(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Crisis listicles, localisation in practice, and long-term dangers in Burundi: The Cheat Sheet

    Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:

     

     

    Most neglected crisis of 2017?

     

    One disturbing aspect of this poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation is the massive scale of the crises mentioned. That they remain so under-covered by the mainstream media, frankly, beggars belief. However, it will come as no surprise to regular IRIN readers that the Democratic Republic of Congo came out top when representatives of 20 leading aid organisations were surveyed. At the very start of 2017, we flagged the potential for the situation to deteriorate as President Joseph Kabila clung to power and we’ve been reporting since on the major developments from the ground, not only in Kasai, which is beginning to get some belated attention, but also of the emerging dangers in North and South Kivu. With more than four million displaced and a similar number facing critical levels of hunger, the pressure on the underfunded and overstretched response going into 2018 is immense. But other places are rightly highlighted too. Oxfam points out that many people don’t even know that Central African Republic exists, let alone that about a quarter of the population has been displaced by violence that has spread rapidly this year, especially in eastern parts of the country. While Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen all received deserved mentions, some aid organisations took a different tack, flagging the neglect of hunger, famine, and the use of food as a “weapon of war”. Keep your eyes peeled around New Year for IRIN’s own listicle on humanitarian disasters to look out for in 2018 and for our in-depth package on the food crises gripping the globe.

     

     

     

    The deadly price of power in Congo

     

    Staying with Congo, it’s army, known as the FARDC, has a long history of committing human rights abuses. In 2008, Human Rights Watch documented testimony of the killing, raping, and looting of civilians by government soldiers as they battled rebels in North Kivu province, which lies in the east of the country. Earlier this week, IRIN published a harrowing report of similar, systematic atrocities in the same province, as related by dozens of civilians there. The rebels the army is fighting in North Kivu may have changed, but it seems the soldiers’ crimes remain the same. So it comes as little surprise to hear that government forces are responsible for many of the abuses against civilians committed in Kasai, another area of Congo on which IRIN has reported on in depth. More than 3,000 people have been killed over the past year in Kasai, where the FARDC is fighting the Kamuina Nsapu insurgency. The backdrop to the violence is Kabila’s refusal to leave office or hold elections even though his final constitutional mandate expired last year. Testimony from Kasai refugees now living in Angola has been collated in a report this week by the global human rights movement FIDH. The extent to which these abuses are evidently planned and organised points to a “deliberate strategy of terror and destruction, which led to crimes against humanity,” it says. And FIDH made no bones about the motive for such violence, describing it as “part of a recurring scheme of Joseph Kabila’s regime to mobilise tension and violence in order to retain power through chaos and diversion.”

     

    When the rubber hits the road

     

    The surge of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh has brought with it another influx: international aid workers. The major NGOs and UN agencies have also flooded in to tackle one of the world’s most pressing humanitarian crises. But where does this leave local NGOs? More than a year after the aid sector made ambitious pledges to shift to an aid model led by local organisations, reforms have largely stalled. Local NGOs and civil society groups have become increasingly frustrated with the status quo, where there’s a striking power imbalance between locals and the international agencies that swoop in when disasters hit. A new report from the Humanitarian Advisory Group looks at how this dynamic has played out during the Rohingya refugee crisis – a rare appraisal of “localisation” in practice during an unfolding emergency. The findings describe some familiar patterns: only four percent of funding has gone to local NGOs, for example, while international aid workers continue to dominate key decision-making roles. In the middle of a crisis, there’s a sense of frustration among local organisations that feel sidelined by the international surge. It’s an important dynamic in the aid sector: with nearly one million Rohingya refugees now living in Bangladesh, the crisis is likely to persist, but international attention – and funding – may not. When international aid groups pack up and leave, will local organisations be starting from scratch? Download the report here.

     

    Burundi deadlock

     

    There appears little hope that Burundi’s political antagonists will bury the hatchet any time soon. The government may insist there’s no crisis, but reports of disappearances and extra-judicial killings continue to emerge well over two years after major unrest broke out. That was sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to seek a third term in office, something the opposition deemed unconstitutional. Since then, there have been widespread atrocities, a failed coup, and an exodus of nearly half a million Burundi citizens. Earlier this month, the latest in a long series of peace talks ended with no hint of a breakthrough and each side rejecting the legitimacy of the other. Hardly surprising as much of the exiled opposition, and a coalition of civil society groups, boycotted the meeting, which was mediated by the East African Community. According to Carine N. Kaneza of the Women and Girls Movement for Peace and Security in Burundi, one reason the talks failed was that the mediation team “appeared to be at pains not to offend the Burundi government by inviting components that it objects to”. Opposition figures, whom the government has repeatedly labelled as “coup plotters”, and even sought to have arrested, were only permitted to take part in their individual capacities rather than as representatives of parties. It was perceptions that political power was being concentrated in too few hands that pushed Burundi towards civil war in 1993. That conflict dragged on until 2015 and killed an estimated 300,000 people. While the risk of another major conflict may be small, the democratic gains made since the end of the last one are being undermined, as is the credibility of the current meditation team. “By treating a problem with deep roots related to politics, history and injustice as if it were one with much more shallow grievances, the mediators are jeopardising the long-term peace and security of Burundi and East Africa,” warns Kaneza.

     

     

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    The man-made disaster in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta

     

    The extent of needs due to the civil war in Syria is spelt out in the UN’s Global Humanitarian Overview 2018, which says more than a third of funds requested next year for crises around the world are required for aid inside the country and to help the 5.4 million registered Syrian refugees in neighbouring countries ($7.7 billion in total). But so little is heard these days of the war itself, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was practically over – just a few little pockets but nothing much to see. Try telling that to the people of the Eastern Ghouta. Their reality is brought home in this searing analysis by regular IRIN contributor Aron Lund. Almost 400,000 people are besieged by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and struggling through the winter with harsh restrictions on the entry of food, medicine, and aid. A loaf of bread that sells for 63 Syrian pounds a few kilometres away in central Damascus sells for 20-30 times that in the insurgent-controlled enclave. In the Cheat Sheet’s first item on the most neglected crises of 2017, we mentioned the use of food as a “weapon of war”. To understand what this can mean in practice, read Lund’s report.

    (TOP PHOTO: Peacekeepers conducting foot patrolling and monitoring in Congo. CREDIT: Force/MONUSCO)

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    Crisis listicles, localisation in practice, and long-term dangers in Burundi
  • Where are Burundi’s missing witnesses to crimes against humanity?

    In Burundi, it’s not just witnesses to the politically motivated string of murders, torture, and rapes who are going missing, it’s also the perpetrators, underscoring the enormous scale of the challenge now facing the International Criminal Court.

    So great are the risks to the “life and wellbeing” of potential witnesses to alleged crimes against humanity committed by state agents here that ICC judges agreed for the first time to deliberate in secret before deciding the tribunal’s chief prosecutor could step up her enquiries.

    Fears of a Kenya-style witness tampering campaign appear well-founded: Several people with first-hand knowledge of crimes implicating police, soldiers, and militia members have disappeared or been killed in Burundi, according to relatives and rights groups.

    An ICC judges’ ruling has authorised Chief Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda to elevate her “preliminary examination” to an “investigation”, paving the way for eventual arrest warrants, criminal charges, and trials.

    The judges cited Bensouda’s affirmation: “[The] Government of Burundi has not merely been uncooperative but has actively sought to target, both in Burundi and abroad, persons who it perceives could implicate it in the crimes alleged, as established by additional sources.”

