In June 2020, when Évariste Ndayishimiye was sworn in as Burundi’s president after the unexpected death of his brutal, autocratic predecessor, Pierre Nkurunziza, he pledged to “uphold unity among Burundians” and deliver “peace and justice for all.” Yet for the last year and a half, his government has largely carried on as Nkurunziza’s did. It has intimidated and silenced its critics, detained and tortured its opponents, and as a growing body of evidence gathered by international and Burundian rights groups attests, killed and disappeared many of those it suspects of working with the political opposition or with rebel groups.
According to local human rights organizations, hundreds of people have been killed since Ndayishimiye took office, some by Burundian security forces or members of the ruling party’s notorious youth league and some by unknown assailants. Human Rights Watch, where I work, has received credible reports of scores of killings and gathered hours of bloodcurdling testimony from survivors of torture and loved ones of those who have been killed or disappeared. In the country’s northwestern Cibitoke Province, which borders the Democratic Republic of the Congo, residents described a vicious crackdown against people suspected of opposing the Burundian government or aiding an armed opposition group that has attacked Burundian security forces. Dead bodies, most unidentified and many mutilated, have turned up at an alarming rate over the last 18 months in or around the Rusizi River, which runs between the two countries. In most cases, local authorities bury them without investigation.
And yet the United States and the European Union are welcoming Burundi in from the cold. In November, U.S. President Joe Biden lifted all the sanctions that the Obama administration had imposed on Burundi, citing “the transfer of power following elections in 2020, significantly decreased violence, and President Évariste Ndayishimiye’s pursuit of reforms across multiple sectors.” In October, the EU indicated that even as it renewed targeted sanctions against some senior Burundian officials it would also resume direct budgetary support to Burundi’s government.
These overtures toward a government that continues to torture and kill its own people risk emboldening Burundi’s leaders to crack down even harder on their opponents. Instead of hoping that the Burundian government will change its ways, the United States and the European Union should publicly push the country’s leaders to take concrete and measurable steps to improve their dire human rights record.
Burundi descended into chaos and violence in April 2015, after Nkurunziza announced a controversial bid for a third term in office, sparking months of protests and a failed coup attempt. Government security forces and members of the ruling party’s youth league, known as the Imbonerakure—meaning “those who see far” in the Kirundi language—arrested or shot protesters and critics. By mid-2015, hundreds of people had been killed, and almost all of Burundi’s opposition leaders, independent journalists, and civil society activists had fled the country. Some 400,000 people sought refuge in neighboring countries.
In 2018, Nkurunziza unexpectedly announced that he would not seek reelection in 2020. Ndayishimiye, a former army general who was secretary-general of the ruling party at the height of the crisis, became the party’s candidate for president, winning in an election marred by violence and allegations of rigging. In June 2020, two months before he was set to step down, Nkurunziza died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. Ndayishimiye was sworn in early during a hastily arranged ceremony. Although he had overseen the party while it committed grave human rights abuses, Ndayishimiye promised to promote political tolerance, make the justice system more impartial and fair, and hold accountable those responsible for past crimes.
Ndayishimiye did release some human rights advocates and journalists from jail and lift some restrictions on the media and civil society, but his government continues to use repressive tactics against its opponents. Tony Germain Nkina, a lawyer and former human rights defender, was convicted on baseless charges of collaborating with rebels that were confirmed on appeal in September 2021. The government has also used arrest warrants, convictions in absentia, and life sentences against human rights defenders in exile to silence the country’s once-thriving human rights movement.
“Our province has become a graveyard.”
Then there are the killings. Carried out by security forces, Imbonerakure members, and other unknown perpetrators, they have sowed terror among the population. “Our province has become a graveyard,” one resident of Cibitoke told my colleagues and me last August. Another man said he witnessed four men in military attire beat to death Emmanuel Baransegeta, a 53-year-old fisherman, as he returned from work on the Rusizi River the evening of July 8, 2021. Two days later on the banks of the river, residents found the body of a man who looked as if he had been beaten. They said they believed he was Baransegeta, but the local authorities buried him without investigating the circumstances of his death or even trying to confirm his identity.
For many, these killings evoke memories of Burundi’s violent past. The banks of the Rusizi have historically been dumping grounds for bodies of people killed in political or ethnic strife. During Burundi’s brutal civil war, which raged from 1993 to 2009, an estimated 300,000 people were killed in fighting that broke down largely along ethnic lines. Both the Tutsi-dominated military and the armed Hutu opposition forces committed serious war crimes, including killings and rapes of civilians.
Nkurunziza’s first term, from 2005 to 2010, offered hope for a break with that history. A Hutu rebel leader during the war, he took office under a new constitution that guaranteed power-sharing between Hutus and Tutsis and among political parties. Despite continued bouts of violence, the country achieved a degree of stability and made some progress toward peace, reconciliation, and economic development. It developed a burgeoning civil society and independent media landscape. But this fragile progress suffered serious setbacks during and after the 2010 elections as political tensions rose and security forces and armed opposition groups committed scores of killings. In Cibitoke, residents once again found mutilated bodies of opposition supporters near the river. Now, they are encountering them with appalling frequency.
In September 2021, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, which has documented grave human rights violations in the country every year since its creation in 2016, presented its last report to the UN Human Rights Council. The commission concluded that under Burundi’s new government, “no structural reform has been undertaken to durably improve the situation.” It expressed alarm about continuing human rights violations and the progressive erosion of the rule of law. Yet the Human Rights Council, in a resolution led by the EU and supported by the United States, ended the commission’s mandate in favor of a special rapporteur with fewer resources to investigate human rights violations. The resolution claimed that progress “has been made in the field of human rights, good governance and the rule of law,” citing the limited, largely symbolic gestures by the Burundian government. Unsurprisingly, in December, Burundi’s foreign minister said it would “never” work with the special rapporteur.
Ending the commission’s mandate and lifting international sanctions and other punitive measures in the absence of real progress on human rights or democratic reforms is a dangerous gamble. The United States and the EU may hope that doing so will encourage reform, but it will more likely embolden human rights abusers who already operate with near-total impunity. To many victims of abuses, the willingness of Washington and Brussels to trust the same officials who have overseen the killing, disappearance, and brutal torture of thousands of people since 2015 is inexplicable—as is their silence in the face of persistent human rights violations under Ndayishimiye.
The United States and the EU should publicly press the Burundian government to release all political prisoners, including Nkina, and overturn unfair convictions and drop arrest warrants against human rights activists and journalists in exile. The government can prove it is serious about reform by allowing the UN special rapporteur to access the country and by conducting credible investigations into killings, disappearances, and instances of torture. Any members of the security forces or Imbonerakure who are found to be responsible for these abuses should be immediately arrested and prosecuted.
“Please, I am asking you to tell as many people as you can about what is going on here. The international community must know about these killings,” an official in Burundi’s National Defense Force told us. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, defying his superiors in order to call attention to the dead bodies he was regularly finding along the Rusizi. But the problem is not that the United States and the EU don’t know what is going in Burundi. The problem is they are choosing to ignore it.