By Millicent Zighe
United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi (COLB) has once again expressed concerns over the ‘deteriorating’ human rights situation in the country as elections approach.
During an oral briefing to the United Nations Human Rights Council, the investigators said the eight risk factors pertaining to criminal atrocities -developed in 2014 by the UN Special Advisors on the Prevention of Genocide and on the Responsibility to Protect- are still present in Burundi. The commission singled out Imbonerakure as the main perpetrators of human rights violations in the country. The group, which is affiliated to the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) has embarked on a nationwide campaign aimed at intimidating the opposition and critics ahead of the May polls.
“They have been arbitrarily arrested and detained for participating in their party’s activities, and some were also victims of violence and torture while many others were killed. Their family members, especially women, have also been targeted and were victims of serious violations, including sexual violence,” said the commission’s President Doudou Diene.
The three-member panel also highlighted the persistent use of hate speech, notably from members and supporters of the ruling party. Posts containing ethnic slurs have been circulating in social media creating an environment conducive to violence and human rights violations. Glorise Kamikazi, from the association of Femme Intwari was recently sentenced after she made abusive comments against Hutus during a private conversation on WhatsApp. However, authorities have continued to shield majority of culprits from justice further fueling the culture of impunity; for example, Kenny Claude Nduwimana, a self-proclaimed journalist who has been regularly disseminating hateful speeches on social media.
While referring to the plight of Iwacu Journalists, the investigators called upon the Government to reverse the current crackdown on media. Burundi has continued to block broadcasts from international and local media houses infringing on people’s access to information. Scores of journalists have since fled the country citing security concerns. Jean Bigirimana, another reporter from Iwacu has been missing since 2016. Unconfirmed reports indicate he was killed and dumped at Mubarazi River in Muramvya province, not far from Bugarama where he was abducted by members of intelligence services.
Civil society members have also borne the overwhelming brunt of the Government abuses. Rights activist Germain Rukuki has been languishing in prison since 2018 after being convicted of crimes against state and national security as well as rebellion. Recently twenty-two human rights defenders and journalists who had publicly opposed Nkurunzinza’s third term were tried without any legal representation. They stand accused of taking part in the attempted coup of 2015 and incitement. COLB has since appealed to the international community including security council and regional institutions to encourage Burundi to reopen democratic, civil and political space in the country before elections.
“The government has continued to use the judicial system to silence civil society and the media. Human rights defenders remain arbitrarily detained. We are very concerned by the increase in hate speech with a political and/or ethnic dimension. This is circulating unrestricted on social media. We also note the silence of the Burundian authorities on this matter,” said Diene.
COLB also took note of the current humanitarian crisis facing refugees urging host nations to ensure the returns remain voluntary and free from intimidation. Tanzanian Government has been tightening the screws pressuring shelter seekers to go back home. More than 400,000 people were displaced after Burundi plunged into upheaval in 2015.
Nonetheless the commission has received its fair share of criticism from some leaders. Burundi ambassador to UN in Geneva Renovat Tabu termed the report as politicized and regrettable. Adding that his Government is used to the smear campaign. In the same update, he assured people that the country is ready to conduct free and fair elections noting that some candidates have already registered to take part in the presidential elections. This is not the first time the ambassador has blasted the commission. Last year he rejected another report by the COLB saying it offers an apocalyptic picture of a plan of destabilization on the eve of the election.
The Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi through resolution 33/24 of 30 September 2016. Its mandate was renewed three times, each time for one additional year by resolution 36/19 adopted on 4th October 2017, resolution 39/14 adopted on 28 September 2018 and resolution 42/26 adopted on 27 September 2019.
It is tasked with investigating human rights violations and abuses, identify alleged perpetrators of human rights violations and abuses and ensuring authors of these violations and abuses are held accountable for their acts.