Non-governmental diplomacy: a key to redressing human rights violations in Burundi

Burundi has come a long way, but there are still very dark stains on the country's human rights record. Non-governmental diplomacy can help.

David E. Kode
17 August 2012
An Amnesty International protest in front of the Burundi Embassy in Brussels - Demotix/Octavian Carare. All rights reserved

An Amnesty International protest in front of the Burundi Embassy in Brussels - Demotix/Octavian Carare. All rights reserved.

As of July 2012, different stakeholders including civil society organisations have made submissions and recommendations on ways to improve the state of human rights in Burundi for the 15th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) Process. The Universal Periodic Review came into being in 2006 through the United Nations General Assembly and has become a critical global process where all 192 UN member states are subjected to an evaluation of their human rights record by other governments. The overall objective of this mechanism is to ensure that human rights violations in countries around the world are addressed and that conditions for the respect of the citizen's rights are improved. During the session, representatives from other governments equally raise concerns about human rights violations in countries under review, making recommendations to the government in question on ways to improve the state of human rights.

Burundi is a classic example of an African country in transition from conflict to peace after more than a decade of insecurity and civil war.  The country has made great strides in reforming its democratic and judicial systems, especially when compared to the civil war period, but persistent challenges on human rights issues remain. It was believed that the 2010 elections would usher in renewed democratic, electoral and judicial reforms, along with respect for and acknowledgement of the fundamental rights of citizens. The post-election period has been characterised by a pushback on basic freedoms, politically motivated assassinations orchestrated by both the government-led Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces Pour La Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD) and the opposition Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL), while journalists and civil society activists are regularly threatened, intimidated and harassed.

Representatives of both the ruling and opposition parties have been accused of instigating attacks against each other and reprisal attacks have followed in cases where members of either party have been killed. In addition, armed groups linked to the FNL have attacked civilians in public places, notably in the 18 September 2011 attack at a bar in Gatumba, in which more than 30 people were killed. The government security forces have been unable to protect citizens from these attacks and the judicial processes aimed at bringing the perpetrators to justice have been characterised by serious administrative and legal weaknesses.

Suggestions made by civil society groups to the government to dialogue with the political opposition have been received with suspicion by the government, who has in some cases branded civil society groups as representatives of the political opposition. Reprisal attacks between the members of the CNDD-FDD and FNL lead to further violations of human rights. Under the current circumstances, non-governmental diplomacy might be the appropriate tool to improve the state of human rights in Burundi.

Human rights and civil society activists advocating against corrupt practices in the country continue to be harassed, intimidated and arrested in an effort to prevent them from carrying out their work. These activists are accused of “making false declarations” and are sometimes detained for lengthy periods without trial. In addition to judicial harassments, some activists have paid the ultimate price and have been assassinated in the line of duty, while others are trailed by intelligence agents and threatened into stopping working on sensitive issues like corruption and human rights violations.

The government and security forces continue to suppress freedom of expression and harass journalists, neglecting the basic principles of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Burundi is a party. Politically motivated harassment of journalists and suppression of the media in Burundi is common, particularly the practice of prosecutors summoning journalists for questioning over reports or articles published regarding human rights violations by members of security forces. Following the September 2011 Gatumba attack, the government imposed a media blackout and prohibited journalists and media commentators from writing or reporting on any aspects related to the case. Government officials regularly make public pronouncements threatening journalists with legal action.

Civil society groups who sometimes engage in protests calling for transparency and openness in the investigation of events surrounding the abuse and in some cases assassination of activists are often supressed. Law No. 1/015 of 29 November 2002 regulates freedom of expression in the country and stipulates that unions of civil servants can only be recognised if they are registered with the Civil Service Ministry. The constitution recognises the rights of unions to strike but in practice, strike actions by civil servants can only be undertaken with an authorisation from the Ministry of Labour and Social Security, and only if the Ministry is convinced that all other means to resolve disputes peacefully have been undertaken.  In effect, this gives the Ministry the authority to reject strike actions.

Non-governmental diplomacy through engagements during the UPR process on Burundi at the Human Rights Council can therefore serve as the key to redressing the human rights situation in the country as the government will receive recommendations from non-state actors and representatives from other governments. The government can also build on the work done thus far by the country’s National Independent Human Rights Commission, created in 2011 which has so far demonstrated a high degree of independence in its investigation of cases of human rights violations in the country.  The establishment of the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission already in the pipeline to investigate crimes committed in the country beginning from 1962 is also a positive step that will facilitate the process of transitional justice.

But for any meaningful progress to be made to improve the state of human rights in Burundi, the government needs to create an enabling environment for civil society to operate in accordance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (to which the country is a party).  It also needs to guarantee the following minimum requirements in policy and practice for human rights defenders and journalists and other members of civil society to operate: freedom of association, freedom of expression, the right to operate free from unwarranted state interference, the right to communicate and operate and the state’s duty to protect.

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