Burundi: Torture, Sexual Violence and Political Upheaval

Feature: Written by Georgia Banjo.

The East African country’s imminent withdrawal from the International Criminal Court only draws attention to Burundi’s human rights abuses, in light of an array of political turbulence.

The Burundian government’s decision to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) has prompted huge concern from opposition groups within Burundi, as well as the international community. The announcement was made on 11th October and also contained a condemnation of three UN investigators as “persona non grata” in Burundi. A bill to withdraw from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court has subsequently been passed by both the National Assembly and the Senate, and would make Burundi the first of the 124 member states to leave the ICC.

It is uncertain what impact this move will have the on-going crisis which has afflicted Burundi for the past eighteen months. It began in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third term in apparent violation of the Burundian constitution. Burundi had sought to implement a power-sharing agreement between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, as part of the Arusha peace agreement which formally ended a thirteen-year civil war in 2005. With an almost identical ethnic make-up as neighbouring Rwanda, many felt that Nkurunziza’s own ambitions threatened to thwart this delicate balancing act and re-inflame old tensions.

Alarms were raised when non-violent protests against the so-called “third mandate” were met by state repression and violence. Nkurunziza won the July 2015 election, but has continued to crackdown on dissidents and perceived opposition since then. A UN Report released last month condemned the “gross human rights violations” that it found to be largely committed by state agents. This followed the International Criminal Court’s decision to launch a preliminary investigation into the Burundian government’s actions earlier this year.

Burundi’s withdrawal will not prevent the ICC from continuing to investigate human rights abuses, and it may take up to a year for the formal process to be completed. Nonetheless, its actions have only prompted further international scrutiny of continued government repression, a lack of judicial accountability for human rights abuses and a mounting refugee crisis.

Evident human rights abuses

There are no reliable statistics for the number of unlawful killings since the crisis began, but the UN investigation documented dozens of accounts of executions and targeted assassinations, as well as reports of mass graves and enforced disappearances. The UN report also catalogued witness accounts of torture and sexual violence, frequently carried out by the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD. Many of the alleged victims were oppositions figures, demonstrators, or relatives of detainees.

Concerns have also been raised about the failure to bring perpetrators to justice, with no impartial judiciary. Burundi’s National Human Rights Commission and the three national inquiries commissioned to investigate human right’s abuses have so far failed to acknowledge any serious violations, tending to pursue demonstrators rather than state actors.

The past eighteen months have also been marked by mass arrests and detentions. Detainees have often included members of the media, as the government has sought to exile opposition media and shut down independent radio stations.

“Journalists have been jailed arbitrarily and their media outlets have been banned,” Reporters without Borders said earlier this year. “Those who criticise President Pierre Nkurunziza’s very authoritarian and abusive regime are nowadays likely to be beaten or tortured.”

The crisis has also had far-reaching social and economic implications, most significantly with the forced displacement of an estimated 300 000 people who are fleeing the violence. Over half of these are in Tanzania, but many have also made their way to Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. So far the United Nations High Commission of Human Rights (UNHCR) have met only 3% of their fundraising target to meet the needs of these people.

What next for Burundi?

The Burundian foreign minister dismissed the ICC as “an instrument of superpowers to fight against African countries”, presumably an allusion to the fact that nine of the ten situations investigated by the ICC have involved Africans. Indeed the UN seemed to anticipate such a reaction to its report. “We are deeply concerned about the tendency of the Government to adopt a mind-set by which it views itself as if it were under a total onslaught from the international community,” it said last month. Such a mind-set has also extended to the African Union: in December 2015 the African Union stood down after the Burundian government threatened to treat the deployment of 5,000 AU peacekeepers as an invasion.

Activists and international organisations have expressed concern at what Burundi’s increasingly isolationist position will mean for its citizens. “Already, we have information that intelligence agents are torturing, killing Burundians behind closed doors,” Burundian activist Vital Nshimirimana told the Associated Press. “The world ought to rescue the people of Burundi.”

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