Since early this year, discussions and consultations on the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in Burundi have been going on. Government leaders have been meeting with political parties, civil society, religious organisations and other key actors. Leaders are now engaged in a campaign to explain the mechanisms of transitional justice to local government officials and people across the country. While everyone recognises the need and urgency to implement transitional justice, the variety of different views and deep concerns remains significant.

Members of CEDAC perform traditonal drumming to promote communication and Burundi’s shared traditions. Photo credit: The Advocacy Project.

I talked to various actors of civil society to get their views on transitional justice mechanisms that are supposed to bring effective reconciliation among Burundians after nearly five decades of violence and grave violations of human rights.

The first concern expressed by the leaders of organisations whom I met is the slowness of the implementation of transitional justice mechanisms. According to Pacific Nininahazwe, General Delegate of the Forum for the Reinforcement of Civil Society, a forum made of 146 civil society groups, there is cause for concern:

The President of the Republic said that the commission would be set up in January 2012, today we are told it'll be established before the end of the year: 30 December is the end of the year and I do not know if on that day they are not going to add another few months. And if the commission is set up in December, we will only have 24 months before the next election. Will the commission complete its work within 24 months? I do not think so, in the meantime the election campaign will begin.
This apprehension is shared by Florida Ahitungiye, Programme Director at Search for Common Ground Burundi, an organisation that has been actively involved in peacebuiding and reconciliation on the ground since 1995:
What guarantee is there that the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission will continue and reach its goals if it is implemented in late 2012 when the pre-election period is due to begin in 2013 and 2014 with the tension and turmoil we witness among politicians and people?
However, Perpetue Kanyange, leader of the Women's Peace Centre hopes that the work of these mechanisms will shortly begin: "It’s true, there have been delays but better late than never"

Truth and after: reconciliation or justice and reconciliation?

"The truth must be known: the whole truth. It is this truth that saves"
Civil society organisations agree that Burundians and the rest of the world need to know the truth about what happened. "What we need to know is who did what? Why? What is the genesis of the conflict? Why do people have taken up arms? Who is responsible for what? What was the chain of responsibilities? All these issues should be clarified and people must be prepared to know what to expect," said Joel Niragira, Communication Officer at CEDAC, an organisation that works for socio-economic reintegration of former combatants and fights against armed violence.

Venant Bamboneyeho who runs the AC-Genocide CIRIMOSO, an organisation fighting against the genocide ideology says:

Camouflage doesn’t save. The truth must be known: the whole truth. It is this truth that saves, because it allows knowing what is prohibited and what values to encourage so that human rights are honoured.
The position of FORSC is very clear according to its representative:
We are against impunity established as a rule in this country. There are unpardonable crimes that have to be prosecuted and punished when committed. These are the crime of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It is clear there is no discussion. Reconciliation will go through truth and justice.
Questioned on the possible amnesty for the purpose of promoting reconciliation, Florida Ahitungiye of Search for Common Ground Burundi says that the last word goes to the Burundians themselves but recalls that the country has subscribed to international laws and conventions that combat such crimes: "the relevant law is well known and Burundi is not an exception," she said.

The civil society organisations who were interviewed fear that politicians may influence the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in order to guarantee continued impunity, and therefore believe that the Special Tribunal, once established, must be able to conduct its own investigations without being bound by the TRC. This position is also defended by the United Nations.

Will CVR challenge the progress being made?

Responding to some concerns expressed within the society that the work of TRC could awaken the ethnic divide and create new tensions, the leader of the Women's Peace Centre thinks it will depend on Burundi: "it’s possible if we are not yet really ripe to battle with the ethnic problems and if people are not really committed to peace". She added "but I'm really convinced that the majority of Burundians would not want to fall in similar crimes and ethnic divisions".

CEDAC indicates that although there are unpardonable crimes, justice alone can not be emphasised because it can prevent reconciliation. "We must think in terms of the future, think of us in the long term, the future generations, and not try to cover up the crimes of some officials and safeguard their selfish interests," said the Communication Officer of this organisation, which has more than 25,000 beneficiaries throughout  the country.

Cedric Ndayongeje from the Inter-University Youth Forum for Peace in the Great Lakes said: "I do not believe that after nearly four decades of crisis we still have the mentality that the ethnic groups are ultimately the bottom line”. The youth leader added that the Burundians are preoccupied about how to tackle poverty rather than about what divides them.

For FORSC, this is not an issue: "This is the opposite of what might happen if we have a good Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Special Criminal Court" indicates his representative. He indicated that the special court should punish both Hutu and Tutsi criminals because "they have the same reflexes, they are harmful in the same way."

Taking into account the concerns of women and youth

"When citizens do not feel secure and do not know what will happen after telling the truth, they choose to keep quiet"
Women and youth are two social groups that have suffered severe violations of their rights and feel that their voices must be heard within the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

According to the Legal Representative of the Women's Peace Centre, women have a greater role to play: "we know that women have been victims of violence during all these recurrent crises, they kept silent while they have been profoundly affected. This has also impacted on the lives of their children. Children have become what their mothers had experienced, so in one way or another, the entire society has been traumatised". Perpetue Kanyange believes that women should be informed, sensitised and comforted so that they get to express themselves without fear. She worries that if this is not the case, most women might prefer to keep silent for fear of social repercussions and the consequences their revelations may have on their family members. This concern is shared by Search for Common Ground: "When citizens do not feel secure and do not know what will happen after telling the truth, they choose to keep quiet. Witnesses are not going to engage when they are not reassured about their safety, "says Florida Ahitungiye.

According to Joel, the force used to destroy must be used to build. Beneficiaries of CEDAC, yesterday victims of the conflict, are now committed to being involved in rebuilding for a better future by avoiding any contribution that may plunge the country into chaos.

"We cannot believe that excluding youth who grew up in the period of crisis will contribute to having a serene country while this new generation needs to have clarifications on the tragic history they experienced " said Cedric who claims the right of youth organisations to be recognised as key players in the success of the process.

While expressing reservations about the conduct of the process of the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms, civil society groups asserted that they are fully prepared to support the process through information, awareness, advocacy and moral preparation of grassroots communities.

They request the government, which has the final say, to apply the recommendations of national consultations and clean up the socio-political context for implementation of the reconciliation process.

Will the government follow the views of its people, the call of civil society and UN guidance for a successful reconciliation between Burundians? The coming months will be determinant as they will reveal the government’s commitment to seal reconciliation, ban impunity and establish lasting peace as the country prepares to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of its independence.