Oral briefing by the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, at 43rd Human Rights Council session


9 March 2020

Forty-third session
Interactive dialogue on Burundi

Geneva, 9 March 2020

Madam President,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Since the renewal of its mandate in September 2019 pursuant to this Council’s resolution 42/26, the Independent Commission of Inquiry on Burundi has continued to carry out the mission it was entrusted with while observing the highest standards of rigor and impartiality. We thank the Council Members once again for recognising the importance of our work and for having renewed their trust in this Commission.

This year, our investigations focused on the violations of civil, political, economic and social rights in a tense electoral context susceptible to human rights violations.

We have already carried out field missions in Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania to collect information from victims and direct witnesses of human rights violations and abuses that were recently committed in Burundi, and to discuss with other sources. We wish to express our gratitude to the Member States that cooperated with the Commission by facilitating access to their territory. Since September 2019, we have collected approximately 130 witness accounts, which complement the 1,200+ interviews carried out since the beginning of our investigations.

We also thank the persons who provided valuable information despite the risks involved. We regret the fact that some of them had to deal with acts of intimidation and threats. We reiterate the condemnation expressed by this Council in its resolution 42/28 regarding « all acts of intimidation or reprisals carried out […] by State or non-State agents and directed against individual or groups […] who […] have cooperated with the United Nations, its representatives and mechanisms in the field of human rights ». We commend « the efforts by States to investigate allegations of acts of intimidation or reprisals and to bring perpetrators to justice ».

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In our September 2019 report, we concluded that the eight risk factors common to criminal atrocities were present in the context of Burundi and identified several objective indicators for each risk factor. We are carefully monitoring the evolution of the situation to determine if the risk factors are increasing, or on the contrary, decreasing on the eve of the elections. After the last few months, we observed that the evolution of the situation remains a cause of concern.

We note a deterioration of the situation in regards to risk factor n°1 on political, economic and security instability.

Despite the official statements from Burundian authorities claiming that there is peace and security in Burundi, several serious incidents that occurred recently is evidence of the volatility of the situation. On 22 October 2019 in Bubanza province, there were armed clashes between the Burundian defence and security forces and a Burundian opposition armed group, claimed to be Red-Tabara. On 16 November 2019, in Cibitoke province, a military position of the Burundian army was attacked by a group of heavily armed persons. The Government of Burundi officially accused Rwanda of being responsible of this attack in Mabayi, in the province of Cibitoke, an accusation strongly rejected by Rwanda. Between 19 and 23 February 2020, in the province of Bujumbura rural, the presence of an armed group was reported, in addition to several exchanges of gunfire with security forces in three communes. The official figures indicated that 22 « armed criminals » and two police officers were killed, six attackers captured, and that arms and ammunitions were seized. However, several amongst these armed men were killed after their capture and not during combats by security forces assisted by Imbonerakure, which constitutes extrajudicial executions and serious violations of the right to life.

We firmly condemn all these attacks which resulted in several casualties and serious injuries, including amongst Burundian armed forces, and we call on the Government of Burundi to share with us all the information in their possession regarding these incidents.

Various measures taken by the Burundian authorities clearly indicate growing concerns with the security situation. For example, on 15 January 2020, the Permanent Secretary of the National Security Council instructed the general population to look out for unknown persons on their colline and to notify the local authorities accordingly. He specifically declared, «We must control the flow of movement of the population and travellers and we must informed about outsiders accommodated by each household and hotel every day»1 .

Similarly, on 21 November 2019, the mayor of Bujumbura issued a directive for bars to only open between 17:00 and 21:00 during the week and from 13:00 to 21:00 on non-working days. According to authorities, the official position is that such measures are not curfews, but are solely meant to revive the economy and protect public health. However, they are accompanied by measures that are from security policies such as the requirement to install and keep two lights switched on at all times in each compound, to reinforce the mixed security committees and to regularly control the cahiers de ménage.

The economic situation has further deteriorated. Decisions by the Government to monopolise the trade of gold and foreign currencies, the prohibition of foreign money transfers by the main mobile telecommunication operators, as well as the management takeover of the coffee sector by the government – one of the major export sectors of the country - are all last resort measures to rectify the acute lack of foreign currencies, which prevents imports and creates shortages of basic products and medicine, which has a negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights by all Burundians.

