In late December last year, a group of well-armed men slipped across the border into Burundi from neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. It seems their objective was to establish a rebel base in Kibira forest, near Cibitoke in the north west of the country, and “wage war” on the Burundian government.
Clashes soon broke out between the armed group and the Burundian military, and dozens of fighters were taken prisoner or surrendered to the security forces. The army and police then summarily executed at least 47 members of the armed group. Members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, also participated in the killings.
I spoke with 32 eyewitnesses to the killings in Cibitoke. A witness to the summary execution of six captured fighters on the banks of the Kaburantwa river on January 1 told me how police tied the men’s hands behind their backs, made them lie on the ground and shot them in the head one by one.
Another local resident, who watched police and military gun down 17 captured fighters, told me: “The men were made to stand in a line on the road. They were then all shot in the back. They were shot by the soldiers and the police. On the side of the road there is a cliff and they fell down.” The witness described how Imbonerakure went down the cliff and chopped the men’s bodies with machetes to make sure they were dead.
The Burundian security forces do, of course, have a responsibility to defend citizens against violence, but this does not give them a licence to murder those they arrest. Horrific though they are, the killings in Cibitoke are not the first of their kind; Burundi’s security forces have a history of violence against their own people
On March 12, 2013, Burundian police fired live ammunition into a crowd of hundreds of religious worshippers at Businde, in the north of the country. Nine worshippers were killed – including two girls in their late teens – and dozens injured. After the shootings, the police beat the worshippers severely. A woman I interviewed in 2013 told me: “They beat me, they beat me, they beat me and they beat me again. They beat me until I could die… They beat me until I could not feel the pain.”
Three police officers, including the commander of the operation, were arrested, but two months later, all three were provisionally released. Two years on, they have still not been tried.
The Businde and Cibitoke killings are part of a broader pattern of extrajudicial executions by Burundian security forces. Following the country's 2010 elections, scores of people were brutally killed in politically motivated violence. These killings were so serious that in November 2012, the Dutch government -- one of Burundi's most important foreign donors -- suspended part of its assistance to the Burundian ministry of public security, pending progress in investigating several specific cases. But despite the fact that almost all these killings remained unresolved, the Dutch government resumed its support in February 2014.
The Netherlands spends millions of euros on aid and training to Burundi’s national police force and army. An eight-year agreement was signed in 2009, the most recent part – running from September 2014 to 2017 – totalling approximately 30 million euros. The Dutch government says it wants the money to be used to “establish an inclusive and professional security sector, which respects citizens’ rights and is held accountable to these citizens”. Continuing abuses by Burundian security forces call into question the success of that mission.
The extrajudicial executions in Cibitoke – the largest such incident in recent years – should trigger a strong, unambiguous response from the Dutch government.
When Human Rights Watch published its findings on the Cibitoke killings this month, I was encouraged to see the Dutch ambassador to Burundi swiftly call on the Burundian authorities to conduct a thorough investigation. But calling for an investigation is not enough.
The Dutch government should make clear to the Burundian government that its police and army should hold to account those responsible for these killings.
The day after Human Rights Watch published its report, the Burundian Prosecutor General announced the creation of a commission of inquiry to investigate allegations of extrajudicial executions in Cibitoke. I hope this initiative will not go the way of previous inquiries in Burundi, several of which have either failed to publish their findings or have sought to shield perpetrators from justice. With help from Burundi’s international partners, the commission on Cibitoke can do better. The Dutch government should support this initiative by offering investigative expertise or other assistance, in an attempt to preserve the independence of the inquiry and guard against political interference.
Dutch taxpayers can also play their part, by demanding guarantees that money given to Burundi in their name is used to restore respect for human rights – not to prop up security forces who kill the very people they are paid to protect.
Lewis Mudge is an Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch