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“The Human Rights Situation in Burundi Is Deteriorating: We Need a New Approach to Show the World What is Happening”

Armel NIYONGERE avec sa permission

Armel NIYONGERE (with his permission)

Armel Niyongere says he refuses to let fear get in the way of his goals.

Niyongere has heard from from far too many people in Burundi about torture, extrajudicial killings, arrests, and arbitrary detentions for him to stop campaigning for the protection of the rights of every citizen in his country.

Niyongere is a human rights defender and lawyer serving as chairman of the organisation ACAT Burundi (Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture, Burundi), and he coordinates a network of associations dedicated to the defence of human rights. Niyongere also lives in exile currently, and ACAT Burundi was suspended by the government in the midst of Burundi's unrest in late 2015. He has since founded another organization, SOS-Torture Burundi.

President Nkurunziza's decision to seek a third term in 2015 sparked vehement disagreement, leading to a number of demonstrations and campaigns that quickly descended into armed rebellion and clashes. The government's harsh retaliation has also forced dissidents into exile or silence. Global Voices met with Armel to shed some light on the human rights situation in Burundi:

Global Voices (GV): Following the controversy surrounding President Pierre Nkurunziza's third term in office in 2015, the situation in Burundi remains critical. The Arusha Peace Agreement has not had the desired effect. The regime's radicalisation has polarised the political conflict, resulting in hundreds of deaths and the flight of more than 328,000 since April 2015  from the country. How do you see the short term situation in the country?

Armel NIYONGERE (AN) : Oui, effectivement, la crise actuelle au Burundi a été déclenchée à l’origine par ce troisième mandat illégal et inconstitutionnel de Nkurunziza qui met en cause les accords d’Arusha.  La population avait organisée des manifestations pacifiques pour protester contre ce mandat. Le gouvernement  a de facto réprimé ces manifestations dans le sang avec plus de 2 000 morts, plus de 500 000 réfugiés et plus 8 000 personnes détenues arbitrairement. Dans l'immédiat, je pense que la communauté Internationale devrait être ferme pour obliger le gouvernement à négocier avec les opposants pour une solution pacifique. Sinon, il y a risque de se retrouver dans une guerre civile ou de plonger la crise dans l’irréparable.

Armel NIYONGERE (AN): Yes, the current crisis was triggered by Nkurunziza's third term in office. This is both illegal and unconstitutional, and has raised doubts about the Arusha Agreement. The general population has organised many peaceful demonstrations in protest, however these have been violently crushed by the government. This has resulted in more than 2,000 deaths, more than 500,000 refugees( ed's note: projected number at the end of the year)  and more than 8,000 people who have been arbitrarily detained. For now, I think the international community needs to be firm, and to force the government into negotiations with the opposition, to try to find a peaceful solution. Otherwise, we risk civil war or allowing the crisis to become irreparable.

GV: You are both a lawyer,and a staunch defender of human rights in Burundi. What are the primary obstacles facing the protection of humans rights in Burundi today, and how are organisations working together to highlight and denounce any violations? 

AN : En tant qu’avocat et défenseur des droits humains au Burundi, je constate que la situation des droits de l’homme continue à se dégrader. Il y a l’impunité permanente, la justice est toujours aussi corrompue et n’est vraiment pas indépendante. La police manque cruellement de professionnalisme et elle est souvent citée dans beaucoup de crimes. De plus, il y a la présence de des milices de l'Imbonerakure, les jeunes du Parti au pouvoir qui semble être au-dessus de la loi. Et maintenant, le gouvernement est entrain de fermer et radier de nombreuses organisations de la société civile pourtant très dynamiques dans leurs dénonciations des violations des droits humains.  Mais toutes ces répressions a l’endroit de ces associations dont nous faisons partie n’affecteront pas notre travail, nous devrons par contre changer de stratégie pour continuer à alerter le monde sur ce qui se passe au pays pour que chacun joue son rôle.

AN: As a lawyer and human rights advocate in Burundi, I am noticing a marked deterioration of the human rights situation. There is constant impunity and an ever-corrupt justice system, which fails to act truly independently. The police demonstrate a cruel lack of professionalism and are often mentioned in conjunction with criminal activities. Furthermore, the youth wing of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure and its militia, appear to be above the law. And now, the government is closing down many very engaged civil society organisations due to their outspokenness against human rights violations. However, although they may try to suppress these organisations (to which we also belong), this will not affect our work. Nonetheless, we need to change our approach in order to show the world what is happening in this country, so that everyone can play a part.