At the same time, Imbonerakure and local authorities continue to force the population to regularly give contributions, including contributions supporting the ruling party, while the majority experience severe economic precariousness with 1.74 million Burundians in a « situation of need »2 out of an estimated population of 10.8 million

The humanitarian situation remains concerning with 336,000 refugees in various neighbouring countries as of 31 January 20203 of whom 5,734 were registered from 1 September 2019. Following a brief hiatus since 7 November 2019, the repatriation convoys between Tanzania and Burundi resumed on 6 February 2020. Eight hundred and fourteen Burundians were repatriated in the month of February 2020. According to our investigations, the « voluntary » nature of these repatriations remains doubtful.

The second and third risk factors related to the widespread climate of impunity for serious human rights violations, recent and old, and to the weakness of State structures able to prevent or halt potential violations remain relevant. Given that the related indicators have more of a structural dimension, there has not been any significant evolution during the last months.  Imbonerakure continue to enjoy near total impunity. We collected several witness accounts relating to their responsibility for acts of serious violence, rape, cases of extortion of goods and funds and forced recruitment into the ruling party; committed in collusion with local authorities or in the presence of police agents who do not intervene.

We however take note of one exception: the sentencing to life imprisonment of four Imbonerakure pronounced on 8 October 2019 for the assassination of a member of the CNL party during an ambush against militants of the party in Rugari, in the province of Muyinga in August 2019.

We observed a more ambiguous development regarding risk factor n°4, namely the existence of intentions and motives to resort to violence, particularly the desire of the Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD) to hold onto power, including by using past grievances and cases of impunity for political purposes.

Over the last few months, the priority of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR) has been the exhumation of remains buried in various mass graves previously identified by witnesses. On 4 March 2020, the President of the CVR announced that 7,348 victims of the 1972 massacres were exhumed from eight mass graves on a site in Ruvubu, on Bukirasazi colline, Shombo commune, in Karusi province. According to him, such exhumations help in the investigation of violations committed in 1972, and a « momentum of peace and national unity will necessarily require the truth on the 1972 tragedy ».

However, critical voices pointed out that CVR seems to only be interested in the 1972 victims (mainly from the Hutu ethnic group) which is significant given that these exhumations are taking place a few months before crucial elections. In fact, discussions on social media indicate that only CNDD-FDD is able to protect Hutus and equate any criticism of the current Burundian Government to supporting perpetrators of the 1972 massacres.

In her study of memorialization processes, the Special Rapporteur in the field of cultural rights, unequivocally warned against the risk of reviving past antagonisms, including the desire for revenge, if memorialization processes are not carefully prepared4 .

We hope that CVR is able to demonstrate very quickly a truly inclusive and impartial approach, particularly by calling on independent specialized experts to contribute to the reconciliation process throughout the country, the only possible way to move away from controversies and defuse the feelings of resentment that its work has generated.   

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Concerning risk factor n°5, the capacity of diverse actors to resort to violence and to carry out violations, the recent security incidents are all reminiscent of the existence of different armed groups and their capacity to intervene on Burundian territory. Similarly, the omipresence of Imbonerakure, members of the CNDD-FDD youth league, including within the mixed security committees, who are amongst the main perpetrators of human rights violations over the last few years, remains a matter of great concern.

Moreover, the Permanent Secretary of the National Security Council has recalled that the mixed security committees should not replace the police nor the judicial system, they should not organise night patrols without the presence of legitimate representatives of the police force and, above all, that they must integrate people of various political and religious persuasion so as to better represent the diversity of the population and inspire trust5 . Similarly, on 3 March 2020, the Minister of Interior ordered the suspension of all organised demonstrations by the youth affiliated to political parties singing their party6 songs and slogans until 27 April, the official start date of the electoral campaign. These decisions are positive and the Commission hopes that they will have an impact.

The lack of motivating factors such as a solid, organised and representative national civil society; and free, diversified and independent national media (risk factor n°6), has seen an increase.

The Government’s media censorship has increased by imposing, without prior consultation, a « Code of conduct for media and journalists during the 2020 electoral period». Consequently, it is prohibited to consider poll results as a source of information or to report preliminary or final results of an election which differ from those announced officially.

Four journalists from the Iwacu group, one of the last independent media still operating in the country, were sentenced on 30 January 2020 to two and a half years in prison for « impossible attempt to destabilise the internal security of the State » whereas they were merely carrying out their professional duty to gather information. On 22 October 2019, they went to the province of Bubanza to cover armed clashes between the Burundian defence forces and members of an armed group reported the same morning; but they were immediately arrested and detained. Their sentencing was denounced by several independent experts from the United Nations7 .

