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File photo showing a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. © 2016 Andrew Kelly/Reuters

(New York) – The United Nations Security Council should continue to monitor the worrying human rights situation in Burundi with a particular focus on ongoing violations and accountability, Human Rights Watch said today. Security incidents and reports of killings, disappearances, and arbitrary arrests have persisted in Burundi despite initial hopes of reform after the election of a new president in May 2020.

In a presidential statement led by South Africa, the Council decided on December 4 to end Burundi-specific briefings, while continuing to raise the situation in Burundi during its biannual Great Lakes region and Central Africa meetings. South Africa currently holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council and is also the current chair of the African Union.

“The Security Council’s meetings on Burundi have grown increasingly contentious and irregular, with Burundi and its allies on the Council attempting to quash much-needed scrutiny of the situation in the country,” said Louis Charbonneau, United Nations director at Human Rights Watch. “In practice, the Security Council’s limited monitoring of Burundi is likely to continue as before, but for many Burundians, the symbolic message this sends at a critical juncture for the country is worrisome.”

Resolution 2303, adopted in July 2016 in response to Burundi’s deteriorating security and human rights crisis, required the UN secretary-general to report to the Security Council on the situation in Burundi every three months. But the Burundian government has repeatedly demanded that it be removed from the Council’s agenda. The briefings have taken place irregularly and several were postponed or canceled in the run-up to the country’s May 2020 elections. The reason was reportedly because Burundi threatened to cut ties with the UN Special Envoy for Burundi, Michel Kafando, who resigned in October 2019. Kafando was not replaced and his office is slated to be closed down in December 2021.

The UN Human Rights Council created a Commission of Inquiry on Burundi in 2016, which has been tasked with investigating and reporting on grave human rights violations and abuses committed in Burundi since the country’s crisis broke out in 2015. In its September 2020 report, it concluded that serious human rights violations, which in some cases may amount to crimes against humanity, persisted in 2019 and 2020. In October, the Burundi government tried, but failed, to block the renewal of the Commission of Inquiry’s mandate during the Council’s most recent session.

In November 2020, the UN Secretary-General’s Office published a report laying out its strategy for re-engaging with Burundi. The report offered a cursory assessment of the human rights situation in Burundi – despite a spike in human rights violations in the previous months – and avoided making a clear recommendation on whether Burundi should remain on the Security Council’s agenda. Burundi responded by announcing that it would only accept assistance on socioeconomic development issues, and that the Office of the UN Special Envoy for Burundi would be shut down by December, although a one-year extension was hastily negotiated.

In its December 4 presidential statement, the Security Council both welcomed the government’s willingness to “strengthen relations” with regional and international actors and expressed concern about continuing human rights violations and abuses. It stressed the need for progress toward the rule of law, an independent judiciary, respect for fundamental freedoms, and accountability for abuses in Burundi, and called on the government to cooperate with the UN in achieving all of these goals.

Burundi’s political posturing and threats should not draw attention away from the fact that, as the Security Council acknowledges, much work is needed to improve the human rights situation in the country. The Security Council should not sideline human rights scrutiny in its efforts to engage with the new administration.

The UN should report in detail on the human rights, humanitarian, and security situation in Burundi for the Security Council’s Great Lakes and Central Africa meetings, and the Council should respond appropriately, Human Rights Watch said.

In September 2019, the Commission of Inquiry warned that eight common risk factors for criminal atrocities were present in Burundi. Most have not been addressed in a structural way by the new administration, including tackling the ruling party’s youth league’s abuses and control over the population.

In 2015, the AU Peace and Security Council requested monthly reports from the commission’s chairperson on the human rights situation and acts of violence in Burundi. But the reporting has been irregular and inconsistent.

“Reversing Burundi’s descent into lawlessness will require systemic reform and strong political will,” Charbonneau said. “Until then, the fragile transition and volatile human rights and security situation in Burundi should remain under close international scrutiny.”

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