The United Nations human rights chief said today that inside and outside Burundi, stakeholders are extremely concerned about tensions rising sharply as a series of pivotal elections set to take place between May and August this year get under way, and, with the country at “a crossroads,” Burundian parties must choose the path to democracy and the rule of law.
“This is a critical moment in Burundi’s history,” said UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein at a press conference during his mission to Burundi. “Its future may well depend on which path is chosen by individual politicians and their supporters, as well as various key authorities, over the next few weeks.”
The choice, he said, was between free and fair elections that would strengthen and mature Burundi’s still fragile democracy, and enable an improvement in its dire socio-economic situation, and a path of violence and intimidation aimed instead at subverting democracy for the sake of gaining or maintaining political power.
“There is only one path for Burundi to follow, and that is the path of peace, rule of law and democracy,” said Mr. Zeid. “Burundi cannot afford another outbreak of violence. It cannot afford it economically, politically, socially or culturally. It cannot afford it domestically or internationally.”
He urged politicians and activists to ensure that debate did not transform into incitement or violence and urged those competing in the election to do so fairly and graciously. He also stressed that the President and the ruling party, as well as opposition leaders, police and military should place the future well-being of the country as a whole before their own personal political desires.
“In the long term this is in everybody’s interests,” he said. “And history – and possibly national or international courts – will judge those who kill, bribe or intimidate their way to power.”
However, he pointed out that recent events were of great concern, with tensions rising sharply over the past few months as the elections approach, reportedly stoked by an increase in politically motivated harassment, intimidation and acts of violence, as well as a reported rise in hate speech.
He pointed to “extreme examples of hate speech” heard at a pro-Government political rally in Bujumbura and several examples of attacks on and intimidation of journalists, human rights defenders and opposition politicians.
“I will put it bluntly,” he told reporters. “As I prepared for this mission, I talked to many knowledgeable people, within and outside the UN, in Geneva and New York. They were all, without exception, alarmed about the direction the country appears to be taking. The Secretary-General has signalled his concerns, and so has the Security Council.”
He cited the main cause for concern as the pro-Government militia called the Imbonerakure, which he said appeared to be operating increasingly aggressively and with total impunity. People were fleeing the country, with up to 1,000 people per day crossing into Rwanda, and many of those leaving telling UN officials that their reason for leaving is fear of the Imbonerakure.
“These are all bad signs, but there is a clear way out, a clear way back to the path that leads to peace and prosperity, the path that was laid out at Arusha, and which the country has in general been following quite closely until recently,” he said. “The Government and security forces must clamp down on the militia of the Imbonerakure, investigate and bring those of its members who have carried out crimes before the courts.”
Mr. Zeid said the Government needed to send a clear message that extremism and impunity would no longer prevail and he added that all political demonstrations needed to be treated equally and in accordance with international laws and standards relating to freedom of assembly. Opposition politicians needed to play a part, too, refraining from inflation or exaggeration of facts to whip up anti-Government support and feed a climate of fear. They also needed to ensure that their supporters protest peacefully, and do not indulge in hate speech or react violently to perceived provocations.
He said he had held several meetings since arriving in Burundi on Sunday, including with the country’s top officials, as well as civil society organizations, the National Human Rights Institution (CNIDH), foreign diplomats, opposition politicians, and key State institutions such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the Independent National Electoral Commission, and the President of the Constitutional Court.
“During the course of these meetings and discussions, it was very clear that many people here are also extremely worried,” said the High Commissioner. “Ultimately, it is the authorities who have the obligation to protect all citizens and residents from intimidation and violence committed by any individual or group. They must also accept that criticism is a vital element of democracy, not a threat that must be crushed.”
He pointed out that that right to freedom of expression and opinion is enshrined in some of the impressive number of international treaties ratified by Burundi, adding that the Government is obliged to uphold those treaties, and pointing out also Burundi’s excellent record of cooperation with the UN, including with the High Commissioner’s Office and in peacekeeping operations.
There were several other successes as well, he said, pointing to “considerable strides” made in many areas since the Arusha Agreement, including in education and women’s and children’s rights. Ethnic tensions had also been dramatically reduced and the setting-up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a significant development.
“Another very significant advance on the human rights front, was the establishment of Burundi’s National Human Rights Institution (CNIDH) in 2011,” he said. “The first group of Commissioners pulled off the remarkable feat of acquiring the coveted ‘A’ Status, bestowed by its peers around the world, in under two years. This status is not granted lightly and is clear evidence of the respect there has been for the work of the Commission.”
Mr. Zeid also noted that Government’s concerns over social, economic and cultural rights, saying that he shared them and pointing to the natural advantages held by the country in terms of fertility of its land and availability of water. Despite that, 48 per cent of the population remained in severe poverty and 60 per cent of the population was classified as undernourished in 2014.
“While some of this is the result of rapid population growth due to the extremely high fertility rate of 6.08 children per woman, it is also the lingering result of decades of conflict and massive human rights violations and displacement,” he said. “Given that the vast majority of Burundi’s refugees returned home over the past 15 years, it is particularly sad – and worrying – to see some people starting to feel the need to flee once more. It will also be devastating to the country’s slow and fragile recovery if another round of violence is triggered by forces opposed to a truly democratic and peaceful election.”