As many as 400,000 people have fled Burundi since the political crisis began in 2015 when President Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a contested third term triggered mass protests across the country. Since then incidents of violence, human rights abuses and repression have escalated, resulting in thousands detained or dead.
After nearly a year of investigations by Burundians inside and outside the country, the Commission in charge of investigating human rights abuses committed since 2015 made its final report public on 4 September 2017.
In this report, the Commission affirms to have "reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed since April 2015 in Burundi." The Committee also confirmed the persistence of extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatments and sexual violence since April 2015 in Burundi.
According to the members of the Commission, most of these violations were committed by members of the national intelligence service, the police, the army and the youth league of the ruling party, commonly known as the Imbonerakure. It also states that "human rights violations have also been committed by armed opposition groups, but these have proved difficult to research."
These findings are not surprising. There are almost daily reports of such abuses and incidents committed across the country.
Given the scale, seriousness and persistence of these violations, and the absence of a genuine desire on the part of the Burundian authorities to fight against impunity and guarantee the independence of the judicial system, the Commission of Inquiry requested the International Criminal Court to open an investigation into the situation in Burundi as soon as possible.
Last week Burundi again found itself in an unprecedented situation.
The 36th session of the UN Human Rights Council ended with two conflicting, and even contradictory, resolutions on the human rights situation in Burundi, a scenario which exposed the divisions between the states of the council on the way to end the crimes committed in Burundi and punish the alleged perpetrators.
First, there was a last-minute resolution presented by the African bloc of the council. It was described as weak and pro-government by human rights activists. This resolution recognises Bujumbura's efforts to combat impunity. It also asserts that the responsibility to ensure security in its territory and to protect the population, to investigate human rights violations and to bring those responsible for these violations before the courts are above all for the Burundian State.
Then, another resolution was presented and voted on, on the initiative of Western countries. It extends the work of the commission of inquiry for one year. Its recent report was met with a strong and harsh reception from the Burundian government, but which no longer adheres to the International Criminal Court.
Thus, the country finds itself with two commissions. The first is supposed to activate governmental cooperation to investigate the crimes committed and to report to the Burundian justice. The second prolongs the work of an undesirable team of experts in Bujumbura obliged to carry out remote surveys.
Beyond this political-diplomatic battle human lives are being sacrificed in the name of national sovereignty and the stakes of regional and international powers. The reality is indeed sad, but true:
- Burundian citizens face daily risks to their life because of their ideology or their political-ethnic affiliation.
- The responsibility of certain law enforcement agencies, accompanied by members of the Imbonerakure youths league, as well as that of the opposition rebel groups is not a secret or it is self-evident.
- Accurate, adequate and documented information on the multiple violations of human rights exist.
The role of the international community?
In front of national justice, the ICC or any other independent jurisdiction, these crimes will sooner or later be tried.
In the meantime, the international community should be vigilant and ensure that the expressed will of the Burundian authorities to cooperate with the UN mechanisms and the team of experts is not a game of the regime to save time and possibly escape from ICC investigations, particularly after 27 October when the Burundian government will no longer be required to cooperate with the Court.
There are a number of theories and scenarios being imagined for the foreseeable future of Burundi, many with the Security Council in focus.
Many Burundians themselves are no longer expecting strong action from the international community, given the divisions within the UNSC, other UN agencies and even regional bodies like the AU or EAC. This is dangerous as it’s a scenario because it reinforces the potential for violence or radicalism.
Some envisage an escalation of attacks from outside Burundi or the flows of refugees in neighbouring countries causing pressure to be put on the Security Council. A third could be that division within the ruling party causes further instability. Divisions within the army and the grave deterioration of livelihoods for the vast majority of people are likely to fuel insecurity for thousands.
All of these would no doubt cause further violence, abuses and mass atrocity.
A path towards peace
But there is a fourth scenario; a path out of the crisis. With more active support going towards restarting a serious political dialogue, full implementation of the inquiry of commission, and more support on the ground monitoring and investing in local peacebuilding work could change things for the better. With pressure on the reopening of the independent media and a contingency plan in place to protect Burundians should more violence erupt, the path towards a peaceful outcome is possible.
More violence does not have to be inevitable. Last month there was some cautious hope with the meetings between the Government of Burundi and the opposition, and there should be serious efforts made to keep that going and expand it into an inclusive dialogue process.
No nation is built upon on impunity and the denial of crimes. Local people and local civil society organisations are working vigorously for peace inside and outside Burundi. Now is the time to support them.