Thursday, November 26, 2009

Burundi: Abuse, killings, political violence and a culture of impunity

An officer addresses a group of ex-combatants: Human rights activists have expressed concern over political parties been mobilizing demobilized ex-combatants to carry out political violence

One of the guards of a provincial governor in Burundi seriously beat up a man in early November in a dispute over land and property. The man died after a few days in hospital. The case received wide media coverage in Burundi, with human rights organizations condemning the incident and calling for legal action to be taken against the perpetrator.

The guard has since been arrested but human rights activists say this is not enough and have called for further investigations into the governor's role in the incident.

"This is just one case of human rights violations that are often met with little or no action by authorities," a human rights activist, who requested anonymity, told IRIN.

Expressing concern over the increasing number of politically motivated killings and violence among political opponents, human rights organizations and activists have called on the government and the international community to ensure those responsible are brought to book.

"It is a fact that several political parties have been mobilizing demobilized ex-combatants to carry out political violence and we are likely to see more violence as the elections [due in 2010] approach," the activist said. "However, these parties know they have to be careful, so we expect no massacres or killings of high-ranking people but it is likely that the incidents involving low-cadre people at local levels will continue."

René-Claude Niyonkuru, a land conflict and human rights consultant who is also chairman of the Association of Human Rights Promoters in Burundi, told IRIN the country had human rights problems at three levels: community, intermediate - civil service and public administration - and the upper level - senior government officials.

"If one analyses the general trends, most human rights abuses at the community level are related to the lack of a culture of accountability," Niyonkuru said. "A communal administrator can arbitrarily jail someone for months when they know what they are doing is wrong."

Incessant musical chairs at the level of senior government has not helped matters.

"Since 2005 when the ruling party came to power, we have had seven cabinet reshuffles; everyone comes in with their policies and agenda and soon they are gone - this is a major problem as they do not have enough time to implement their policies and often human rights is the least of their concerns," he said. "Ministers and members of parliament lack team spirit and since the long-term commitment is also absent, rights will continue to be abused.”

Strategy for change

The country needs to change strategy by investing more in long-term human rights protection programmes, Niyonkuru said.

"We must invest in human rights education right from primary school to secondary and even at university level; we must create a culture with a different way of appreciating human rights," he said. "We must also undertake human rights education at the community level so that all Burundians can learn to stand up for their rights."

Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, founding president of the Burundi Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Detainees, said although cases of human rights violations had decreased since the FNL, the last rebel movement, transformed into a political party early this year, sporadic rights violations continue across the country.

"What is interesting is that gender-based violence has also reduced; cases of torture are also reducing, according to our statistics," Mbonimpa said. "However, other violations have persisted because of impunity. In some cases, the judiciary has failed to punish some of the perpetrators because some authorities were involved in the crimes."

Mbonimpa pointed to prison conditions as particularly worrying: 12,000 inmates are housed in facilities designed for 4,000.

"The situation in some of these facilities is catastrophic; we have situations where prisoners sleep outside even in the rain; sometimes they attempt to escape because of the congestion and they are often shot and killed," he said, adding that torture was common in Burundi’s jails.

Mbonimpa said a revised criminal code passed in April 2009 only beefed up human rights protection on paper.

"There is no political will to implement some of the initiatives mentioned in the code; the international community can help by asking the government to stop misusing the judiciary and to take action against its agents found guilty of committing human rights abuses," he said.

In a report released in June, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the government to take urgent measures to end politically motivated killings, assaults and arbitrary arrests.

The report, Pursuit of Power: Political Violence and Repression in Burundi, details cases in which the Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD) government and the then rebel Forces nationales de libération (FNL - now a political party) used political violence and intimidation against opponents and dissenting voices in their own ranks.

"The ruling party and the former FNL rebels have been all too ready to commit abuses to intimidate their political rivals and assert power," said Georgette Gagnon, HRW Africa director. "But this is not the road either to meaningful elections or to a decent future for Burundi's people."

However, Agathon Rwasa, FNL leader, denied that his members were to blame for cases of human rights abuses.

"Before FNL disarmed and integrated into the army and the police, any abuse that occurred in the country was attributed to FNL, but today FNL has been integrated yet the abuses continue," he said. "This means the government, the security forces [army and the police] could be involved in these abuses. It means the perpetrators have been the same but they have had scapegoats in the past, now they don’t."

He added: "There are many abuses with regard to human rights not only against the FNL but against all opposition; one could even extrapolate it’s a directive from the top to those on the ground."

Numerous attempts by IRIN to obtain comment from the ruling party were unsuccessful.

HRW urged the government to start on the path to accountability by investigating and prosecuting 23 killings and other crimes documented in the report, which covers 2008 and 2009.

"Killings, arrests, and other forms of repression have meant that Burundians live in fear of the consequences of expressing their political opinions," Gagnon said. "Their rights are at risk as long as both the ruling party and former rebel group face no consequences for their actions."

Jean-Marie Gasana, a Burundi analyst, said a culture of impunity had taken root in the country.

"Justice has been swept under the carpet. The leadership is enjoying the prevailing culture of impunity," he said.

He said civil society in the country was young and weak, contributing to the entrenching of the culture of impunity.

"Civil society is elitist and subject to influence by the highest bidder, like anywhere else in Africa," Gasana said.

"People are tired of the day-to-day politics; they just need the means to live," he said. "The government is providing the means to survive but it is using this to hold the people to ransom. More capacity-building among the general population needs to be undertaken to curb the violations that continue among the population."

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN

Published by i On Global Trends - Mike Hitchen Online - news, opinion, analysis
See also Sydney Irresistible and Mike Hitchen Unleashed
Putting principles before profits