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Burundi's President Evariste Ndayishimiye, right, attends the inauguration of the new Kisumu port with an oil loading jetty at Lake Victoria in Kisumu, Kenya, on May 31, 2021.

Interview: Reforms, Not Gestures, Are Needed to Solve Burundi’s Human Rights Crisis

President Évariste Ndayishimiye Has Yet to Deliver Change

Burundi's President Evariste Ndayishimiye, right, attends the inauguration of the new Kisumu port with an oil loading jetty at Lake Victoria in Kisumu, Kenya, on May 31, 2021. © 2021 Brian Ongoro/AFP/Getty

One year after Évariste Ndayishimiye was inaugurated as Burundi’s new president, following the sudden death of his long-term predecessor, many of the ex-general’s promises to hold people to account for violence and killings and to improve the country’s dismal human rights situation remain unfulfilled. Nevertheless, calls for the international community to drop sanctions and restore ties with Burundi are growing louder. Birgit Schwarz talks to Human Rights Watch’s Central Africa Director Lewis Mudge about the new president’s actions so far, his drive to improve the country’s image, and the reforms needed to truly address Burundi’s human rights crisis.

What legacy did Évariste Ndayishimiye inherit from his predecessor, Pierre Nkurunziza?

Pierre Nkurunziza, who came to power in 2005, towards the end of Burundi’s civil war, proved to be a president intent not on reconciliation but consolidation of power. His bid in April 2015 for a controversial third term triggered mass protests and plunged the country into a crisis of escalating violence and repression. Thousands were killed, disappeared, jailed, or tortured.

By mid-2015 almost all of Burundi’s opposition party leaders, independent journalists, and civil society activists had fled the country. Those who remained did so at great risk. Évariste Ndayishimiye inherited a country with weak institutions, where abuses are perpetrated with total impunity, and whose economy was in a precarious state.

Does Ndayishimiye seem willing to break with this violent past?

Ndayishimiye, who belongs to a small group of generals who fought during the civil war and have been controlling the country ever since, has publicly recognized that reforms are needed. However, his promises to end impunity, promote political tolerance, and make the justice system more impartial and fair have yet to be translated into true progress. Grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and arbitrary arrests have continued during his term, although to a lesser extent than under Nkurunziza. Efforts to investigate have been insufficient. While a few agents of the National Intelligence Service (SNR) have been arrested and detained, and some members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, have been convicted for the murder of political opponents, not a single high-level person responsible for past abuses and killings has been held to account.

What positive steps have we seen in the past year?

Some opposition members who were arrested in the aftermath of the 2020 elections have been released. Others are still being targeted, however. The president pardoned four journalists arrested in 2019, but former member of parliament Fabien Banciryanino, one of the few parliamentarians to have shown the courage to denounce the human rights violations committed under the regime of Nkurunziza, has been behind bars since October last year. And Germain Rukuki, a human rights activist sentenced to 32 years in prison in 2018, remains unjustly jailed.

Some of the restrictions imposed on civil society and the media during the 2015 crisis have been lifted. But at the same time, the crackdown against human rights defenders and journalists perceived to be critical of the government continues. For example, a day after a meeting initiated by Ndayishimiye between the National Communication Council and heads of media houses, meant to improve relations between government officials and media, the guilty verdict in the case against 34 defendants, including 12 journalists and human rights defenders in exile, was published. They were found guilty in absentia on charges of “attacks on the authority of the state,” “assassinations,” and “destruction.”

Many journalists and human rights defenders remain in exile. Those still in the country are afraid to report about security incidents or human rights abuses and are not allowed to interview activists who live outside the country.

Why are calls to lift all sanctions against Burundi nevertheless growing louder?

Ndayishimiye would like to restore ties with the international community, and his reform agenda appears to be part of this strategy. While grave human rights violations have continued under his presidency, there is very little oversight, with watchdog mechanisms such as the United Nations Commission of Inquiry having been refused access.

Yet despite the absence of tangible progress, the country has been removed from the agenda of the United Nations Security Council. The African Union Peace and Security Council and the East African Community have openly called for all sanctions to be lifted. The European Union is currently engaged in advanced discussions to resume direct financial aid, although Ndayishimiye’s government has yet to meet many of the benchmarks the EU set in 2016.

Many in the international community feel tired of the crisis in Burundi and want to move on. However, unless the root causes of the crisis are addressed, the country will have an uncertain future.

What steps would restore trust in Ndayishimiye’s government?

Number one: Killings and abuses need to stop, and perpetrators must be brought to justice. Number two: national and international media, civil society, and the UN Commission of Inquiry need to be given access and allowed to operate freely. If there is nothing to hide, as the government claims, then why are the authorities so intent on making sure that no one can actually monitor the human rights situation in Burundi?

The government needs to go beyond promises and demonstrate its willingness to investigate and prosecute past and present abuses. Journalists and activists who disappeared should be accounted for, and those who have been unjustly jailed, like Germain Rukuki and Fabien Banciryanino, should be released.

What can the international community do to ensure freedom and accountability in Burundi?

The international community needs to clearly communicate that concrete progress with regards to the human rights situation in Burundi is fundamental to restoring ties. Given the situation on the ground and the absence of scrutiny, the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry should be renewed. The ongoing dialogue between the EU and the Burundian government should set clear goals for the restoration of freedom of assembly, association, and expression. One-off gestures and promises of change should not be taken at face value at the expense of accountability and people’s desire for justice and freedom. Only real and demonstrable change can break the cycle of political violence that has shaped the country.

*This interview has been edited and condensed. 

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