GV: Do you envisage a start to constructive talks on issues relating to human rights and the freedom of speech with the different parties involved?

AN : Un dialogue inter-burundais constructif est pratiquement impossible vu que le gouvernement du Burundi continue de refuser  à se mettre autour de la table avec ceux qui ont organisé les manifestations de contestation. On remarque aussi que l'organisation de la région de la Communauté East Africaine qui s'est saisi de la question n’a pas montré de volonté à trouver une solution tangible à la crise burundaise, ce qui pourrait faire trainer le retour à la paix.

AN: A constructive Burundi-based dialogue is almost impossible, as the Burundi government is still refusing to enter into discussions with the organisers of the disputed demonstrations. It is also evident that The East African Community, the regional inter-governmental organisation that has raised the issue, has not appeared willing to find a palpable solution to the Burundi crisis, which may delay the peace process.

GV: You are the president of ACAT-Burundi and now the director of SOS-Torture: How would you describe a typical day faced with these responsibilities? How do you ensure the security of your loved ones and colleagues?

AN : Tout dépend de l’engagement pour arriver au résultat,  peu importe le contexte. Maintenant avec la crise, nous avons appris à la population à être eux-mêmes des observateurs pour dénoncer des violations des droits de l’homme. Nous avons bien sur des enquêteurs anonymes sur terrain mais nous recevons aussi des informations de la part des agents de l’Etat (police, administration, etc…). Nous essayons de ne pas exposer nos collègues. Nous travaillons dans un contexte très difficile, mais nous adoptons des stratégies spécifiques régulièrement pour nous adapter conformément à l’évolution du contexte.

AN: It's all dependent on the commitment we have to achieving our aim, regardless of the context. In these times of crisis, we have shown the public how individuals can be observers, so as to denounce any human rights violations. Of course, we have anonymous investigators on the ground, but we also receive information from state officials (police, public administration, and so on). We try to not expose our colleagues. We are working in a very difficult environment, however, we regularly adopt specific strategies to allow us to adapt, in line with the ever-changing context in which we work.

GV:  What role does the international community play in regard to your actions, and how is the current situation perceived on the international stage?

AN: La communauté internationale joue un rôle important dans la crise burundaise, vu comment elle est adoptée beaucoup de résolution mais qui n’a jamais été mise en œuvre. Les observateurs internationaux continuent a présenté des rapports montrant qu’il y a des crimes commis par des agents de l’Etat, nous attendons les actions concrètes par rapports aux rapports présentés par les Nations Unies. Il faut absolument que les Nations Unies mettent en place la résolution pour envoyer les policiers dans la mesure de protéger la population burundaise et prévenir le génocide sinon ça sera une complicité.

AN: The international community plays a very important role in the Burundi crisis: it has passed many resolutions that have, however, never been implemented. International onlookers continue to issue reports into crimes committed by state officials; we are still waiting for definitive action on reports issued by the United Nations. It's imperative that the UN put in place a resolution to send in police officers to protect Burundians and to prevent genocide. If not, they will be complicit.

GV: Relations between Burundi and the European Union and the African Union appear strained. Does this impact the situation within the country and endanger organisations like yours?

AN : Oui, certainement.  Les relations tendues du gouvernement du Burundi avec ces partenaires met en danger la vie de la population burundaise. En effet, ces tensions avec les partenaires internationaux provoquent indirectement une hausse des produits alimentaires de base  à cause du manque de devise que cela engendre. Ceci a pour effet de rendre en général la vie de la population au quotidien très difficile. Pour éviter tout cela, il faut trouver rapidement une solution rapide à la crise burundaise.

AN: Yes, undoubtedly. A tense relationship between Burundi and its allies puts Burundians’ lives in danger. These strained relations with our international partners actually indirectly cause an increase in the price of basic foodstuffs, due to the lack of foreign exchange. As a result, daily life has become very difficult for the general population. In order to avoid this scenario, we need to find an urgent solution to the Burundi crisis.

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