    And, in another unprecedented decision, the judges allowed Bensouda to wait a full 10 days before informing the Burundian government that such permission had been granted.

    In so doing, they granted time for witness protection measures to be put in place and lent credence to Bensouda’s view that the “concrete possibility of an investigation [was] likely to affect the calculations of those implicated by the crimes”.

    The alleged crimes in question include: murder and attempted murder, imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty, torture, rape, enforced disappearance, and persecution.

    According to the prosecutor, high-ranking officials of the Burundian government, the police, the intelligence service, the military, and also the Imbonerakure (the ruling party’s youth wing), appear to be those most responsible for the most serious crimes.

    “The Chamber considers that multiple sources indicate that the Government of Burundi has interfered with, intimidated, or harmed victims and witnesses,” the judges’ decision read.

    30 months of hell

    Such a campaign appears to have begun soon after the country was plunged into a violent crisis in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would run for a third term in office (widely deemed unconstitutional) prompted street protests, a heavy-handed response from security forces, and an attempted coup.

    A list of dozens of Burundians “forcibly disappeared” over the past two-and-a-half years has been published on a dedicated website called Ndondeza, which is the Kirundi for “Help me to find him”.

    Names on the list include those of activists and politicians from various parties, journalists, state intelligence agents, police and army officers, Imbonerakure members, and would-be refugees detained while trying to leave Burundi.

    “People implicated in crimes are often eliminated in the same way as their victims,” explaned Pacifique Nininahazwe, who is president of the Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement (the organisation behind the Ndondeza campaign) as well as a leading opponent of Nkurunziza’s third term in office.

    Speaking to IRIN by phone from Europe where he is living in exile, Nininahazwe said there were already several cases of Imbonerakure members being eliminated after having been “implicated in odious crimes”, including those who attempted to assassinate Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, the country’s leading human rights activist.

    Missing perpetrators

    Among this category of missing is Aimé Aloys Manirakiza, who has not been seen since May 2017.

    “He was one of the Imbonerakure in Musaga zone,” Manirakiza’s wife, Allaine Vanessa Kaneza, said in a blog post, the authenticity of which she confirmed to IRIN by phone from Rwanda, to where she fled in October 2017. Musaga is an opposition stronghold in the capital, Bujumbura, and the scene of anti-Nkurunziza demonstrations in 2015 that led to a vicious crackdown.

    “He committed crimes, torture, executions of people in the opposition. Sometimes, he told me about this himself, and [at other times] other people came to tell me,” she said. “I want to say sorry to all the families who lost loved ones because of what my husband did.”

    Also missing: Christophe Ndabagoye, an intelligence agent working undercover as a member of an opposition party, the National Liberation Forces.

    “He told me he worked for the intelligence services and that he knew lots of secrets,” one of his relatives told IRIN, asking not to be identified.

    One day “he got a phone call from another officer whose name I don’t know. He left and to this day cannot be found. The same goes for the car he was using,” the relative added.

    After Ndabagoye disappeared, relatives looked for him in prisons, morgues and forests, but to no avail.

    The cousin believed the state wanted to get rid of Ndabagoye because he was “involved in plans to eliminate certain demonstrators and above all because he was close to General Adophe Nshimirimana” – a former intelligence chief and close associate of the president who was killed in a rocket attack in August 2015.

    IRIN could not independently verify this account. More broadly, it's not clear if missing Imbonerakure and intelligence agents are being eliminated because they too could end up as witnesses, or if there has been a campaign of reprisal killings, or both. Either which way, it only makes the ICC's task of prosecuting harder.

    Spokespersons for Burundi’s government and the police couldn’t be reached for fresh comment on the alleged disappearances.

    But speaking in August to France 24, Burundi’s ambassador to France, Christine Nina Niyonsayde, dismissed any state role, saying: “Sometimes, there are people who disappear voluntarily, who leave and are not found, and later, maybe years later, they are found, either in other countries [or elsewhere] and they have changed their name.”

    In January, police spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye accused Nininahazwe on state television of running a network that “disappeared” people itself but then accused the police of doing so. He claimed such “criminality was born with the insurrectional movement initiated by those opposed to Nkurunziza’s third term”.

    (TOP PHOTO: Colleagues of journalist Jean Bigirimana commemorate his disappearance a month after he went missing in July 2016. ©​IWACU)

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    Where are Burundi’s missing witnesses to crimes against humanity?
    Dozens are reported to have been “forcibly disappeared”, but the government denies there’s an issue
  • A shot across the bows from The Hague as ICC investigates Burundi

    By authorising a full-scale investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed by state actors in Burundi, judges of the International Criminal Court want to send a clear message to perpetrators of such crimes across the world: If you think pulling out of this tribunal will let you off the hook, think again.

    On 27 October, Burundi became the first party to withdraw from the Rome Statue, the ICC’s legal foundation.

    But in response to an unpublicised 5 September request from the court’s prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, the judges of Pre-Trial Chamber III ruled that the court still “has jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed while Burundi was a state party to the ICC Rome Statute”.

    The judges handed down the ruling on 25 October but kept it under seal in order to protect witnesses until a redacted version was released on Thursday.

    In a crucial interpretation of the statue, which sets an important precedent, they determined that the ICC’s jurisdiction “remains unaffected by a withdrawal of a State Party from the Statute”.

    “It was a surprise move for everyone, including the government of Burundi,” international law expert Benjamin Dürr told IRIN.

    Step forward

    By elevating its engagement with Burundi from the “preliminary examination” started in March 2016 – a process that simply determines issues of jurisdiction and admissibility – to an “investigation”, the judges have now opened the door to indictments and arrest warrants being issued.

    This is precisely what a UN Commission of Enquiry urged the court to do in a September report that detailed crimes allegedly committed by people at “the highest level of the state” and within the security services in Burundi since April 2015, when protests against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office prompted protests met with a very harsh response.

    Crimes allegedly include “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, sexual violence, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and enforced disappearances”.

    In their ruling, the judges referred to estimates that “at least 1,200 persons were allegedly killed, thousands illegally detained, thousands reportedly tortured and hundreds disappeared”.

    Roadblocks

    However, the ruling doesn’t mean international prosecutions of these crimes are now inevitable, let alone imminent.

    Burundi has the right to ask the ICC prosecutor to defer the investigation on the grounds that the crimes in question are being investigated by domestic courts. Even if this claim lacks much foundation (the ICC judges deemed Burundian authorities “inactive” in this regard), such a move would oblige the prosecutor to issue a fresh request to the judges to open an investigation. Both Burundi and the prosecutor would then be allowed to appeal the judges’ response to such a request. This process could take years.

    Another caveat: The collapse of ICC cases against prominent Kenyans, including President Uhuru Kenyatta, and the moribund state of the case against President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, illustrate how hard it is to prosecute incumbent leaders.

    The judges also ruled that Burundi is still obliged to cooperate with the ICC despite its withdrawal. If it fails do so, the UN Security Council could in theory impose sanctions, as it already threatened to do in August amid worsening security.

    Those in power unmoved

    The response from the country’s government and Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party was vitriolic.

    The country’s ambassador to the UN, Albert Shingiro, tweeted that the judges’ ruling was a “non-event” and described it as “another attempt to destabilise Burundi that will fail as its previous [attempts did]”.

