President Évariste Ndayishimiye’s inauguration ceremony in Gitega, Burundi, on June 18, 2020. Ndayishimiye took power two months early after the abrupt death of his predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza. © 2020 Berthier Mugiraneza/AP Photo

(Nairobi) – Burundi’s new president, Évariste Ndayishimiye, should make protecting and promoting human rights a priority during his presidency, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the president made public today. The new administration has taken positive initial steps to tackle Covid-19 but faces enormous challenges.

Human Rights Watch outlined eight key recommendations to improve human rights in the country during his first year in office. They include removing abusive security force officers and other officials from their posts; reining in and prosecuting abusive members of the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth league; enforcing the rights to freedom of expression, assembly, and association; ensuring independence of the judiciary; holding people responsible for the worst abuses to account; and restoring cooperation with regional and international human rights and justice mechanisms.

“President Ndayishimiye faces the daunting task of ending pervasive patterns of violence and abuse, fueled by impunity, that have long plagued Burundi,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “Reining in the Imbonerakure, ending impunity for abuses, and opening political space are key.”

Ndayishimiye was sworn into office in June 2020 following disputed elections, after former president Pierre Nkurunziza’s unexpected death on June 8. Burundi’s leadership should ensure concrete human rights and democratic reforms, and accountability for past abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

During his June 18 inaugural speech, Ndayishimiye promised to reform the judiciary and ensure that all government or other officials who commit offenses are held accountable. He also assured Burundians that his government will take measures to protect victims and witnesses and that corruption will not be tolerated. Ndayishimiye has repeatedly promised that political exiles and refugees can safely return to the country.

On June 30, Ndayishimiye also declared Covid-19 the country’s “worst enemy” and pledged to ramp up testing and lower the price of water and soap. Earlier that month, medical workers and experts had told Human Rights Watch they were seeing an increase in cases with Covid-19 symptoms and alleged that the authorities were refusing to carry out tests or adequately respond to the pandemic. But Ndayishimiye also used threatening language against those who refuse to get tested for Covid-19. A science and fact-based Covid-19 response is needed and long overdue in Burundi, and the measures need to respect fundamental human rights, Human Rights Watch said.

Other statements have raised concerns. During his inaugural speech, Ndayishimiye made disparaging comments about human rights defenders, whistleblowers, and those he accused of criticizing the government. Likewise, some recent actions by the new administration raise doubts on how seriously the new government will take its obligation to uphold fundamental rights.

The appointment of Prime Minister Alain Guillaume Bunyoni and Minister for the Interior, Community Development, and Public Security Gervais Ndirakobuca, both under international sanctions for their alleged role in violence in 2015, raises concerns about the possible interference with criminal investigations into past abuses. The Burundian government should ensure that no one who may be the subject of a criminal or other investigation into human rights abuses is in a position to influence it, Human Rights Watch said.

“By taking strong, bold, and concrete steps to advance rights, President Ndayishimiye could turn the page on Nkurunziza’s rule of violence and abuse,” Roth said. “Ndayishimiye should adopt systemic changes that benefit all of Burundi’s people, starting with the urgent health crisis that is underway.”