The government of Burundi is under intense scrutiny by the international community for committing what the UN believes could amount to crimes against humanity perpetrated against its own citizens.
The Burundi government has perpetrated systematic violence against citizens who have spoken out against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional third term. The constitution limits a president to two five-year terms; however, an exiled judge reported the courts were forced to accept Nkurunziza’s third term. A new UN report has estimated that over one thousand Burundians have been killed as a result of the government’s actions. Thousands more have been tortured, sexually assaulted, or mutilated. The report details mass graves, and the specific targeting of young adults, independent reporters, and human rights activists. Hundreds have disappeared. Another thousand have been illegally detained, causing some detainment centers to be up to 300 percent above capacity. The UNHCR estimates that almost 300,000 people have sought refuge outside of the country in the midst of these alleged abuses. Experts are increasingly worried about the potential for ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi civilians, due to the government’s increased use of ethnically divisive language. President Nkurunziza is of Hutu ethnicity, and his government has specifically targeted Tutsi citizens.
According to the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, the government has a duty to ensure peace after the twelve-year-long civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. Hutu and Tutsi relations in both Burundi and Rwanda have often included violence and strife. Burundi’s civil war started in 1993, soon after the country’s first multi-party national election, because Tutsi extremists assassinated the elected Hutu president. Following the assassination, Tutsi citizens were the targets of acts of genocide. Arusha peace talks began in 1998 and culminated in 2000 with a ceasefire facilitated by Nelson Mandela, with only two rebel factions refusing to sign. The ceasefire eventually led to a power sharing agreement between the two ethnic groups.
Burundi is acting in conflict with multiple international treaties that it has adopted to guarantee universal human rights. Freedom of expression is guaranteed in Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Human Rights Committee’s General Comment No. 34. Freedom from torture is codified in Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights (also known as the Banjul Charter) and Article 2 of the Convention Against Torture (CAT). The right to life is included in the Banjul Charter Article 4. In addition, all of these rights are codified in Burundi’s constitution.
Burundi has also ratified the Rome Statute, which defines crimes against humanity as “a campaign or operation carried out against the civilian population” that is neither random nor isolated. The violence must be part of a state policy, either overt or implied. Given the systematic nature and scope of violence perpetrated by the Burundian government, it likely falls within the definition of crimes against humanity.
Furthermore, UN Security Council Resolution 2303 ordered 228 UN peacekeepers into Burundi to maintain the security of its citizens, but Burundi has not complied with the order. As of March of this year, the EU has suspended all aid to Burundi. Still, Burundi has been unwilling to cooperate with the international community and has denied the results of the UN report detailing the abuses occurring in the country.
The UN has made a few key recommendations to support the people of Burundi who face oppression and violence. First, the UN explained that monitoring efforts must be continuous and thorough, so information regarding the government’s crimes against humanity is both factual and accurate. Second, if Burundi continues to ignore Security Council Resolution 2303, the United Nations should enforce the safety of the civilian population of Burundi. Third, the African Union is the guarantor of the Arusha Agreement, so its members should take steps to ensure its long-term success. Lastly, the Human Rights Council should reconsider Burundi’s status on the council.
Burundi’s citizens are understandably fearful of further violence, and while the crimes against humanity have become less overt, systematic violence perpetrated by the Burundi government has continued to increase. The international community can and should step in to hold Burundi accountable for perpetrating human rights violations against its citizens.