    Government spokesman Willy Nyamitwe was equally strident, saying on Twitter: “As usual, the @IntlCrimCourt plunges into outrageous lies to implement Westerners’ hidden agenda to destabilise #Africa.”

    Justice Minister Aimée Laurentine Kanyana went as far as challenging the legality of the ruling and insisted her country – which has already prevented the UN commission of enquiry from entering Burundi and blocked the deployment of 228 police authorised by the UN Security Council – would not cooperate with any ICC investigations.

    “If they [the investigators] come here by force, Burundians will defend themselves as Ntare Rugamba did,” she said. A household name in Burundi, Ntare Rugamba was a 19th century king who battled neighbouring states to double the size of the country.

    François-Xavier Ndaruzaniye, a prominent supporter of the government, said demonstrations against the judges’ ruling would be held across the country on Saturday.

    Opposition delighted

    Meanwhile, opponents of Nkurunziza’s government, mostly living in exile, welcomed the judge’s decision.

    Anicet Niyonkuru, executive secretary of CNARED, the main opposition alliance, said he was now confident that Burundi’s worst perpetrators would finally be brought to justice.

    “They will be plucked like ripe fruit,” he said on Facebook.

    Pacifique Nininahazwe, a leading civil society activist, told IRIN by phone that it was “a great day for the families of victims” and said justice would sooner or later catch up with people who have been so far protected by the government.

    But on the streets of the Bujumbura, even as they welomced the judges’ decision, some worried that it might worsen the security situation.

    “I’m really happy,” said Seconde Hamenyimana, speaking in the capital’s Musaga district, an opposition stronghold  where many demonstrated against Nkurunziza in 2015.

    “If I could, I would march in favour of the ICC’s good initiative,” she said, adding however that worries over security had kept her awake all night.

    “Everyone is afraid. The streets, shops, and restaurants in my area emptied before 7pm last night. Everyone went to hide at home.”

    (Additional reporting from Bujumbura. Top photo: Residents of Bujumbura demonstrate in favour of Burundi's withdrawal from the International Criminal Court in October 2017. Contributor/IRIN)

     

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    A shot across the bows from The Hague as ICC investigates Burundi
    Court rules that countries can remain under its jurisdiction even after they withdraw
  • Congo, chemical weapons, and sex work in crisis settings: The Cheat Sheet

    Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:

     

    The worst kind of club

     

    The Democratic Republic of Congo has joined a club no country wants to join: It has been named a "Level 3" emergency by the international relief community. The "L3" designation is meant to galvanise a more ambitious and urgent response from the UN, NGOs, and donors. An OCHA spokesperson confirmed the decision to IRIN, saying the measure will last for an initial six months and is focused on the situation in the greater Kasai region, as well as Tanganyika and South Kivu, where conflict and displacement have soared this year. OCHA says only 30 percent of this year's humanitarian appeal was funded – a 10-year low. Informed sources say a new UN humanitarian coordinator, Canadian Kim Bolduc, will be deployed. Decisions to declare an L3 come from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which includes the major UN agencies and international NGO groups. Congo is the fourth current L3 response. The others are for operations in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Previous L3s have at one time been declared for Central African Republic, the Philippines and South Sudan. 

     

    How to negotiate with armed groups

     

    Staying in similar territory, what do members of armed groups really think of humanitarian workers? It’s an important question when it comes to safety and operational effectiveness, so the International NGO Safety Organisation asked groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They concluded that the gunmen generally wanted to appear respectful of International Humanitarian Law. But while the presence of aid workers was generally welcomed, there were some sharp criticisms of the humanitarian response. These were based on the supposed incompetence of the NGOs, a perception of skewed recruitment practices, corruption, and the failure to consult with local people leading to poor programming. There was also suspicion of “political behaviour” by some NGOs, including spying. Recommendations by INSO based on the study included: keep talking to the armed groups; keep that messaging consistent; avoid establishing too-personal links that could be misconstrued as bias; don’t ignore the rank-and-file; and be transparent by managing breeches of humanitarian and operational principles rather than ignoring them. The study was conducted in 2014, but only released this week.

     

    Last act for UN chemical weapons probe?

     

    The results are in: A UN investigative panel announced Thursday that the Syrian government’s air force was responsible for an April sarin gas attack that killed dozens in the village of Khan Sheikhoun. This should not come as a surprise – evidence, including a declassified US intelligence report, pointed in that direction early on, although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the whole thing a “fabrication” and Russia said it was caused by a bomb on the ground. The US responded with a cruise missile strike on a Syrian military base, in what appeared to be a return of the chemical weapons “red line”. But this investigation may be the last for the panel (full name: Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism), at least in its current form. Just days before the results were announced, Russia, saying it was waiting to see the panel’s Khan Sheikhoun findings, used its Security Council veto to stop a one-year extension of the body’s mandate. The council has until 17 November to renew the JIM, and Russia’s ambassador to the UN has said: “we will return to [the issue].” What that means for independent investigations of a conflict rife with wrongdoing remains to be seen.

     

    No “end to radicalisation”

     

    After five months of fierce clashes demolished parts of the city and raised questions over a new breed of Islamist insurgency, officials in the Philippines this week declared an end to fighting in Marawi. Authorities say the first of an estimated 360,000 evacuated residents will begin returning to their homes in the coming days. But the humanitarian needs are still daunting and will last well into the future. The siege on Marawi wiped out livelihoods as the city emptied; the impacts spread to the rest of Lanao del Sur province, where Marawi is the capital and was the economic hub. Food and water supplies in official evacuation centres were erratic throughout the siege; aid groups say it will be essential to monitor signs of severe acute malnutrition for the next six to 12 months. Observers say the instability caused by the clashes will likely lead to clan feuds and/or new retaliations from those aligned with so-called Islamic State. As IRIN reported earlier, radicalised militants are already using the Marawi siege as propaganda. Many in the Muslim-majority city were already distrustful of the Philippine government. Observers say this makes it even more imperative that the rebuilding process is both transparent and inclusive. “Whatever happens,” conflict analyst Sidney Jones wrote in The Interpreter this month, “the 'liberation' of Marawi does not mean an end to radicalisation.”

     

    Burundi off the hook?

     

    The International Criminal Court reached an unwanted and unprecedented milestone today: the withdrawal of a member state. The state in question is Burundi, where senior officials stand accused by a UN commission of crimes against humanity, including “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, sexual violence, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and enforced disappearances.” In April last year, the ICC’s prosecutor opened a “preliminary examination” of events in Burundi, a process aimed at determining whether there are grounds to mount a full investigation and eventually prosecute suspects. Despite an appeal to do so by the UN commission, the court did not step up its engagement. One advocacy group said the withdrawal “could set a potentially very dangerous precedent” by encouraging other countries to follow suit simply to avoid criminal investigations. Whether Burundi’s perpetrators are now really off the ICC hook is not entirely clear and depends on how one interprets Article 127 of its founding statute. While Burundi, which denied UN investigators entry into the country, may still have a notional obligation to cooperate with the court, “there is no possibility for the ICC to take further action,” international law expert Benjamin Dürr told IRIN. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, suggested there might be some wriggle room in the Rome Statute, and urged the court to “take a progressive approach in interpreting its jurisdiction so that victims maintain a viable path to justice.”

     

    Did you miss it?

