For the past month, Burundi’s ambassador to the United Nations, Albert Shingiro, has publicly threatened to “bring to justice” members of a UN Commission of Inquiry (COI) investigating abuses in the country, suggesting they could be prosecuted for defamation and “attempted destabilization” of Burundian institutions.
This week the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights hit back, characterizing the attacks as “unacceptable.”
But the UN’s broader membership, including the countries that pushed to create the Burundi probe, still haven’t spoken up in support of the experts. Continued silence in the face of threats like these will only embolden Burundian authorities.
Despite the public threats against UN experts, the Secretary-General’s special envoy on Burundi Michel Kafando told the Security Council in a briefing this week that the UN and Burundi’s relationship seemed to be “heading in the right direction.” He also didn’t sound the alarm on the human rights crisis there.
The only thing the UN experts are “guilty” of is sticking to a mandate given to them by the Human Rights Council last year: investigating human rights abuses and violations committed in Burundi since April 2015. In their latest report, the experts concluded they have “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed in Burundi since April 2015.” The report confirmed that extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, torture, and sexual violence have continued, and they blamed most violations on members of the intelligence services, the police, the army and the youth league of the ruling party.
Soon after the commission’s report was published, the International Criminal Court (ICC) opened its own investigation into Burundi. This undoubtedly frustrated efforts by the government - which made its withdrawal from the world court official in October - to escape scrutiny over its role in horrific human rights abuses.
Countries that pushed to establish the investigation through the Human Rights Council in Geneva should stand up for their experts. The Security Council should too. Otherwise, the COI risks being sidelined, like the UN’s ill-fated police mission to Burundi authorized by the Security Council last year. Burundi’s civilians are still at risk of abuses. Now is not the time to look away.