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Independent human rights expert appeals for tolerance in Burundi

Independent human rights expert appeals for tolerance in Burundi

Burundi may again find itself in a state of internal conflict if the Government fails to drop its intolerance of critics just as the country takes the first steps towards peace after 12 years of civil war, a human rights expert has told the United Nations General Assembly.

The Government must address a dysfunctional justice system and the human rights violations that are reported daily, Akich Okola, Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Burundi, yesterday told the General Assembly’s Third Committee, which examines social, humanitarian and cultural issues.

Some positive measures have improved human rights, Mr. Okola said, commending the work of the integrated human rights mechanism and noting efforts underway to train officials, especially state security agents, to respect human rights. He also applauded the Government’s strides in social and economic rights, including offering free primary education and free health care for expectant mothers and children.

But more needs to be done, he said. In a visit to Burundi last month, Mr. Okola reported an ineffective justice system and overcrowded jails and noted that respect for freedom of expression and opinion was under threat. The Government and ruling party’s tense relations with opposition parties, civil society and the media escalated and reached a crisis point last summer during a coup attempt and remains strained, he added.

Mr. Okola appealed to the Government to speed up the trial of alleged coup plotters, show tolerance towards the media, push forward plans for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a special chamber to bring guilty parties to justice. He called on international donors to increase humanitarian and development assistance.

In response, the representative of Burundi, said his Government was determined to improve the human rights situation and was committed to national reconciliation, resolving questions of expropriation, tensions and combating impunity. He added that Burundi remained open to cooperation, including with the Independent Expert, and would continue to work to ensure that all human rights were respected in the country.

Responding, Mr. Okola said on the issue of reconciliation, his investigations showed little governmental support for a truth and reconciliation mechanism, nor for the creation of a special chamber. He suggested that such a chamber would operate independently and could be a model for Burundi’s inefficient justice system, and that increased international aid would help to further reconciliation and reconstruction after 40 years of conflicts.

With regard to neighbouring Rwanda, the General Assembly yesterday extended the tenure of 18 temporary judges serving on the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), moving forward with its target of trying by 2008 all ethnic Hutu extremists charged with the massacre of some 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus in just 100 days.

The Security Council created the ICTR in November 1994 to prosecute people responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Rwanda that year.