     

    Sweden’s child migrant mystery

     

    This fascinating BBC World Service investigation looks into a mysterious coma-like state that only seems to afflict the children of asylum seekers in Sweden. So-called “Resignation Syndrome” has been baffling Swedish health professionals for years. Are they any closer to understanding why so many children are withdrawing from the world, refusing to speak, walk, and eat? Have a listen and find out.

     

    Is sex work always a case of sexual violence?

     

    Scholar Dorothea Hillhorst, responding to IRIN’s recent #MeToo column, argues that transactional sex, very common in crisis settings, can be a way to survive, a "livelihood", and humanitarian agencies need to rethink how they look at it. Sex work may be triggered by poverty and distress, and is often violent, exploitative, and risky, Hillhorst acknowledges – but it can also be "consensual yet transactional". For example, it could stem from "the desire to advance in education or careers", she writes in a blog posting, drawing on her research in Congo. Humanitarian agencies should start "respecting the agency of people engaging in transactional sex and [consider] offering protection and services", she concludes.

    (TOP PHOTO: ICRC weapon contamination experts conduct chemical decontamination trainings in health facilities. CREDIT: Ibrahim Sherkhan/ICRC)

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    Congo, chemical weapons, and sex work
  • If UN is to be credible, it must act on Burundi before it's too late

    The Burundian government carries the primary responsibility for protecting its citizens from crimes against humanity, but instead it’s the main abuser.

    A UN Commission of Inquiry reported last month that the security forces, the intelligence service, and the ruling party militia bare the greatest guilt for two years of killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, disappearances, and sexual violence in Burundi.

    With the government unwilling to protect its population, it falls to the international community to provide that shield.

    But although Burundi remains on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Security Council in New York, the reaction by the world body has so far been insufficient.

    During the most recent session of the Human Rights Council last month, two resolutions on Burundi were adopted.

    The first, led by the European Union, extended the mandate of the commission of inquiry – set up to investigate human rights abuses – for a further year. It received support from two African member states, Botswana and Rwanda.

    The second resolution was a last-minute bid by the African Group, which sought to discredit and dismantle the panel of inquiry launched by the Human Rights Council in 2016.

    It called for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to send three separate experts “to engage with the Burundian authorities and all other stakeholders”.

    Burundi has promised to cooperate with those experts. But the likelihood they will have any real impact is in doubt given Burundi’s past refusal to cooperate with UN initiatives that seek an end to the crisis in the country, which pits President Pierre Nkurunziza against an opposition that claims his rule is illegal, and demands his ousting.

    For example, in July 2016, the UN Security Council authorised 228 police officers to monitor the security situation. The resolution was an attempt to salvage the reputation of the Council, which needed to be seen as doing something. However, due to government opposition, the police officers were never able to deploy.

    Following the outcome of the Human Rights Council meeting last month, it is unlikely that the Security Council will take strong action – such as targeted sanctions – despite Burundi rejecting its legally-binding resolutions.

     

    Divided UN

     

    In New York as in Geneva, Burundi remains one of the most divisive issues. Some Security Council members – primarily China, Russia, and Egypt – see the situation as an internal human rights affair rather than a peace and security issue.

     

    The position of those who want the Security Council to be more engaged on human rights issues, led by the United States, is sharply opposed by those who want the Council to remain focused on more traditional security matters.

     

    All members of the Security Council are waiting to take their cues from African states – primarily Burundi’s neighbours – Tanzania and Uganda.

     

    Given the relatively strong African consensus in Geneva opposing what is characterised as outside interference, and the ongoing – although stalled – mediation efforts led by the East African Community, those members of the Security Council interested in stronger action are unlikely to push for that in the current climate.

     

    Despite the new UN secretary-general’s focus on crisis prevention, the case of Burundi shows how difficult it is to implement prevention measures in specific cases.

     

    The Human Rights Council has no way of enforcing decisions and relies on the cooperation of UN member states, including Burundi. The Security Council is unlikely to act until a situation has already spiralled out of control and threatens international peace and security.

     

    On the ground, three scenarios could jolt the Security Council into action.

     

    The first could be an escalation of attacks from outside Burundi, such as by the Democratic Republic of Congo-based rebel group, the Popular Forces of Burundi. The FPB’s leadership recently vowed to increase attacks. This would likely intensify the violence and could even lead to civil war in the long term.

     

    The second scenario could centre around the more than 400,000 refugees in neighboring countries. Tanzania, which hosts almost 60 percent of fleeing Burundese, has already reached a deal with Burundi and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, which will see the repatriation of almost 12,000 refugees, many of whom want to leave ill-equipped camps.

     

    If the refugee flow does not stop, Tanzania may change course and ask the Security Council to do something.

     

    A third scenario could see an intensification of internal division within the ruling party, which would likely see a deterioration of the security situation, especially if an attempt is made to prevent Nkurunziza from running for a fourth term.

     

    All three of these scenarios would pose an even greater risk of mass atrocities. If the UN is serious about prevention, it must take credible action on Burundi now before it is too late.

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    TOP PHOTO: Burundi police on patrol

     

    If UN is to be credible, it must act on Burundi before it's too late
  • Hurricane Irma inequality, Rohingya aid strain, and a Kurdish state? The Cheat Sheet

    IRIN editors have scanned the humanitarian horizon and curated this list of hot topics for your perusal:

     

    270,000 and climbing: Rohingya refugee influx strains aid providers

     

    An estimated 270,000 Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh in the space of two weeks, aid groups have confirmed, leaving existing refugee camps bursting at the seams. It represents the largest single exodus of Rohingya refugees in decades. This latest surge, which began 25 August, has seen massive numbers pouring into Bangladesh, fleeing a violent military crackdown on a small Rohingya insurgent group. The influx has overwhelmed what assistance there is in Cox’s Bazar, where an estimated 400,000 Rohingya – refugees from previous waves of violence – were already living in ramshackle camps. Aid groups say they are quickly running out of space to house all the new arrivals – some 50,000 Rohingya are squatting on slivers of free land, including roadsides, while others have crammed into existing camps or local communities. Dwindling food stocks are mostly limited to rice, while healthcare and other vital services are stretched thin. The number of new arrivals is expected to climb. Many Rohingya are still waiting along the border area to board small boats to Bangladesh. At least 300 boats arrived in coastal Shamlapur on 6 September, but this is a dangerous journey – vessels have reportedly capsized, with bodies washing onto the shore. The UN has released $7 million in emergency funds, but aid groups fear that more will be needed. Rohingya in Myanmar have long looked to Bangladesh as a safe haven from communal and state violence in Rakhine. In 1977 and 1978, an estimated 200,000 people fled there; some 250,000 Rohingya made the same journey in 1991. 

     

    Journey to extremism in Africa

     

    It was two years in the making, based on interviews with more than 500 former members of extremist groups (mainly in Somalia, Nigeria, and Kenya), so what does UNDP’s landmark report say? The journey starts with location: typically peripheral, marginalised areas. A perceived lack of parental involvement in a child’s life correlates with future extremism, as does low education levels. Religion was cited as a motivating factor for joining by 51 percent of respondents (which means for 49 percent it wasn’t), but 57 percent of the sample admitted to limited or no understanding of religious texts. Religious education can actually inoculate against extremism. Poverty is clearly a factor in recruitment. The report says employment was the single most frequently cited “immediate need” faced at the time of joining. Disaffection with the authorities is also marked – 78 percent had little trust in the police, politicians, and military. But the research gets really interesting on the recruitment “tipping point”. A striking 71 percent indicated “government action”, including the killing/arrest of a family member or friend, as the incident that prompted them to join. Forty-eight percent joined in less than a month from first contact with the extremist group. More surprising still, just under half of those who joined were aware of PVE (Prevention of Violent Extremism) initiatives, but identified distrust of those delivering the programmes as one of the primary reasons for not taking part – underscoring that it’s the messenger as much as the message that’s important. While not excusing violent extremism, this all points to the impact of a tragic failure of governance.

     

    Kurdistan: To be or not to be

     

    Iraq’s Kurds are set to hold an independence referendum at the end of this month, and while it seems like an auspicious moment – their peshmerga have been a key ally in fighting off so-called Islamic State in Iraq – the run-up to the vote has not been smooth sailing. This week, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi reiterated his opposition, saying the “unconstitutional” referendum would lead the whole of Iraq “into a dark tunnel”. Other regional powers, notably Iran and Turkey have (perhaps unsurprisingly) come out against the vote, as has the United States. There’s internal opposition too. But Kurdistan Regional Government President Masoud Barzani insisted again this week that the vote is going ahead as scheduled, calling it a “sacred objective”. Campaigning has begun – vote yes banners are turning up in the streets – as has online registration for diaspora Kurds. But what do average Kurds think of all of this? And what would a yes vote really mean for a region in turmoil? Look out for our upcoming in-depth series on the future of the Kurdish people, which answers these questions and more.

    Burundi in the spotlight

    Since President Pierre Nkurunziza threw his county into turmoil in April 2015 by announcing he would run for a constitutionally dodgy third term in office, violence in Burundi has claimed hundreds of lives and prompted hundreds of thousands to flee the country. “Extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, sexual violence, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and enforced disappearances” continue to take place in the central African state, according to the final report of a UN Commission of Enquiry, which said these acts mostly likely amounted to crimes against humanity. The report said government soldiers, police, intelligence agents, and the youth wing of the ruling party were behind most of the abuses. Burundi refused to cooperate with the commission or to let it into the country, even though it is itself a member of the body that established it, the UN’s Human Rights Council. The council opens one of its thrice-yearly regular sessions in Geneva on Monday, where the Burundi report will be discussed. The commission called for the International Criminal Court to escalate its role in Burundi from a “preliminary examination” to an actual investigation, which could open the door to prosecutions. Will the UN Security Council take up commission president Fatsah Ouguergouz’s suggestion that it make that happen with a formal referral of the Burundi case to the ICC? Or will other countries apply the principle of universal jurisdiction to hold perpetrators in Burundi to account? Watch this space…

     

    Did you miss it?

     

    Hurricane Irma highlights the great divide

    If a hurricane takes aim at Florida, residents can normally watch the drama unfold from afar as it barrels in from the Atlantic along a string of Caribbean islands. Then, when the time is right, and the correct amount of plywood has been applied to the windows, they can head inland for sanctuary, taking loved ones, pets, and valuables with them. And when disaster strikes, a massive response effort swings into action with all the capacity you would expect from the richest country on Earth. Spare a thought for the poor people of Saint-Martin or Barbuda: They didn’t know exactly what to expect as Irma approached, there was nowhere that safe to go, there wasn’t much they could do to protect their vulnerable homes, and help might not even reach them before the next massive storm hits. This is not to have a go at Floridians, or to underplay the anxious days and journeys they’ve endured. It is simply a statement of the obvious. But, as regular IRIN contributor Philippa Garson explores in this timely take, the distinction is an important one. With such storms apparently becoming more violent and more frequent, such disaster inequality is only likely to get worse. What can be done to close the gap? Can lessons be learnt from the kind of cooperation seen between Pacific island nations? How much of a role is climate change playing and what responsibility therefore lies with the world’s biggest polluters? All good questions.

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    TOP PHOTO: Rohingya face a humanitarian crisis. CREDIT: Evangelos Petratos/ECHO

    Our weekly round-up of hot humanitarian topics
    Our weekly round-up of hot humanitarian topics
  • Burundi officials should be tried for “crimes against humanity”: UN commission

    Burundians “at the highest level of the state” and in its security services should face trial at the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity, a UN panel investigating more than two years of human rights abuses in the central African state said today.

     

    The three-member Commission of Enquiry said it had “reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed and continue to be committed in Burundi since April 2015.”

     

    The violent political crisis, sparked when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term in office, has been marked by a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces on street protests. It has all but extinguished hopes that Burundi will embrace a peaceful democratic transition in the wake of a civil war that cost some 300,000 lives between 1993 and 2006.

    “These crimes are taking place in a context of serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, sexual violence, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and enforced disappearances,” the commission, created by the Human Rights Council, said in a statement accompanying its final report.

     

    The report said rights to association, freedom of movement, as well as an independent media had been stifled: Opposition parties could not meet or act freely, their members were under constant pressure, and a large number had been arrested tortured or killed.

     

    The result of three months of investigations and 500 interviews, the report did not name names, but the commission has drawn up a confidential list of suspects.

     

    Perpetrators

     

    The abuses are attributed to the government’s army, the police and the security services, as well as the paramilitary youth wing of the ruling party, known as the Imbonerakure.

     

    Burundi’s national intelligence service (SNR) and the Burundian National Police were cited in a large number of the witness statements as the principle perpetrators.

     

    “[The SNR agents] accused me of being a rebel,” one witness said. “Behind me, an [SNR agent] was interrogating another detainee…. He received a bullet in the leg and was bleeding. The [SNR] agents beat him as if he was a snake while he was bleeding… [The SNR agent] who was interrogating me said: ‘You see, you do not have enough strength to resist that. You are going to die if you do not admit what you know.”

     

    The commission also documented several cases of sexual violence, including rapes, sometimes of women in front of their loved ones. Men were also victims of rape; others tortured sexually.

     

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    Anonymous/Human Rights Watch
    A Burundian artist’s drawing of a fictional case of policemen and an intelligence agent torturing a detainee.
    “They beat me many times in the genitals,” one man said. “They told me to bend over, arms level with my knees, and kicked me in the genitals. Because of the blows inflicted, I haven’t been able to have sexual relations since… It’s like I’ve become impotent.”

     

    The commission’s president, Fatsah Ouguergouz, said: “We were struck by the scale and the brutality of the violations. We also noted a lack of will on the part of the Burundian authorities to fight against impunity and guarantee the independence of the judiciary. As a result, there is a strong likelihood that the perpetrators of these crimes will remain unpunished.”

     

    Role of the ICC

     

    In April 2016, the ICC announced it had launched a “preliminary examination” of the situation in Burundi – at the time more than 430 people had reportedly been killed.  This ongoing step, which under ICC procedures determines whether a full investigation should take place, focuses on “killing, imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as cases of enforced disappearances that have been allegedly committed since April 2015.”

     

    In October 2016, Nkurunziza signed legislation calling for Burundi’s withdrawal from the ICC, notification of which was later that month sent to the UN secretary general. Under the Rome Statute, actual withdrawal takes place a year after such notification.

     

    But under the statute, specifically article 127, a state’s withdrawal does not end its obligation to cooperate with the ICC on issues that were under the court’s consideration before that withdrawal, nor does it oblige the ICC to stop its work on that country.

     

    The Burundian government rejects the commission and did not allow members to visit the country. Interviews were conducted in neighbouring countries, to where hundreds of thousands of Burundians have fled since 2015.

