By Waceke Njoroge in Nairobi, Kenya
Although Burundi President Évariste Ndayishimiye has largely failed to keep his promises to deliver justice and promote political tolerance in a bid to stem grave human rights violations, he has managed to win the favour of the international community, Human Rights Watch has said in its report for 2022.
“Killings, disappearances, torture, ill-treatment, arbitrary arrests and detention, and sexual and gender-based violence were documented by international and Burundian rights groups. Unidentified dead bodies, often mutilated or tied up, were regularly found in different parts of the country,” the report says.
Despite this, the United States lifted its restrictions against Burundi’s prime minister and three other individuals in November, citing President Ndayishimiye’s election in May 2020. The European Union (EU) has started the process of lifting the sanctions it imposed on the country in 2015 in the wake of the brutal repression of protests against former president Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid for a third term in office. Announcing the bloc’s intention, the EU ambassador to Burundi, Claude Bochu, praised “the positive developments initiated by the president of the republic in terms of good governance, rule of law, and human rights”.
In this regard, Ndayishimiye has improved relations with the wider international community, more than his predecessor ever did.
It its final report released in September 2021, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, established in 2016 to document human rights violations in the country, said the abuses continued on a worrying scale and that Burundi had not undertaken any structural reforms to improve the situation. However, the Human Rights Council voted to end the commission’s mandate. It replaced it with a rapporteur, whose mandate the Burundian authorities have vowed not to cooperate with. The government has also continued to refuse to work with other international or regional human rights mechanisms.
“Despite the lack of substantive progress on human rights issues, on April 27, the African Union Peace and Security Council ended its human rights observer mission and called for lifting all international sanctions against Burundi, and in December 2020, the UN Security Council ended its Burundi-specific briefings,” the report said.
Since Ndayishimiye came to power in 2020, there have been only a handful of improvements in terms of human rights. The government promised to bring under control the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, but according to the HRW report “there have been limited attempts by authorities to rein in the Imbonerakure. Some members were prosecuted, although rarely because of serious criminal offences, in trials that often lacked transparency.”
Some restrictions on media and civil society have been lifted and four journalists and two human rights defenders were released from jail. However, many members of civil society or journalists who fled in 2015 remain in exile. During Nkurunziza’s third and final term, independent civil society and media were relentlessly attacked and their members killed, disappeared, jailed, and threatened.
Nestor Nibitanga, a human rights defender arrested in November 2017 and convicted on security charges, was pardoned and released on April 27, 2021. The conviction of Germain Rukuki, a member of human rights organisation ACAT-Burundi, arrested in July 2017 and sentenced to 32 years in prison in April 2018 for “rebellion,” “threatening state security,” “participation in an insurrectional movement,”, and “attacks on the head of state”, was overturned on appeal in June 2021.
Lawyer and former human rights defender Tony Germain Nkina, who was sentenced to five years in prison in June 2021, had his appeal rejected in September.
On February 2, 2021 the Supreme Court published a guilty verdict dated June 23, 2020 in a case against 34 people accused of participating in a May 2015 coup attempt. The group includes 12 human rights defenders and journalists in exile. After a trial, during which the defendants were absent and did not have legal representation, the group was found guilty of “attacks on the authority of the state,” “assassinations,”, and “destruction.”
The report of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi stated that the climate of hostility toward returning Burundi refugees had abated under Ndayishimiye. As of September 30, 2021, 269,330 Burundians officially remain refugees in neighbouring countries, with over 170,000 Burundian refugees being repatriated under the tripartite voluntary repatriation programme launched in 2017. The refugees have faced various challenges, including coercion by the Tanzanian authorities to return home “voluntarily”.
On Covid-19, the Burundian government has changed its stance since the death of Nkurunziza in June 2020. It has taken steps to curb the spread of the virus and started vaccinating the population in October 2021. The previous regime’s approach to Covid-19 was marked by repression and misinformation.