Can justice be obtained for Burundians?
Is the situation known?
The human rights situation in Burundi continues to worsen year after year since 2015. There are more and more violations and most of them are being reported on by international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) such as Human Rights Watch[i], or more recently Amnesty International[ii]. The latest report drafted by the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi set up by the UN Human Rights Council[iii] highlights many cases and types of violations of human rights. Notably, we have seen raising concerns regarding gross human rights violations such as gross violations, extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and incarcerations, forced disappearance, various types of torture and ill treatments, and incidences of sexual assault. More than violations, we are talking about crimes against humanity as expressed by the inquiry commission in its report[iv]. The assessment is, of course, the same from human rights defenders, such as Forum National des Femmes, which notices an intensification in the incidences of sexual assault[v] or Association Burundaise pour la Protection des Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues (APRODH) (Burundian Association for the Promotion of Human Rights and Persons Detained), which states that nothing is changing in the humanitarian situation and fears this will last as long as President Pierre Nkurunziza remains in office[vi].
In addition, more and more countries are communicating on the situation in Burundi. Recently, the spokesperson of the French minister of foreign affairs intervened to condemn the 32-year prison conviction of Germain Rukuki, a Burundian human rights defender, and showed his disarray towards the fundamental rights violations that occur in Burundi[vii]. Contra Nocendi International has also come out strongly to condemn Germain’s case. The United States of America also expressed their concerns regarding the Burundian non-democratic process the government is trying to implement to change the Constitution so that the president can remain in office longer. Along with this statement, the United States specified that the government was not respecting the freedom of expression and association[viii].
A variety of reports and denunciations of human rights violations happening in the country are being made by diverse actors, states, NGOs and international organizations. However, despite all these reports, there are very few cases where these violations are followed up with legal proceedings –at the national, regional, or international levels. How can this be explained?
Why is more not being done?
Although there is very little existing data on this subject in Burundi, the near non-existence of legal proceedings at the national level can explained very easily. Indeed, in relations to the current situation in the country, lawyers are being threatened and put under a lot of pressure when they take on cases involving human rights violations committed by the government[ix]. In January 2017, four human rights lawyers were disbarred from the Burundian bar for having submitted an alternative report to the UN Committee Against Torture[x]. Many organsations, including Contra Nocendi International, have submitted reports to UN Human Rights bodies. This avenue of engagement is a vital part of the UN human rights system. Moreover, and as explained in the report by the commission of inquiry, even if some cases are brought to court, no follow up is given to them. As a lawyer stated, “it is a justice held hostage[xi].” This sheds a light on the lack of legal proceedings against human rights violations at the national level: the system is such that no resort is allowed on this base. Indeed, as mentioned in a previous Contra Nocendi International article[xii], both the legal and law enforcement systems in Burundi are susceptible to corruption and its negative consequences. Consequently, this explains the lack of legal proceedings in the country. This is of course in line with what is currently occurring in the country: perpetrators continue to commit human rights violations, and in order to protect and continue perpetuating these acts, justice is being manipulated.
At the regional and international levels, individual communication processes are put in place to facilitate the denunciation of abuses and violations of rights protected by a specific Convention to which the state is party. The main scope of these processes is to allow for accountability of countries to their citizens, and give a voice to victims of human rights violations. This process is particularly important for countries such as Burundi, because the abused people do not have to go through their government. Complaints made by States only exist in rare cases because countries prefer to “sort their conflicts outside of international bodies”[xiii]. The fear of developing tensed bilateral relationships is also a reason why inter-state complaints are scarce.
At the regional level, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (the Commission) is the main mechanism when it comes to the promotion and protection of human rights. The individual communications represent an important part of the commission’s work. However, the conditions of admissibility of these communications are numerous, which can make it challenging to seek help from the Commission. The most difficult condition to subvert is the fact that the Commission is a last resort, and can only be seized once all national remedies have been exhausted[xiv]. Hence, numerous individual communications are not followed after.
Internationally speaking, it is the system of the United Nations for the promotion and the protection of human rights that is the main organ in charge of human rights. Very little data exists on the subject, as all individual communications as well as the concerned parties can choose to keep the latter confidential, which is often what is done[xv]. Hence, it is complicated to assert if there have been a lot of reported cases at the international level. Nonetheless, it is still important to note that since 2015, the UN has been very closely following and monitoring the human right situation in Burundi, with ultimately the creation of the inquiry commission to this effect in 2016. Following this report of inquiry, the International Criminal Court has been seized to carry out its own investigation and prosecute the persons responsible for these crimes.
On all levels, most violations of human rights are not reported by Burundians due to fear of reprisals or lack of trust in the system. Indeed, Burundians are afraid to expose their own situation, either from shame of what happened to them or from fear of counterattacks or danger to their families, or their own lives.
The situation in Burundi is alarming, and the ever-increasing global acknowledgment from the international community on all levels is reassuring. The role of the civil society on the field is non-negligible in the specific case of Burundi, especially when the country makes it extremely difficult for international civil entities to enter its territory. Consequently, it is important to support these domestic or border-zone entities, in order to facilitate the processes of access to the justice system and show to the Burundian population that they are not left behind and that their voices matter. The international community also has the means to bring about this support and to show that it is on board with what it communicates. [xvi]
[iii] Rapport final détaillé de la Commission d’enquête sur le Burundi, Conseil des Droits de l’Homme, trente-sixième session, 11-19 septembre 2017
[v] . http://www.arib.info/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=17888