     

    On 1 September, Burundi’s parliament announced it would set up its own commission, made up of 12 lawmakers, to look into the UN commission’s findings.

     

    New rebel threat?

    The UN commission’s call for ICC prosecutions comes days after an armed rebel group, the Burundi Popular Forces (an offshoot of FOREBU), warned it would step up attacks to pressure Nkurunziza to join inclusive mediated talks with the opposition in neighbouring Tanzania.

     

    “Renewed talks had been envisioned for the end of July, but that time has come and gone without any progress,” commented Dominique Fraser, a research analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect.

     

    “It's unclear how much power and influence [FOREBU] actually wield, but an escalation of violence would likely spell trouble for Burundi and could heighten the risk of mass atrocities,” Fraser told IRIN.

     

    Thijs Van Laer, programme manager at the International Refugee Rights Initiative, agreed, warning that any renewed violence “could be followed by repression by the Burundian government.

     

    "Real regional pressure on the Burundian government is the preferred option, as it could prevent such renewed open violence and repression, potentially followed by a new increase in ongoing refugee flows,” he added.

     

    “Currently, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania are putting all their eggs in the basked of mediation by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, without really pressuring Nkurunziza to participate in it,” Van Laer said.

    “They should increase pressure on government and opposition, not just to participate in talks, but also to halt abuses against political opponents and common citizens, and to support real accountability for crimes.”

    According to Alex Fielding, a risk and crisis management consultant with 4C Strategies and a freelance analyst on African affairs, “violence hasn't forced the government into negotiations in the past.

    “Only serious UN-backed, regional pressure led by countries like South Africa, with a credible military threat, will force Nkurunziza's hand, something that looks unlikely at the moment.”

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    (TOP PHOTO: A Burundian refugee queues at Lake Tanganyika Stadium in Kigoma, Tanzania, for the bus taking refugees to a permanent refugee camp in May of 2015. Jessica Hatcher/IRIN)

    Burundi officials should be tried for “crimes against humanity”: UN commission
  • Hate speech stirs trouble in Burundi

    Next month, the Commission of Enquiry on Burundi, established by the UN Human Rights Council, is due to deliver its final report on abuses in the central African state and to make a judgement as to whether these abuses, including killings, torture, and abduction, amount to international crimes.

    The commission has highlighted the prevalence of hate speech in Burundi, notably by the ruling party and its affiliates, saying such rhetoric, which often targets specific ethnic groups, “reinforced” human rights abuses. It has called for the state to take action against perpetrators.

    In 2015, an announcement by President Pierre Nkurunziza that he would stand for a controversial third term plunged the country into crisis, marked by violent clashes between protestors and security forces, a failed coup, and the flight of hundreds of thousands of people out of the country.

    Burundi continues to present numerous risk factors of further violent destabilisation and hate speech remains widespread, especially on social media, while authorities appear to being doing little to curtail it.

    Facebook posts and comments, some using pseudonyms others by people apparently using their real names, routinely contain blatant incitement to violence.

    “Hutus are filth and we will keep killing them if the opportunity presents itself,” read one recent Facebook post by someone calling himself “Ntwari Alexis”. The profile picture shows a man sitting on an armoured car brandishing the national flag of Burundi. 

    Since “Ntwari” means “brave man” in the Kirundi language, the name is presumably fake. The post appeared the day after the second anniversary of the assassination in a rocket attack in Bujumbura of General Adolphe Nshimirimana, a former intelligence chief and right-hand man to Nkurunziza.

    Role reversal

    During Burundi’s 1993-2006 civil war, which pitted a range of Hutu rebel groups against the Tutsi-led government and army, Nshimirimana served as the military commander of the CNDD-FDD, a Hutu insurgency that transformed itself into the political party now in power.

    On Twitter, one Diana Nsamirizi wrote recently of the country’s Tutsi minority (who dominated power between independence and the end of the civil war): “Now it’s your turn. I want you to flee [the country] and see what it’s like. You’re conceitedness will end one day.”

    Another poster on Facebook wrote: “All the problems the country has had were caused by the Tutsi… The Tutsi are difficult to live with. They are proud. They overestimate themselves. They are the descendants of Cain. The Tutsi massacred Hutus in 1968, 1972, 1994-2004. We must not forget these troubles and above all those who caused them.”

    burundi_prez_as_devil_1.jpg

    Facebook
    Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza portrayed as a devil.
    A message posted by a 20-strong group on the social media network in mid-June went even further, declaring: “We are determined to fight the mujeri until they give up their beastly ways.” The Kirundi word mujeri is a derogatory term for stray, dirty dogs, in this case applied to opponents of the regime.

    Mujeri are little dogs which bite people,” the Facebook post continued. “To eradicate the mujeri, they must be chased, even in their hiding places.”

    Specific threats

    In yet another post, “mujeri” was applied to certain prominent foreigners in Burundi, including US Ambassador Ann Casper: “Behead those mujeri,” wrote someone using the name “Eustache Tiger”, a vocal supporter of the president.

    Also among the targets of violent threats has been former president Domitien Ndayizeye, after he spoke out against the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth wing, which gained notoriety earlier this year when 100 of its marching members chanted that female opposition supporters should be raped or even killed. Human Rights Watch has accused the Imbonerakure of being involved in the gang rapes of women and the torture of opposition members.

    After the former president criticised the slogans of the youth wing, Sylvestre Ndayizeye (no relation), who coordinates associations affiliated with the ruling party, warned his namesake that should he continue to “insult” the Imbonerakure, “we will deal with him”. He used the Kirundi verb

    “gukorerako”, which in the slang of the youth wing, which harks back to the language used by rebels during the civil war, means to kill.

    Burundi’s penal code outlaws such declarations, according to jurist Pacifique Manirambona. “The state prosecutor or his office is supposed to take up such matters, initiate investigations, and prosecute those behind such hate speech,” he told IRIN.

    “Defamation, or hatred against a group or people or a segment of the population, causes social problems and endangers lives. Insults or describing individuals or groups as animals [or] cartoons depicting people as animals are degrading and should be punished under law,” he added. As well as “stray dogs”, targets of hate speech in Burundi have been described as snakes, refuse, and excrement.

    Dehumanisation

    Political scientist Jean-Marie Ntahimpera warned that resorting to animal terminology was “very dangerous. We saw it during the [1994] genocide in Rwanda. The Tutsi were called inyenzi, cockroaches, before being killed.”

    Dehumanisation is one of the 10 stages of genocide identified by Gregory H. Stanton, the president of Genocide Watch. According to The Genocide Report, “dehumanization overcomes the normal human revulsion against murder…. [One group] is taught to regard the other group as less than human, and even alien to their society. They are indoctrinated to believe that ‘We are better off without them.’ They are equated with filth, impurity, and immorality.”

    That dehumanisation, and other phenomena among the 10 stages, such as “classification”, “symbolisation”, “polarisation”, and mass rapes, are visible in Burundi does not mean the country is heading towards a genocide. But, as the Human Rights Council pointed out, it does make acting against perpetrators all the more important.

    Yet, according to Manirambona, the jurist, nobody in Burundi has ever been prosecuted for hate speech.

    Worse still, it is not uncommon for those who do post hate speech on social media to receive messages of support from government officials. Senior presidential aide Willy Nyamitwe, for example, congratulated Sylvestre Ndayizeye over his remarks, even though they were widely interpreted as an overt death threat.

    (TOP PHOTO: Targets of social media hate in Burundi are frequently depicted as animals such as dogs, apes and snakes. Facebook)

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    Hate speech stirs trouble in Burundi
  • International action needed over Burundi now

    Two years ago, President Pierre Nkurunziza ignited a political crisis in Burundi when he announced that he would run for a controversial third presidential term. Thousands of people were killed, disappeared, and tortured in the violence that followed, and more than 417,000 have fled the country.

    Human rights violations remain systematic and widespread. But because they today occur on a smaller scale than in late 2015 and early 2016, they largely escape the attention of the international community. That is a mistake.

    The preconditions remain for mass atrocities. The trigger could be Nkurunziza’s apparent willingness to amend the constitution and run for a fourth term in 2020. The African Union, the United Nations, and the East African Community should work together now to compel the president to find a political solution to the conflict.

    Roots of the crisis

    The current political crisis was sparked in April 2015, when the former rebel group and now ruling party CNDD-FDD announced that Nkurunziza would run for a third presidential term. Despite opposition over the constitutionality of the move, Nkurunziza’s bid was confirmed in a controversial interpretation by the Constitutional Court.

    Nkurunziza was re-elected in July 2015 in polls that were deemed neither free nor credible by the UN. He now appears intent on consolidating and retaining power at all cost. This includes amending the constitution’s presidential term limits and the ethnic power-sharing quotas enshrined in the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement that ended the 1993-2005 civil war.

    Now Nkurunziza has hinted that he may run for a fourth term in 2020, arguing that the will of the people is “above the judiciary”

    Now Nkurunziza has hinted that he may run for a fourth term in 2020, arguing that the will of the people is “above the judiciary”. The government has authorised a commission to review the constitution, but none of its 15 members who were appointed in May have a background in constitutional law.

    Furthermore, the commission is under the direct oversight of the president’s office, raising concerns as to its independence. Its proposed draft amendments are expected by the end of the year.

    To long-term observers, the decision to review the constitution does not come as a surprise. The CNDD-FDD has never been a supporter of the Arusha agreement and refused to sign. It objected, inter alia, to ethnic power-sharing quotas between Hutu and Tutsi – the two main ethnic groups in the country.

    The constitution guarantees an ethnic balance of, at most, 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi in both decision-making roles and within the public administration.

    The army too has benefited from an ethnic balance following the end of the civil war and has been seen as a stabilising force in Burundi. The army’s contribution to international peacekeeping missions has afforded Burundi both prestige and much-needed funds.

    However, according to a recent report by the International Federation of Human Rights, the army is now slowly being purged of Nkurunziza’s opponents, both real and perceived. These changes to the constitution and the army are dangerous.

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    Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza at a commemoration for the country's 53rd year of independence.
    Burundi Government

    Underlying risk factors

    Burundi presents many underlying risk factors that, if triggered, could lead to mass atrocities. Burundi’s post-independence is replete with episodes of large-scale violence, which is one of the most reliable predictors of future mass atrocities.

    The state structures seem unable to counter human rights violations; the judiciary is tightly controlled by the government, and state organs – most notably the police and the National Intelligence Agency – are among the main perpetrators of violence.

    The CNDD-FDD’s armed youth militia, the Imbonerakure, appear to be ready and willing to escalate the violence. The Imbonerakure have already created a climate of fear and intimidation, referring to their opponents as “lice” and “dogs” and taking part in the human rights violations. Neither civil society nor a free media are able to counter these trends, suffering from severe restrictions and repression.

    International response

    It has become apparent that Nkurunziza has few scruples over the ethnicisation of the conflict. In the absence of his commitment to Arusha, a carrot-and-stick approach involving the African Union, the UN, and the regional East African Community may compel the president to the negotiation table to find a political solution.

    The AU initially reacted strongly against the deteriorating situation in Burundi. On 17 December 2015, at the height of the violence, the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) recommended the deployment of 5,000 troops with or – if necessary – without the government’s consent.

    Many saw this as a realisation of Article 4(h) of the AU’s Constitutive Act, which allows it “to intervene in a Member State… in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”. The PSC had hoped to force the government to the negotiation table. However, in light of Nkurunziza’s warning that any deployment would be met by force, the AU Assembly was split and ultimately did not endorse the decision.

    The AU has since withdrawn from engagement on Burundi. In its stead, the UN Security Council authorised 228 police officers in July 2016 to monitor the security situation. The government again refused and the decision has not been implemented. In September of the same year, the UN Human Rights Council mandated a commission of inquiry for Burundi, but the commissioners were denied entry.

    More on Burundi:

    Neglected but not over

    Who are the Imbonerakure?

    Scars deepen as fear rules

    Burundi's walks away from International Criminal Court

    Urgent measures needed

    In light of the government’s refusal to cooperate with the AU and UN, when it meets to discuss Burundi this week the Security Council should impose asset freezes and travel bans against those who threaten Burundi’s peace and security.

    This decision would be in line with action taken by the European Union, the United States, and Switzerland, which have imposed targeted sanctions on a number of individuals. The EU has also suspended direct financial assistance to Bujumbura.

    The UN must also continue its contingency planning in case the situation deteriorates. It is currently “ill-equipped to mount the type of peace enforcement operation that may be required in the event of mass atrocities in Burundi,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted earlier this year.

    The Human Rights Council should suspend Burundi’s current membership during its next regular session in September. It is unconscionable that as a member of the council, Burundi refuses to cooperate with its mechanisms and fails to uphold the human rights of its population.

    The punitive measures taken by the UN will hopefully encourage the president and his government to re-engage with an East African Community-led mediation effort, which is trying to find a political solution to the conflict.

    While the talks appear to have stalled due to the government’s refusal to negotiate with the political opposition, a new round has been scheduled for later this month.

    Nkurunziza’s visit to Tanzania last week (his first trip outside of Burundi since a failed coup attempt in May 2015) to meet with Tanzanian President John Magufuli may revive the government’s commitments to the talks. Magufuli is thought to be one of the few regional actors with influence over Nkurunziza.

    As the crisis is inherently political, only a political solution can end it. However, it has become clear that the international community must compel Nkurunziza to find a negotiated settlement to prevent any further deterioration.

    (TOP PHOTO: Protesters raise their hands in front of police in the Musaga neighbourhood of Bujumbura, Burundi, on May 4, 2015)

    International action needed over Burundi now
  • Neglected but not over: Burundi crisis continues to bite

    Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to seek a disputed third term more than two years ago, spawning a period of unrest marked by extrajudicial killings, a failed coup, and ethnic division. Given repeated assurances from government officials and the dearth of media coverage, you would be forgiven for thinking that period ended some time ago. It did not. The country’s population continues to face armed violence, civil and human rights abuses, while food insecurity and economic hardship persist. People are still fleeing to neighbouring countries: The UN predicts the number of Burundian refugees will top 500,000 by the end of the year.

    On 14 June, the Commission of Enquiry on Burundi set up by the UN Human Rights Council reported that violations such as the excessive use of force, disappearances, and arbitrary detention by security services – which all surged amid street protests in the weeks after Nkurunziza’s April 2015 announcement – have been continuing.

    According to government figures, some 720 people have lost their lives since the start of the crisis – many during the heavy-handed crackdown around a failed coup attempt in May 2015. Human rights workers put the number at more like 1,200. The level of violence has subsided but there continue to be sporadic killings from gunshots and grenades, which the police often attribute to criminal activity.

