(Bujumbura) - Burundi's government should hold accountable those on all sides responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity during and prior to Burundi's 16-year armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said today. The statement marks the fifth anniversary of a massacre at the Gatumba refugee camp, where more than 150 Congolese refugees were killed in an attack claimed by the rebel group National Liberation Forces (Forces Nationales de Libération, FNL).
The conflict, which ended in 2009, was characterized by widespread and systematic violations of international humanitarian and human rights law by all warring factions, including murder, rape, and torture. The government has failed to carry out any meaningful investigations or prosecutions for these serious crimes, and has stalled on commitments to establish a truth and reconciliation commission and a special tribunal to prosecute crimes committed during the conflict.
"The Burundian armed conflict was punctuated by unspeakable war crimes against civilians by all sides," said Corinne Dufka, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "The victims and their families have a right to see those responsible brought to book."
Thousands were killed in massacres by all factions, including the killings at Gatumba, for which the rebel FNL claimed responsibility; the 2002 massacre at Itaba of approximately 200 Hutu civilians by the Tutsi-dominated Burundian army; and the 1997 killing at Bugendana of over 300 Tutsi by the rebel National Council for the Defense of Democracy - Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie - Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie, CNDD-FDD). The groups responsible have acknowledged responsibility for these crimes. Massacres by the Burundian army also predate the civil war, including the killing of approximately 200,000 Hutu civilians in 1972 and another 20,000 in 1988.
A series of internationally brokered peace agreements paved the way for elections and the disarmament of all warring factions, but the transitional justice mechanisms set forth by these agreements have not been established. The FNL, the last of a number of rebel factions to disarm, became a political party in April after negotiations led by a South African facilitator. In June, its leaders formally took up government posts, joining its one-time adversaries the CNDD-FDD, another Hutu former rebel group that has been the ruling political party since it won elections in 2005. Members of the former Burundian army (Forces Armées Burundaises, FAB), predominately Tutsi until 2004, also continue to hold positions of power. Numerous individuals who may have perpetrated crimes against humanity and war crimes hold key government positions, including in the military and the executive branch.
The government has shown little political will to hold accountable those alleged to have committed these crimes. The vast majority of rebels and soldiers who were arrested at various times during the conflict - including some suspected of murder - were released without trial by presidential decrees in 2006 and 2009 granting "provisional immunity" to perpetrators of "political crimes."
Burundian and UN representatives have been trying since March 2006 to agree on plans first set forth by the Arusha Peace Accord in 2000 to establish the truth and reconciliation commission and a special tribunal within the Burundian judicial system. Despite commitments made to high-ranking UN officials, such as the then-high commissioner for human rights, Louise Arbour, in May 2007, Burundian officials continue to reject the UN's call for an independent prosecutor for the tribunal.
Government officials have also publicly expressed support for amnesty for serious crimes, including genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Under international law, amnesty should not be offered for the most serious international crimes, which nations are obligated to prosecute.
A process of "national consultations" to solicit the views of ordinary Burundians on transitional justice mechanisms - funded by donors and led by a "tripartite" team of UN, Burundian government, and civil society representatives - explicitly leaves out these key issues.
"The national consultations process should not distract attention from the fact that in the nine years since Arusha, the government has made very little progress toward establishing transitional justice mechanisms in line with international law," Dufka said.
The absence of justice for past war crimes may contribute to a climate in which members of the security forces continue to commit both common and politically motivated crimes. Few of the crimes of this nature carried out since the end of the serious fighting in 2006 have been thoroughly investigated. The killings of over a dozen FNL members and opposition party activists documented by Human Rights Watch in 2008 and 2009 - most recently of Emmanuel Minyurano, whose murder in April has been attributed by witnesses to a man known to work for the intelligence service - have resulted in no prosecutions. In another case, army officers killed 31 civilians in Muyinga province in 2006. Although a widely lauded trial in October 2008 resulted in the convictions of 15 soldiers, a number of civilians implicated in the murders, including intelligence and administrative officials linked to the ruling party, have never been brought to trial.
Laws establishing a new police force and reformed army in 2004 pledged to exclude former soldiers and rebels found to be responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and torture. But because no vetting mechanism was established, the police and military, like other state institutions, continue to employ individuals who may have committed heinous crimes against civilians.
"Five years after the Gatumba massacre, the perpetrators of the massacre continue to escape justice," said Dufka. "It's time for the Burundian government to fulfill its commitments to justice for the thousands who suffered atrocities in Gatumba, Bugendana, Itaba, and across Burundi during the country's long conflict."
Prior to and throughout Burundi's armed conflict, in which predominantly Hutu rebel groups including the CNDD-FDD and the FNL initially fought against the mostly Tutsi Burundian army and later fought one another, all sides committed serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law. These crimes have been well-documented by Human Rights Watch and other human rights organizations.
War crimes attributed to the Burundian army date back to the 1972 killings of approximately 200,000 Hutu. Soldiers also massacred about 20,000 Hutu in Marangara commune (Ngozi province) in 1988 following a Hutu uprising in which several thousand Tutsi were killed.
An international investigatory commission composed of nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, concluded in 1994 that high-ranking army officers were responsible for the murders of President Melchior Ndadaye and a dozen other Hutu political leaders in 1993. Extrajudicial executions of Hutu political leaders continued throughout the 1990s. The army responded to the formation of Hutu rebel movements in the mid-1990s with regular demonstrations of brutality toward civilians. These included its support for Tutsi civilian militias that killed hundreds of Hutu, including dozens of university students, in "ethnic cleansing" operations in Bujumbura from 1994 to 1996; murders in 1997 of hundreds, if not thousands, of Hutu civilians who refused to move into forced "regroupment" camps, documented in the 1998 Human Rights Watch report Proxy Targets; and the massacre of approximately 200 unarmed Hutu civilians in Itaba in 2002. Such killings left Burundi littered with mass graves, most of which have never been excavated.
Members of the CNDD-FDD, now the ruling party, massacred hundreds of internally displaced Tutsi civilians at Bugendana (Gitega province) and Teza (Muramvya province) in July 1996. In 1997, CNDD-FDD rebels killed approximately 100 people at a church service in Kayogoro (Makamba province). During an attack in 1997 at Buta Junior Seminary (Bururi province), after Hutu students refused orders to separate from their Tutsi classmates, rebels killed 34 students of both ethnicities - most of them children - and six teachers.
At Gatumba in 2004, Human Rights Watch documented how FNL forces, allied with Congolese militia members, targeted for killing Congolese refugees of the Banyamulenge ethnic group - a group considered to be closely related to the Tutsi ethnic group. That year, in response to the massacre, the government issued arrest warrants for the FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa, and his then-spokesperson, Pasteur Habimana, but the warrants were never executed, and results of a government investigation into the massacre were never published.