ensure a robust response to human rights abuses in Burundi.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has supported those who seek to defend human rights in Burundi. We have helped to fund a network that brings together civil society organisations that monitor and respond to violence and human rights abuses across Burundi. We also provide services drawing on the specialities of the member organisations such as psychosocial care, mediation and legal services. We are supporting a further project to boost local capacity to assist victims of crimes such as sexual violence, torture, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances. The UK government has also been helping those affected by the wider crisis, providing £3m in humanitarian assistance and £46m to support some of the 325,000 Burundian refugees in neighbouring countries since 2015.

Our non-resident ambassador, based in Rwanda, presented a case study of human rights issues in Burundi at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministerial Human Rights Day event in December.