One week before the expected participation of Burundian authorities in the African Union-European Union summit in Brussels on February 17-18, 2022, Burundian civil society in exile expresses its disappointment and concern over the European Union's February 8 decision to lift its sanctions against Burundi.
These measures had been adopted in 2016 as part of the Cotonou Agreement due to the serious deterioration of the human rights situation in the country. "I am indignant that the European Union decides to cooperate with a country that continues to violate human rights," denounced a human rights defender who wished to remain anonymous. The announcement of the lifting of sanctions comes at a time when no significant progress has been made in the area of human rights in the country. On the contrary, none of the elements on which the European Union was expecting progress has been the object of real reforms over the last six years." One cannot help but think that the lifting of sanctions is contrary to the values on which the European Union is founded," added Dieudonné Bashirahishize, member and former President of the Collectif des Avocats pour la Défense des Victimes (CAVIB). "The situation we fled from remains the same today," he continued.
By 2015, many members of civil society had been forced into exile due to the widespread crackdown on freedom of expression and association in the country. In response to the opposition movement to President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term, Burundian authorities carried out numerous extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances in a context of widespread impunity. Thousands of arrests and arbitrary detentions were also reported, with allegations of torture and inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees.
The arrival in power of Evariste Ndayishimiye in 2020 had however opened the hope of a transition in Burundi. "There are good words, but they are not always followed by good actions," laments Anschaire Nikoyagize, President of the Ligue ITEKA. Despite the release of the four Iwacu journalists in 2020 and Germain Rukuki in 2021, the situation of civil society remains extremely worrying. The case of lawyer Tony Germain Nkina, sentenced in October 2021 to five years in prison following an unfair trial because of his former affiliation with a human rights organization, illustrates the continuing attacks on HRDs in Burundi. "Many activists are arrested for holding meetings," said Gervais Nibigira, Vice President of the Réseau des Citoyens Sondés (RCP).
Burundian authorities are also blaming HRDs who have decided to flee the country. "What drove us to leave the country is still there," explains Anschaire Nikoyagize. On February 2, 2021, the Supreme Court of Burundi made public the life sentence of 12 exiled HRDs on unfounded charges of "attacking the authority of the State," "assassinations" and "destruction. If these people decided to return to Burundi, they risked being arrested and detained in application of this sentence, pronounced in the absence of the accused, and without being allowed access to their files. "How can we return to a country where we risk abduction and arbitrary arrest," Germain Rukuki replied to the government's calls for the return of the exiles. Faced with injunctions to "observe a period of silence" after returning to the country, Eulalie Nibizi, former president of the Burundian Education Workers' Union, wonders: "Why go back if it's to keep quiet?".
Beyond the HRDs, many Burundian citizens who have left the country after having suffered serious violations of their rights do not wish to return, despite the pressure they have been under. Chantal Mutamuriza, Executive Director of Light for All testifies: "I work with victims of sexual violence who have taken refuge in Uganda. Most of them cannot return because they have never been treated for their physical and psychological wounds. Some of them would rather die than return".
Burundian civil society organizations that have worked from exile have found that the security situation remains extremely worrying. Pacifique Nininahazwe, President of the Forum for Conscience and Development (FOCODE), explains that the documentation work of his organization allows him to affirm that "the number of missing persons has increased since the arrival of the new president. ITEKA has also continued to document numerous violations throughout the country in recent years, including killings, arbitrary arrests, and cases of sexual violence, all of which take place with complete impunity: the authorities are often aware of or behind the violations and those responsible are rarely brought to justice. "I don't see on what basis the European Union can say that the human rights situation in Burundi has improved," adds Pacifique Nininahazwe.
This sentiment is shared by Burundian HRDs in exile, such as Marie-Louise Baricako, president of the Inamahoro movement, who says: "The sanctions were adopted on the basis of the human rights situation and governance. These are the two areas most in need in Burundi today. Eulalie Nibizi, for her part, deplores that "the victims unfortunately do not have the strength to influence the decisions of the European Union". The lifting of sanctions risks having very negative consequences," said Dieudonné Bashirahishize, fearing that it will be perceived by the Burundian government as a signal of approval on the part of the European Union of its repressive policy. Following this decision, it is now essential that the European Union publicly and unequivocally expresses that the lifting of sanctions does not mean the end of its commitment to rights in Burundi.
The undersigned organizations call on the European Union to :
- Maintain and renew the restrictive measures adopted against individuals responsible for serious human rights violations in Burundi as long as they hold key positions within the Burundian political system and continue to play a role in the commission of human rights violations;
- Call for the reopening of the office of the United Nations human rights office;
- Maintain financial and political support for Burundian civil society, including those in exile;
The undersigned organizations call on the Burundian authorities to take immediate action to :
- End violations committed by the security services, as well as the Imbonerakure militia ;
- Urgently conduct independent investigations into serious human rights violations committed in the country since 2015, including accusations of murder and torture, with a view to holding the perpetrators accountable;
- Immediately release arbitrarily detained individuals, particularly prisoners of conscience, including lawyer Tony Germain Nkina ;
- Guarantee the possibility for local and international civil society, including HRDs and journalists, to work freely in Burundi without fear for their safety,
- Cancel the conviction of the 12 HRDs in exile pronounced on February 2, 2021;
- Put an end to abusive restrictions imposed on foreign non-governmental organizations, such as the need to respect ethnic quotas on their staff, notably through a revision of the 2017 law on non-governmental organizations;
- Lift the deregistration of civil society organizations, including Ligue Iteka, Forum pour le Renforcement de la Société Civile, Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement, Association Burundaise pour la Protection des Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues, Action Chrétienne pour l'Abolition de la Torture, and Réseau des Citoyens Probes;
- Lift the suspension of civil society organizations including the Civil Society Coalition for Electoral Monitoring, the Burundian Coalition for the ICC, the Burundian Union of Journalists and SOS Torture Burundi;
- Allow the reopening of independent media, such as RPA, Radio Télévision Renaissance (RTR), BBC and Voice of America that have been forced to cease their activities in Burundi since 2015;
- Allow access to Burundian territory for the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi; Commit to collaborate with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Burundi
Action des Chrétiens pour l'abolition de la torture au Burundi (ACAT Burundi)
Association des Amis de la Nature Association des Journalistes Burundais en Exil (AJBE)
Association pour la Coopération et l'Auto-Développement (ACAD)
Coalition Burundaise des Défenseurs des Droits Humains (CBDDH)
Coalition Burundaise pour la Cour Pénale Internationale (CB CPI)
Collectif des Avocats pour la défense des Victimes de crimes de droit international commis au Bu-rundi (CAVIB)
Ensemble pour le Soutien des Défenseurs des Droits Humains en Danger (ESDDH)
Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement (FOCODE)
Forum pour le Renforcement de la Société Civile au Burundi (FORSC)
Ligue ITEKA Mouvement INAMAHORO Mouvement des femmes et filles pour la paix et la sécurité au Burundi (MFFPS)
Réseau des Citoyens Sondes (RCP)
SOS TORTURE BURUNDI
Tournons la Page Burundi
Union Burundaise des Journalistes (UBJ)