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Tear gas at a protest against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in Bujumbura, Burundi, May 21, 2015. © 2015 Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Expectations and optimism were high when Burundi’s National Independent Human Rights Commission, the CNIDH, was established in 2011. It showed promising signs of independence and had the potential to assume some of the risks taken by local human rights organizations.  

At the end of February, however, the CNIDH was officially downgraded by the Sub-Committee on Accreditation of the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, in charge of assessing the effectiveness and independence of national human rights bodies. The downgraded status, from “A” to “B,” means that the CNIDH loses its right to vote in international forums. It will also affect the financial support by international donors. But the devaluation has deeper meanings and charts the country’s descent into crisis.

Led by its first president, Emmanuel Ntakarutimana, the commission shed light on the government’s attempt to clamp down on the media, the need for investigations into killings by state agents, and the illegal use of preventative detention. Throughout his tenure, Ntakarutimana took seriously individual complaints brought to the commission’s attention, opening investigations of cases of torture, arbitrary detention, and unfair trials.

Only three months after the commission was established, Ntakarutimana did not hesitate to contradict the then-interior minister, when he announced that there had not been a single case of extrajudicial killings in the country. In August 2011, the CNIDH showed significant courage in sheltering five former rebel combatants in its office for several months, during a period when alleged members of the police and intelligence services were killing activists and former rebel combatants at an alarming rate. Statements and actions such as these put the commission in opposition to the government, and the work was not without risk.

But the commission carried on producing critical reports alongside nongovernmental organizations that documented abuse and called for accountability, raising hopes that the political and human rights crisis looming on the horizon might be prevented.

In March 2015, as controversial elections approached, the commission highlighted its concerns about increasing “political intolerance.” A month later the country descended into lawlessness when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his bid for a disputed third term. Government security forces and members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, cracked down ruthlessly on protesters and critics of Nkurunziza’s government.

This violence corresponded with the end of Ntakarutimana’s mandate as president of the CNIDH. The timing could not have been worse. His successor, Jean Baptiste Baribonekeza, appointed in June 2015, promised to “advise the government … to prevent human rights violations and respond to those allegedly already committed.” But in reality, the commission’s critical work has ended.  

Over the past three years, several hundred people have been killed and others have been tortured or forcibly disappeared. The independent media and the NGOs have been decimated and nearly 400,000 people have fled the country.

Civil society organizations, once a check on government power, have been dismantled. Most human rights defenders have left. Some of those who stayed behind, like Germain Rukuki, paid a terrible price. Rukuki was arrested in July 2017 and later accused of “undermining state security” and “rebellion.” His trial has been regarded by human rights organizations as a direct attack.

Rukiki’s was a member of the organization Action by Christians for the Abolition of Torture (ACAT-Burundi) which conducted investigations and advocacy before and during the violence of 2015. It was closed down by the government in October 2016, along with several other human rights groups accused of working to “tarnish the image of the country” and “sow hatred and division” among the people.

Rukiki’s trial finished on April 6. The prosecutors sought a life sentence. In March, three activists were given heavy sentences. Another one, Nestor Nibitanga, remains in prison awaiting trial.

While Burundian civil society groups operating from exile denounce this sham trial and assault on civil society, the CNIDH remains silent.   

Worse still, Baribonekeza has actively defended the government’s abysmal human rights record, denying the gravity of violations. This was most striking in September 2017, when a Commission of Inquiry mandated by the United Nations Human Rights Council confirmed serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, torture and cruel treatment, and sexual violence. The UN concluded that they had “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity ha[d] been committed and continue[d] to be committed in Burundi since April 2015” and lamented the CNIDH’s lack of independence. The commission lashed out against the report. Following the report, the International Criminal Court opened its own investigation into the country.

When the CNIDH was established, Human Rights Watch called on donors to support the new institution and help it fulfill its mandate, which the commission did for four years, often under difficult conditions. And, critically, the commission complemented the work of civil society. But since 2015 it seems to neither protect nor promote human rights. It has lost both independence and effectiveness and stays quiet as local organizations are dismantled.

As the country prepares for a controversial constitutional referendum in May in a climate of increasing fear and repression, the commission has an opportunity to react and fulfill its original mission: promoting and protecting the human rights of all.

But if it doesn’t, Burundi should be suspended from the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions, until its national human rights body does its work again.

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