By Waceke Njoroge
Although the United States has lifted the sanctions it imposed on Burundi six years ago, citing “the changed circumstances in Burundi and President Ndayishimiye’s pursuit of reforms across multiple sectors”, concerns about the country’s human rights situation persist.
The US said it recognised “the progress made by President Ndayishimiye on addressing trafficking in persons, economic reforms, and combatting corruption and encourage continued progress” during the more than one year since the new head of state took office, but it was emphatic about the question of human rights.
“The United States remains firmly committed to supporting human rights defenders, independent media, and other civil society groups that promote transparency and accountability for those responsible for corruption, human rights violations, and abuses,” said a statement by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.
He added that together with partners and allies, the US will continue to “press the government of Burundi to improve the human rights situation in the country and use other appropriate tools to do so. This includes work with the new UN Special Rapporteur for human rights in Burundi”.
President Évariste Ndayishimiye, whose work US President Joe Biden commended, tweeted his delight at the removal of the sanctions that have hobbled the country’s economy.
His sentiments were echoed by Albert Shingiro, his Foreign Affairs minister, who, on Twitter, thanked the US for “this wise decision on termination of Burundi sanctions programme…This decision will undoubtedly contribute significantly to warm up the historic ties of friendship between Burundi and the US”.
America’s Burundi sanctions programme also included visa restrictions imposed on 11 individuals, some of whom are members of the current national cabinet. The limitations have also been lifted.
Ndayishimiye’s strategy of a diplomatic charm offensive seems to be paying off as the European Union, which also sanctioned Burundi at around the time the US did, was said to be considering rescinding the restrictions. Reports said its dialogue with Burundi on removing the sanctions are at an advanced stage.
The lifting of the restrictions and the ongoing dialogue are seen as a step forward in mending diplomatic ties between Burundi and the international community. Ndayishimiye recently approached Rwanda and Tanzania to mend broken ties with its two neighbours.
From the time he took office in June 2020, the new Burundi leader has adopted a style quite different from his predecessor, Pierre Nkurunziza, in terms of his handling of relations with other countries. He has taken several foreign trips and sought to cultivate good relations with neighbours and partners farther afield. This, together with perceived reduction of the violence that had plagued the country since 2015, when Nkurunziza insisted on a controversial third term in office, has now started paying dividends.
The sanctions were imposed by then US President Barack Obama after violent protests greeted Nkurunziza’s decision to change the constitution to accommodate his ambitions. This plunged Burundi into unrest of near-civil war proportions that led to thousands of deaths and many fleeing the country.
Nkurunziza was president for 15 years. He came to power first as a parliamentary nominee in 2005, then later won two controversial popular elections. He ruled with an iron fist, making few compromises and though there were some diplomatic relationships with the international community, they were estranged.
The US, the EU, and several other countries cut ties with Burundi, imposing sanctions and suspending aid. America’s executive order effecting the sanctions declared Burundi a national emergency on November 22, 2015. It also froze properties owned by some government officials, accusing them of playing a key role in human rights violations.
“The transfer of power following elections in 2020 significantly decreased violence… Accordingly, I hereby terminate the national emergency declared in Executive Order 13712, and revoke that order,” reads the order signed by Biden.
The sanctions were lifted two days after the US ambassador to Burundi, Melanie H. Higgins, met with Ndayishimiye in Gitega while opening the National Development Forum in Bujumbura.
The European Union suspended direct aid to Burundi following a United Nations report of gross human rights violations. At the time, more than 50 per cent of the country’s budget was dependent on donors.
Despite these developments, there have been reports of worsening human rights violations in Burundi during Ndayishimiye’s presidency, worrying human rights and civil society organisations. They have complained that journalists and members of civil society are perceived as being opposed to the regime and have been unfairly targeted.
Six human rights organisations have protested at the jailing of Burundi lawyer Tony Germain Nkina, allegedly for endangering internal state security and collaborating with rebels who attacked the country. Human Rights Watch, which has launched an international petition for his release, has termed his trial “a travesty of justice”.
In its latest report, the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said the rule of law has progressively deteriorated and violation of human rights, though improved in some cases, remains present despite the new regime.
State officials and other groups affiliated to the government have continued to commit serious human rights violations since President Ndayishimiye took power, according to the report.
It said crimes, including arbitrary detention and execution; torture; and intimidation, have not stopped.
“Not only have grave human rights violations continued to occur, but in some respects the situation has deteriorated since President Ndayishimiye took office in June last year,” the commission chairman, Doudou Diene, told journalists in Geneva when the report was released in September 2021, prior to its presentation before the UN Human Rights Council, which appointed the inquiry.
The commission acknowledged that Ndayishimiye and his government have markedly improved relations between Burundi and the international community, but expressed concern that there has been little meaningful change in terms of human rights.
“Symbolic, sometimes sensational, gestures have been made, but these will not serve to advance the fight against impunity and corruption in the long term or to reopen the democratic space. Serious human rights violations have continued to be committed by state officials and members of the Imbonerakure at the instigation or with the acquiescence of the authorities,” it said.
The commission asked the government to implement its recommendations on priority measures to put an end to human rights violations and international crimes, combat impunity and economic malfeasance, reopen the democratic space, guarantee civil liberties, reform the judicial system, and control the Imbonerakure – the youth league allied to the ruling party.
The state was also urged to guarantee the security, freedom, and physical integrity of political opponents and their relatives, journalists, members of civil society, human rights defenders, and returnees, and to “…ensure that perpetrators of armed attacks are pursued in conformity with fundamental rights and legal procedures and without discrimination”.