‘Climate of fear’: UN warns of Burundi atrocities before polls

Security forces and ruling party’s youth league accused of gross rights abuses to intimidate people for support.

Burundi election
Security forces continue to commit serious rights violations against those believed opposed to President Nkurunziza [Jerome Delay/AP]

Burundi is at risk of a new wave of atrocities as it approaches next year’s elections with an unresolved political crisis and a president who is increasingly portrayed as a “divine” ruler, UN investigators have said.

In a new report published on Wednesday, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Burundi said there was a “climate of fear” and intimidation against anyone who did not show support for President Pierre Nkurunziza and his ruling CNDD-FDD party.

Police, security forces, and the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, were committing gross rights abuses including killings, disappearances, torture and gang-rapes to intimidate people into joining and supporting the ruling party in the run-up to 2020 elections, investigators said. 

“It is extremely dangerous to speak out critically in Burundi today,” commission chief Doudou Diene said in a statement.

“The 2020 elections pose a major risk,” the report said, adding the government was increasing control over non-governmental organisations and there was no real multi-party system, since most parties had been “infiltrated and divided”.

It also said freedom of the press had become a fiction, while Nkurunziza had exceeded his powers, making appointments that are not within his constitutional authority, and relying on shadowy informal structures such as Burundi’s committee of generals.

Burundi’s government, which has refused to cooperate with or recognise the UN investigation, had no immediate comment in response to a Reuters news agency request.

‘Widespread impunity’

Burundi has been in crisis since 2015 when President Nkurunziza ran for a third term and was re-elected in a vote boycotted by most of the opposition.

At least 1,200 people were killed and more than 400,000 displaced in the violence between April 2015 and May 2017, which the UN said was mostly carried out by state security forces.

But in a surprise development, Nkurunziza announced last year he would not stand for election in 2020, confounding critics who accused him of working to extend his grip on power.

“The main human rights violations continue to have a political dimension,” the UN report said, adding victims, for the most part, continue to be government opponents – actual or alleged. 

Rights and opposition groups also levelled accusations of abuse at security forces and the Imbonerakure in the leadup to a 2018 referendum on constitutional changes. 

Burundi accused of widespread rights abuses before referendum

The Imbonerakure, in particular, has carried out killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture, and rape, investigators said.

“Women and girls are gang-raped by Imbonerakure during attacks of their homes or while trying to flee the country,” they said, accusing Burundi’s intelligence service of using sexual torture against men and women in detention.

“This alarming violence is fuelled by the widespread impunity that prevails in Burundi.”

1,200 statements

Violations were happening with virtually no scrutiny in Burundi, where media and civil society face severe restrictions, the justice system is “dysfunctional”, and in March, Burundi shut down the UN human rights office in the former capital Bujumbura, the UN said.

In light of the dire lack of oversight in the country, the investigators said it was vital they be allowed to continue their work.

The commission will submit its report to the UN Human Rights Council on September 17, which will determine if their mandate will be renewed.

The investigators have not been given access to Burundi but said they based their findings on more than 1,200 statements from victims, witnesses, alleged perpetrators and other sources.

Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies