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Burundi clamps down on international NGOs and rejects human rights criticisms

Report on Burundi: Presentation of independent experts reports to UN Human Rights Council. Credit: United States Mission Geneva/ Flickr, September 27, 2016.

Burundi's government has repeatedly tried to focus international attention on 2020 elections and draw a line under the fallout from 2015’s election crisis, which led to insecurity and regionally-mediated dialogue with opponents in exile. In May, controversial constitutional changes were unsurprisingly approved by referendum, but then President Nkurunziza surprisingly announced he would not run again.

While positions diverge, international and Burundian criticism against political repression and economic hardship continue as government officials in Burundi's capital Bujumbura tighten control over non-governmental agencies.

Human rights inquiries

At the 39th United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council session in September 2018, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (UNCOI) renewed its mandate for another year, as many rights organizations and opponents called for. It was established in 2016 to investigate human rights abuses occurring since 2015.

Bujumbura threatened to leave the council, but the motion was adopted with 23 approvals, 17 abstentions, and 7 against. Most African states abstained. Burundi’s UN ambassador said European states tried to “impose their will”.

A UNCOI 2017 report said it had “reasonable grounds to believe” crimes against humanity were committed in Burundi. UNCOI president Doudou Diène warned the constitutional referendum had exacerbated problems, and in June it still expressed concern over repression, citing opposition activist Germain Rukuki’s heavy prison sentence. It also said President Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would not run again should not obscure the situation.

A UNCOI 2018 report found that human rights violations in Burundi had continued with impunity, including torture and forced disappearances by security services and Imbonerakure, the increasingly powerful ruling party's youth-wing. It lamented the “shrinking democratic space” and “the growing impoverishment of the population”, and directly criticized the president for inciting violence.

The government refused UNCOI access to Burundi, so UNCOI investigators relied on hundreds of in-person and phone interviews with refugees.

The government and its supporters consistently reject these reports, claiming they are false and serve as plots against national sovereignty. One government spokesperson said one report was “void” and based on a “hidden agenda”, and officials boycotted its presentation — even demanding reparations. The UNCOI investigators were declared ‘personae non gratae’.

“Burundi received and deeply scrutinized the report just presented by the UNCOI Burundi, and would like to publicly reject it because it is a dishonest report, tailor-made and politically motivated“– Ambassador at HRC39

UN Envoy Michel Kafondo, in a mediating capacity, took a more positive tone than UNCOI, which officials argued showed UNCOI did not understand the full picture. Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court investigation into violence and impunity, opened in 2017, continues. Bujumbura also refused to cooperate and left the court in an unprecedented move.

NGO clampdown

After the 2015 crisis, restriction on government critics intensified, leading to harassment of opponents, media and civil society, and closures of several independent radios. Journalist Jean Bigirimana was forcibly disappeared, and activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa went into exile after being shot. Others, such as activist Nestor Nibitanga, faced general security-related legal charges.

In 2016, various Burundian rights organizations were delisted, and recently international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) came under pressure.

In September, the National Security Council, presided by Nkurunziza, announced all NGOs – except in hospitals and schools – were suspended for three months from October 1, and mining companies for one month.

This is to ensure compliance with 2017 regulations including ethnic and gender quotas, originally from post-war peace arrangements intended for security and political institutions. A government spokesperson even accused some NGOs of promoting homosexuality and political conflict.

Additionally, the government has forced NGOs to comply with new taxes and financial requirements for which NGOs were not prepared, creating a standoff. One possible motivation for the new requirements is to generate funds to alleviate struggling government finances.

Critics argued the council is only consultative and lacks legal powers, but Interior Minister Pascal Barandagiye said the council operates “above” ministers.

In a meeting on October 2, officials announced that NGOs which complied could restart as soon as four official documents were provided. Those that did not comply within three months would be delisted. Several International Rescue Committee employees were reportedly later arrested temporarily on accusations of continuing work.

NGOs protested, and Amnesty International warned the abrupt halt to activities would “throw vital services into disarray”. Iwacu newspaper later reported that services helping refugees return to Burundi had stopped.

Bloggers Landry Burundi and Patrick Nimpagaritse of Yaga Blog lamented the NGO restrictions as “a decision that penalizes everybody”, citing already high poverty rates and consequences ranging from reduced fertilizer supplies to energy.

UNCOI and others continue to report on human rights abuses and the government continues to contest them. With international disagreement or perhaps disinterest, the political crisis has stagnated to the ruling party’s advantage, consolidating its control over the opposition and international agencies in the country, but without solutions for worsened impunity and economic problems.

‘Credible elections’

International divisions persist over Burundi's situation. While diplomacy with China and Russia is warm, European Union sanctions continue and neighboring governments differ. The United Republic of Tanzania has called for Burundian refugees to return home while tensions with Rwanda worsened, with armed groups making cross-border raids.

In August, a UN Security Council communique expressed humanitarian concerns for “nearly 180,000 internally displaced persons, 3.6 million people in need and nearly 400,000 Burundians seeking refuge in neighboring countries”. It also lamented slow and poorly engaged dialogue and said Burundi needs to make improvements in free expression for credible 2020 elections.

International Crisis Group noted that economic hardships exacerbate risks of violence, with unemployment, inflation and goods shortages compounded by forced financial contributions to elections. Many have fled the political violence since 2015, and while thousands have returned since 2017, UN High Commissioner for Refugees still registered 319,753 post-2015 refugees in underfunded camps.

The UN Security Council welcomed the president’s decision not to run again and said that security had improved, implying a shift in focus from “political crisis” to “credible 2020 elections”, reflecting the government’s consolidation of control.

UN Ambassador Albert Shingiro welcomed this phrasing, but opposition politician Leonce Ngendikumana criticized weak international action and said that inclusive dialogue was necessary to restore peace and assure the dignified return of refugees and liberation of political prisoners.

Iwacu newspaper, for example, reported recurrent discoveries of dead bodies in some areas of Burundi. Armed crime and rebel groups, especially active in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, also pose deadly risks.

Pierre Celestin Ndikumana of opposition coalition Amizero y’ Abarundi recalled that “absence of war is not synonymous with peace”.

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