Burundi Op-Ed: Bullying tactics shall not mask the truth about human rights crisis

By Rachel Nicholson, Amnesty International's Great Lakes Researcher

Reprisals, slurs, threats of prosecution - or worse. This is the price for speaking out about the human rights crisis in Burundi. As the Burundi government boycotted the latest round of talks facilitated by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa in late October, the search for a solution to Burundi’s human rights crisis remains as urgent and arduous as ever.

On 24 October, the same day as the government’s no-show at the East African Community-led talks in Arusha, Tanzania, Burundi’s ambassador to the UN in New York Albert Shingiro demonstrated similar disdain for attempts by the UN to end the crisis.

Not only did he repeat threats to prosecute members of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, but also insulted the Commission’s chair, Doudou Diène, comparing him to a participant in the slave trade. Michelle Bachelet, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, has demanded for retraction of the remarks and a full apology.

The UN Commission of Inquiry in September published a damning report warning that serious human rights violations are rife in the country. The response of the Burundian government was predictable - it trashed the report, called the findings “lies” and declared its authors persona non-grata.

The government even threatened an independent MP who publicly backed the findings during a joint parliamentary session held to discuss the report on 11 September 2018.

The government even threatened an independent MP who publicly backed the findings during a joint parliamentary session held to discuss the report on 11 September 2018.

Fabien Banciryanino MP, supported the findings and denounced the continuing human rights violations in the country. The Justice Minister’s response was chilling. Aimée Laurentine Kanyana issued a warning to those spreading “alarmist information without the facts”, asking the President of the National Assembly to initiate proceedings against them.

After the session, Fabien Banciryanino submitted further information to support his statements. But on 12 October, police blocked access to his house to prevent him from holding a press conference to discuss the issue.

These incidents highlight how taboo any form of public dissent has become in Burundi, and how the government is trying to silence debate externally.

Given the current situation in the country, I felt threatened because her words put me in danger, but in normal circumstances, I shouldn’t be worried because I was simply doing my duty.
Fabien Banciryanino, MP

Fabien Banciryanino told Amnesty International: “Given the current situation in the country, I felt threatened because her words put me in danger, but in normal circumstances, I shouldn’t be worried because I was simply doing my duty.”

If an MP could face such intimidation and harassment, despite being legally protected from prosecution for opinions expressed in parliament, then what hope is there for other government critics?

The Government of Burundi has a long history of blacklisting and barring international observers critical of the government. Its expulsion of a team of experts, separate from the UN Commission of Inquiry, was, however, somewhat surprising.

The team had been mandated by the UN Human Rights Council in September 2017 in a resolution initiated by the African Group, with the backing of Burundi itself. The team were in Burundi, waiting to be officially received by the government before starting their work, when they were informed in April 2018 that their visas had been cancelled.

These tactics are sadly the logical continuation of the government’s ongoing repression of dissent. Although many have fled the country, the crackdown against human rights defenders and independent journalists persists.

In April 2018, human rights defender Germain Rukuki was sentenced to an incredible 32 years in prison on totally spurious charges.

In April 2018, human rights defender Germain Rukuki was sentenced to an incredible 32 years in prison on totally spurious charges. His appeal is expected to be heard in late November.

On 19 September, the AU Peace and Security Council decided to reduce their human rights observers and military experts, “bearing in mind the relative peace and stability prevailing in the country.” To date, the government of Burundi refuses to sign their memorandum of understanding.

The reality, however, is that grave human rights violations continue with impunity.

The reality, however, is that grave human rights violations continue with impunity. In its report, the UN Commission of Inquiry concluded that it had “reasonable grounds to believe that the crimes against humanity continue to be committed in Burundi” including “murder, imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence of comparable gravity, and persecution on political grounds”.

These are the accusations the Burundian government is attempting to silence, yet the most convincing action it could take would be to cooperate with existing human rights mechanisms and give both regional and international observers free access to monitor and assess the human rights situation in the country, especially in the run-up to elections in 2020.

The UN, AU and EAC must redouble their efforts and issue a clear and urgent public call to Burundi to cooperate with their efforts. By taking a stand against the Burundian government’s persistent bullying tactics, regional and international leaders must prove to victims of human rights violations in Burundi that they have not been forgotten.