The Burundian military and armed opposition forces have committed serious war crimes, including civilian killings and rapes, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today. The recent political agreement between the major parties in Burundi’s ten-year civil war should not have granted immunity from prosecution for such blatant and widespread crimes, Human Rights Watch said.
The 63-page report, “Everyday Victims: Civilians in the Burundian War,” documents massacres and rapes of civilians and attacks on civilian property between April and November, when the government and the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), the main rebel group signed an peace accord guaranteeing all sides provisional immunity from prosecution for war crimes.
“Agreements based on immunity from prosecution rarely work,” said Alison Des Forges, senior adviser to Human Rights Watch’s Africa Division. “The kinds of abuses described in this report should not go unpunished.”
One example documented in the report: during combat in April with Hutu rebel forces near the Burundian capital Bujumbura, the Tutsi-dominated military deliberately killed scores of civilians at Kabezi. In September the military committed similar killings at Muyira and Ruziba. Meanwhile, during that same period, combatants of the main armed opposition groups—the FDD and the National Liberation Forces (FNL)—have killed scores of civilians and pillaged their property.
Both government soldiers and rebel combatants have raped women and girls, a crime committed with increasing frequency in the capital and surrounding areas in Burundi. In addition, rebel groups have abducted children for use as combatants.
United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan has acclaimed the agreement, as have other international leaders, including South Africa’s deputy president, Jacob Zuma, who helped to broker the accord. But the international community has failed to condemn the guarantee of provisional immunity to combatants who have committed war crimes.
Proponents of the peace deal have argued that the immunity clauses were necessary to bring as many parties as possible to the negotiating table. But peace agreements based on ignoring atrocities in the past very rarely succeed, Human Rights Watch said. The 1999 Lomé Accord that was supposed to end the civil war in Sierra Leone is one obvious example.
“With the recent agreements, government soldiers and FDD combatants have no need to fear being held accountable for their conduct,” said Des Forges. “Civilians pay and will continue to pay the price.”
The FNL, a smaller rebel movement, has refused to negotiate with the government, and combat continues in and around the capital as government forces, which now sometimes incorporate current FDD members, fight FNL combatants. Civilians have left the Kinama and Kamenge sections of Bujumbura, and tens of thousands have fled their homes in the surrounding hills—sometimes repeatedly—in search of security. Government soldiers have deliberately killed local civilians in reprisal for FNL killings of soldiers separated from their units.
“Civilians who have been attacked, the ‘everyday victims,’ say they have been forgotten,” Des Forges said. “Protecting perpetrators of crimes from prosecution victimizes civilians yet again. It deprives them of any justice for what they have suffered.”