The control of NGOs and their activities has continued. In February 2020, foreign NGOs were requested to provide a list of their staff members indicating their ethnic group, gender and recruitment date for national staff, and, for international staff members, the nationality and a copy of their accreditation decision delivered by Burundian authorities.  

The Government has continued to use the judicial system to silence civil society and media. On 4 February 2020, the trial of around twenty exiled human rights defenders and journalists who had publicly opposed President Nkurunziza’s third term, was conducted in their absence and with no legal representation on their behalf. They are accused of having taken part in the « failed coup of May 2015 » and of « having incited civilians to take up arms against the authorities, assassinated civilians, military and police personnel, destroyed and degraded several public and private infrastructures ».  

Human rights defenders remain arbitrarily detained, in particular Germain Rukuki, sentenced to 32 years in prison on 26 April 2018 for insurrection, crimes against State and national security as well as rebellion. On 13 August 20198 , the UN working group on arbitrary detention considered his detention arbitrary and requested his immediate release as well as compensation. We invite the Government of Burundi to comply with the decision of this independent mechanism of the United Nations.

At the regional level, we note that there is still no progress in the Inter Burundian dialogue process, especially after the departure of the Facilitator, His Excellency Benjamin Mkapa on 1 February 2019, and no one appointed to replace him. There is therefore no official initiative nor clear prospect of a solution for the crisis triggered in 2015.

We note the deterioration of the risk factor n° 6 with the emergence of two new indicators: 1) the indifference or the reluctance of some UN Member States to act despite the fact that Burundi has clearly failed to take up its responsibility to protect its population against the risks of atrocity crimes (indicator 6 (i)). In fact, even if they were alerted on the existence of the eight common risk factors on the eve of elections, some Security Council Member States refused to include Burundi on the official agenda of February 2020 and opted instead for an informal meeting on this subject. A public and interactive dialogue of the Council is one of the best means of monitoring the situation on the ground in accordance with the principles of prevention and early warning.   

2) We note a lack of support by some neighbouring countries to protect the Burundian population seeking refuge as they refuse to accept and recognize newly arrived refugees, restrict assistance and place refugees in an untenable situation, forcing to accept repatriation (indicator 6 (j)).

Risk factor 7 on enabling circumstances and a conducive environment to violence and human rights violations, including the manipulation - for political purposes- of identity, past events or motives for engaging in violence, has increased.

We are very concerned by the increase of hate speech with a political and/or ethnic dimension that circulates unrestricted on social media, as well as the silence of the Burundian authorities in this matter. We take note of the harsh sentencing of Mrs Gloriose Kamikazi for offending women from the Hutu ethnic group within the association Femme Intwari in her abusive comments pronounced during a private conversation on WhatsApp. We call on Burundian authorities to take the same tough stand vis-à-vis the extremely hateful speeches against political opposition figures, such as those contained in the slogans and songs chanted by Imbonerakure during demonstration of force or sports activities, which call for violence against political opponents and for « impregnating their women ». Hateful speeches with a political dimension against Tutsis have been regularly disseminated on social media in total impunity by a certain Kenny Claude Nduwimana, a self-proclaimed journalist (indicator 7 (m)).

With regards to risk factor 8, i.e. the existence of triggering factors such as the holding of elections, we note the ongoing preparation of different ballots between May and August 2020, and some aspects of the electoral process have already prompted some questions and concerns.  

Voters registration was finalised in December 2019. On 23 December 2019, the Minister of Interior launched the Code of conduct of political parties and territorial administration during the 2020 elections, aimed at creating an environment of tolerance between the approved 28 political parties in order to promote peaceful elections. From 25 February to 5 March 2020, the Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) registered candidates to various elections, including Mr. Agathon Rwasa, candidate for CNL, and Mr. Evariste Ndayishimiye, candidate for CNDD-FDD. The candidacy of the latter cements President Nkurunziza’s announcement that he wouldn’t stand for re-election. The Commission of Inquiry therefore appeals to Mr. Ndayishimiye and the nine other presidential candidates to make firm commitments to respect and protect human rights and to resume dialogue and cooperation between Burundi and international and regional human rights mechanisms.

We note the spectacular benefits and privileges that will be granted to President Nkurunziza at the end of his term9 , including half a million US dollars in cash, a luxury villa, six service cars, lifetime benefits, which some estimate will cost around 3.8 million US dollars per year10 , while Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. In addition, the current President was also appointed “Supreme Guide of patriotism for the Country” 11, which gives him an official advisory role on matters related to national independence and unity and to the strengthening of patriotism. We question the institutional significance and the political consequences of this decision on future power stability in Burundi.

Finally, we can only deplore the prevalence of political intolerance in all the provinces of the country, despite the official statements of Burundian authorities calling for peaceful coexistence between different political parties. We have already documented numerous human rights violations that have been committed since September 2019, mainly targeting political opponents, including several CNL members. They have been arbitrarily arrested and detained for participating in their party’s activities, and some were also victims of violence and torture while many others were killed. Their family members, especially women, who have also been targeted, were victims of serious violations, including sexual violence. Many CNL members, but also 2015 protesters who were recently released from prison, had to flee the country to escape the increasing repression, mainly carried out by Imbonerakure, as elections are approaching.

The situation is such that a few days ago, the President of the National Independent Human Rights Commission of Burundi expressed his concern. According to estimates by the CNL spokesperson, in mid-February 2020, 490 party officials and members were imprisoned, a dozen were killed, others were tortured and more than 80 party headquarters were destroyed and/or vandalized. At this stage of its work, the Commission of Inquiry is not in a position to confirm these figures, particularly due to lack of access to Burundian territory. Notwithstanding this, the Commission will continue to investigate this situation.

Acts of intimidation, harassment and extortion of Burundian returnees from Tanzania have continued. In some cases, these were accompanied by serious violations, such as rape, abduction and, at times, subsequent death. These were mostly committed by Imbonerakure, sometimes with the help of local authorities. The hostility encountered and the violence that they suffered led some of them to flee the country again. Similarly, people who are not members of the CNDD-FDD were victims of violence and pressure aimed at forcing them to join the ruling party.

Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

As we had recalled in September 2019, the presence of these risk factors does not necessarily mean that atrocity crimes will occur, and above all it does not determine when or how they could occur.

By keeping you informed of existing risks and concerns on the developments of the situation, our Commission has already responded to the call for action in favour of human rights and the prevention of violations as recently launched by the UN Secretary General. The Burundian people, who have endured so much in the past, and who, today, are more vulnerable than ever, have the right to protection. They deserve that the international community, including the Security Council and regional and sub-regional institutions, immediately demonstrate their will to guarantee their protection. Burundi has experienced crises and tragedies on a recurrent basis, but this is not inevitable.

In the short term, we are making a solemn appeal, in particular to States in the region and the sub-region, to join forces to encourage the reopening by the Burundian Government of the democratic, civil and political space in Burundi, which is an absolute requirement for the holding of free, transparent and credible elections in a peaceful climate and political tolerance.

Nevertheless, we reaffirm that the primary responsibility for the protection of its population remains in the hands of the Government of Burundi. In this regard, it is important for the latter to demonstrate its willingness to fulfil this obligation by immediately taking strong and concrete measures to mitigate the risk factors, which we recommended in our previous report: in particular, ending the general impunity enjoyed by the Imbonerakure, sanctioning all hate speech and approving independent human rights observers and guaranteeing them the freedom to work independently.

More generally, the implementation of all our recommendations remains more crucial than ever. Their implementation is the only way of putting Burundi on the path to long-term stability. The elections will not in themselves resolve the deep crisis that Burundi has been going through since 2015, which is reflected in particular by the disintegration of the Burundian society and traditional solidarities. However, holding credible elections would be an important sign of democratic change and of respect for human rights. After long years of suffering, the Burundian people have the right to live in a reconciled society set in a peaceful democratic, economic and social environment.

Thank you for your attention.



4/ A/HRC/25/49.


6/ Decision n° 530/464/CAB/2020.

7/ See 20 February 2020 press release by Mr. David Kaye, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Mr. Michel Forst, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention:

8/ Announcement no 37/2019.

9/ Bill revising Law N˚1/20 of 9 December 2009 on the Statute of the Head of State upon Completion of his Duties, adopted by the National Assembly on 23 January 2020.

11/ Bill granting President Pierre Nkurunziza the rank of “Supreme Guide for Patriotism” adopted by the National Assembly on 19 February 2020.