    Fatsah Ouguergouz, who chairs the commission of enquiry, told the Human Rights Council that testimonies collected in refugee camps “show that since late 2016, human rights violations are often committed in a more clandestine, but equally brutal, manner” than in 2015.

    “For example, a victim told us that in 2016, a police commander threatened him in the following terms: ‘I can kill you. I can bury you and no one will know,’” Ouguergouz said, explaining that his team had not been given permission to carry out investigations inside Burundi itself.

    “There are continuing reports of disappearances. Dead bodies are also still regularly discovered,” he added. “According to several testimonies, it is often difficult to identify the bodies. The modus operandi seems to be the same: the victims have their arms tied behind their backs and sometimes their bodies are weighed down with stones to make them sink once they are thrown into a river.”

    The disappeared

    In Bujumbura, residents gave IRIN first-hand accounts of loved ones going missing.

    “My husband received a phone call from people he doubtless knew. He left in our car with a friend and never came back. Even the car was never found,” said the wife of a man close to the government who asked not to be named. “I contacted his old friends ­– the police, the army, the intelligence services – but to no avail. I’m losing hope, and what [bothers] me the most is that some of his old friends in the police and army don’t answer my calls.”

    Another woman in the capital told IRIN about her brother, who had been a policeman for a long time. “He was arrested as he came home from work, after meeting some relatives,” she said. “Up to now, I have no information about where he went. I don’t know what to do. We haven’t even been allowed to conduct customary mourning rituals. We are crying in secret.”

    The commission said refugees had told its investigators of torture sessions carried out by the National Intelligence Service and the police, sometimes assisted by the Imbonerakure – the ruling party’s youth wing. The testimony was graphic: “clubs, rifle butts, bayonets, iron bars, metal chains and electric cables [used] with the result that some victims' bones were broken and other victims lost consciousness; long needles stuck into victims' bodies or unidentified products injected into them; nails ripped out with pliers; burns; and many abuses inflicted on male detainees' genital organs.”

    The commission also noted that those in exile included many journalists as well as the leaders of most opposition parties, one of which, the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, was slapped with a six-month suspension in April.  

    Humanitarian crisis

    Dwindling food supplies have left more than a quarter of Burundi’s population, 2.56 million people, in a state of severe food insecurity. Some three million Burundians require humanitarian assistance.

    In April, four people died of starvation in Muyange II, an area close to the capital, according to local leader Augustin Ntirandekura. Asked to explain the lack of doors and windows on some of the houses in Muyange II, one resident said they had been sold to pay for food. 

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    Potato seller in Bujumbura market
    stringer/IRIN
    This man's sales have plummetted

    Yields from the first of the country’s two annual agricultural seasons were down an average of 25 percent, but experts at the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system say this only partly explains the widespread food insecurity. 

    “The current socio-economic crisis characterised by inflation, shortage of jobs, the depreciation of the Burundian franc and a shortage of foreign currency, aggravated by a malaria epidemic and the displacement of populations are factors which influence the level of food insecurity and create a need for a coordinated multi-sectoral approach,” the latest IPC bulletin says. 

    Market prices of basic foods are between 30 and 50 percent higher than the same period last year, according to the IPC, which did, however, project much better yields from 2017’s (just beginning) second harvest. 

    More supply can’t come a moment too soon. At foodstalls in the capital, IRIN found maize selling for 1,200 francs ($0.70) per kilogramme, against 400 francs less than two years ago, while green beans were up from 700 to 1,200 francs over the same period. 

    Depressed economy

    “When the current crisis started, the expatriate family I had been working for since 2010 left the country and my husband lost his job because his boss said he didn’t have enough money to pay him,” said Nicelate Ngayabosha, who lives in the northern Bujumbura district of Kamenge.

    She said she struggles to feed her family now and that her children only eat one meal a day, which makes it hard for them to concentrate at school.

    Adrienne Niyubuntu, a mother of three who said her husband had travelled to the Democratic Republic of Congo because he could not bear to see his children go hungry, explained how she now has to rely on charity. “These days, it’s my relatives who try to give me food, because I have no income,” she said.

    Budgetary aid suspensions imposed by the European Union and some of its member states in 2016 are also having a serious impact on Burundi’s economy, according to analyst and anti-corruption activist Faustin Ndikumana.

    “The sanctions have deprived the government of a major source of foreign currency,” he told IRIN. The EU suspension affects a 43-million-euro package of direct support destined mainly for projects in energy, rural development, public finances, health, and justice reform. The European Union had been funding about half of Burundi’s annual budget.

    Knock-on effects

    Ndikumana said the lack of foreign currency had led to shortages of fuel, medicines, and other essential goods. “The national agricultural investment programme has not received its planned funds and the agricultural sector is unable to pay dividends,” he said. “We are in a situation where people are impoverished yet certain dignitaries continue to believe that things are normal because they are receiving their salaries or allowances.”

    The International Monetary Fund has projected zero growth in Burundi in 2017 and 12.4 percent inflation.

    Fuel shortages and electricity cuts have eased now but in April and May they were severe. “We had to queue outside petrol stations. Sometimes, we even waited all day without getting any,” said taxi driver Thomas Ndayiragije.

    The fuel shortages also exacerbated food inflation. According to the national statistics institute, food prices went up more than 10 percent in less than a month in April.

    All this has grave implications for jobs and livelihoods.

    “I’m having trouble making ends meet every month because so I have so few customers,” said shopkeeper Josue. “I think I will have to try to find another source of revenue because commerce is not working well.” 

    Innocent, who works at a market stall, said her boss had had asked her to look for customers to buy his potatoes. “He has already told me that if things go on like this I will lose my job,” she said. “We used to sell around 200 kilogrammes or more of potatoes a day. Now I sell less than 20.”

    A cement trader in downtown Bujumbura said his sales had also fallen by a similar 90 percent. “I think fewer people are building houses,” he explained. 

    buja_city_center.jpg

    Street scene Bujumbura, Burundi
    stringer/IRIN
    Behind the semblance of normalcy, people still disappear from the streets of Burundi's capital

    No way forward

    For exiled anti-corruption activist Gabriel Rufyiri, there is only one way forward.

    “Only inclusive negotiations will provide a favourable solution to these problems of food shortages. Because once the political issues are sorted out, donors will be quick to lift sanctions against the government,” he said, speaking to IRIN from Belgium.

    A government-led “inter-Burundian dialogue” involving 26,000 citizens and 600 hours of meetings produced a final report in May, asserting that the population backed various constitutional changes and putting an end to presidential term limits. But opposition parties, which were not involved, have dismissed the process and the subsequent establishment of a constitutional review commission as a sham.

    Meanwhile, mediation efforts led by the East African Community are at a standstill, both because some in the opposition regard the facilitator, Tanzanian former president Benjamin Mkapa, as biased and because Nkurunziza sees the process as a violation of Burundi’s sovereignty.

    This week, UN Assistant Secretary-General Tayé-Brook Zerihoun told the Security Council that implementing the report’s recommendations would likely lead to an escalation of the crisis.

    Government denial, meanwhile, showed no sign of abating. Albert Shingiro, Burundi’s ambassador to the UN, told the council: “the entire country is calm,” that 150,000 refugees had returned home, and that there was no longer a political crisis at all.

    (TOP PHOTO: Protestors in Bujumbura demonstrate against violence in May 2015. Phil Moore/IRIN)
     

    str/am/ag

    Burundi crisis continues to bite

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