REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

Human rights abuses – a way of governance

“The Burundi regime has created a national state of fear, where systematic human rights abuses are a way of governance”, says NAI researcher Jesper Bjarnesen, commenting on a recent UN report.

The UN Independent Investigation on Burundi (UNIIB), following a nine-month inquiry, describes “abundant evidence of gross human rights violations,” possibly amounting to crimes against humanity, in a report from 20 September. The investigators have verified 564 executions since April last year when the country’s president Pierre Nkurunziza prompted widespread popular protests after announcing he would seek a third term in office. The report also details 17 different forms of torture and ill-treatment reported to the investigators, including attachment of weights to victims’ testicles, the crushing of fingers and toes with pliers, progressive burning with a blowtorch, and being forced to sit in acid or on broken glass or nails.

The violations have been committed by the security forces, often supported by the ruling party’s youth wing known as the Imbonerakure (the Kirundi word for “those that see far”), according to the report. The large majority of victims were people opposed to or perceived to be opposed to the third mandate of Nkurunziza. The patterns of violence clearly suggest that they are deliberate and the result of conscious decisions, and it is in the government’s power to stop them, the investigators say.

Senior researcher Jesper Bjarnesen has studied electoral violence in Burundi as part of a research project conducted by the Nordic Africa Institute.

“The Burundi regime has created a national state of fear, where systematic human rights abuses are a way of governance”, he says.  

Furthermore, the regime is using historical conflicts between Tutsi and Hutu to divide people and create fear of persecution, according to Bjarnesen.

“It is important to understand the ethnic dimension as a political construction, a tool in the hands of the regime, it is not a natural or cultural division within the population”, he says.

Jesper Bjarnesen identifies three different phases in Burundi’s deepening crisis, after President Nkurunziza’s announcement in April, 2015. Initially, large numbers of protesters took to the streets, openly expressing their opposition. The clashes between protesters and security forces gradually led to a situation where protesters no longer dared to take to the streets. A second phase of militarization of the opposition, with a number of different armed groups trying to form a military force against the regime, began in August-September, 2015. There were rumours of mobilizations along the border of Rwanda and DR Congo.

In the current, third phase of the crisis the Burundian security forces have apparently been successful in fighting back or eliminating any military threat to the regime.

“Burundi has turned into something of a police state where the regime is in control and the population is afraid of being targeted”, Bjarnesen says.

So, with the Nkurunziza government seemingly in control, how come the level of violence persists?  

“From the point of view of the Nkurunziza regime, and I think this is typical of an authoritarian regime, the fear, the paranoia, of enemies hiding within the population, does not go away even after a military victory,” Bjarnesen says.

Given their findings, the UN investigators have called on international organisations such as the African Union and the United Nations security council to act quickly to avoid a possible “spiral of violence which could bring conflict to the entire region”.

Jesper Bjarnesen says that the report signals a new, firmer UN policy on Burundi, paving the way for an international peace-keeping mission.

“In the past Nkurunziza has managed to reject demands by the international community. However, this time it seems that the UN will not back down.”

FACTS/Together with what is today Rwanda, Burundi formed the colony Ruanda-Urundi under first German and later Belgian dominion. Colonial rule exacerbated social differences between Tutsi and Hutu populations. Burundi gained independence in 1962. Two civil wars and genocides during the 1970s and again in the 1990s left the country poor and underdeveloped. From the late 1990s Burundi enjoyed its longest period of peace since independence, until violence erupted in 2015.   

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