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The transitional government of Burundi, installed November 1, inherited an eight-year-old civil war in which the government clashed with two armed opposition movements, the Force for the Defense of Democracy (Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie, FDD) and the National Liberation Force (Forces Nationales pour la Libération, FNL). The rebel groups did not participate in the protracted negotiations that produced the new government, a carefully engineered compromise among political parties and between the two major ethnic groups of Burundi, the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi. The FDD and FNL are predominantly Hutu while the government, the army, and the business community have been dominated by Tutsi.

The new government also inherited an expanding "self-defense" program purportedly meant to protect civilians against rebel attack. It included the rural-based "Guardians of the Peace," (Gardiens de la Paix), most of them Hutu, and their urban civil patrol counterparts, some Hutu, some Tutsi, depending on the neighborhood in which they operated.

Since the beginning of the program, some Guardians of the Peace have committed serious human rights abuses, including killing, raping, and otherwise injuring civilians. In some cases guardians who resisted orders to commit such abuses were themselves punished, even by summary execution. One participant in the program told Human Rights Watch researchers, " If you refused to kill people because they were civilians, women and children, then you would be killed." Guardians of the Peace and their urban counterparts also frequently robbed or extorted money and goods from the very people they were meant to protect. Most victims of abuses were Hutu.

Guardians of the Peace were not been formally conscripted into the armed forces by any legal process but many were nonetheless coerced-on threat of punishment-to serve terms of indeterminate length. They were not regularly paid and were issued no uniforms or other identifying insignia. Not governed by any specific set of regulations, most were not called to account for abuses they committed.

Guardians of the Peace and their urban counterparts participated in these programs for a variety of reasons: fear of punishment by the military or administrative officials; or, alternatively, fear of reprisals from rebel combatants if they left the safety of their units; desire to protect their families against rebel attack or to seek revenge for previous attacks; and the wish to continue exploiting civilians by dint of being armed and powerful.

Authorities maintained that guardians and their urban counterparts were civilians and subject to civilian law but in fact these fighters were trained and armed by the military and operated under military order and protection. The guardians and their urban counterparts are government forces, and the Burundian authorities are responsible for their compliance with international human rights and humanitarian law. Members of these forces that take a direct part in hostilities in the civil war as auxiliaries to the regular Burundian armed forces are bound also by international humanitarian law. Burundi is a party to the Geneva Conventions and to their Additional Protocols II, which applies to internal armed conflict.1

All parties to the war have used children in their forces, including in combat.2 Under the guise of "civilian self-defense," Burundian authorities permitted and in some cases directed children under the age of fifteen to be enrolled in the Guardians and similar city-based programs, thus violating Protocol II of the Geneva Conventions and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.3 According to testimony received by Human Rights Watch, one child only seven years old was trained to be a guardian and three others aged twelve, fifteen, and seventeen years died as a result of beatings suffered during the course of training. Hundreds of others died in military operations, including in combat.

This report is based upon interviews with members of the Guardians of the Peace and urban patrols, Burundian civilian and military authorities, and staff of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Information concerning the date and place of interviews is omitted from some references to protect the identity of the witnesses.

1 Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions requires human treatment for persons not taking part in hostilities and Additional Protocol II specifically prohibits attacks on civilians.

2 For the FNL, see Human Rights Watch, Burundi: Neglecting Justice in Making Peace, A Human Rights Watch Short Report, vol. 12, no. 2, April, 2000. For the FDD, see the November 14, 2001 press release by Human Rights Watch, "Burundi: Children Abducted for Military."

3 Article 4(3) (c-d), Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions; Article 38, Convention on the Rights of the Child, U.N. G.A. Res. 44/25 of Nov. 20, 1989, 44 U.N. GAOR Supp (No. 49) at 167, U.N. Doc. A/44/49, Entered into Force, Sept. 2, 1999.

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