Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, it is an honour to appear before you to report on the current situation in my country of Burundi. I recognize the importance of this opportunity, especially since I do not have the right to speak before my own country's parliament. Because of my commitment to defending human rights in Burundi, I am in fact accused of being a criminal and traitor to my country.
Like all the main human rights organizations, my organization, FOCODE, is banned in Burundi. My organization's bank accounts and my personal accounts have been seized. There is an international arrest warrant against me, as there is against those in charge of the other main organizations that defend human rights in Burundi. Most fortunately, these bogus warrants have been disregarded by the international community. Finally, like most other defenders of human rights, I am among the half a million Burundians who have had to flee the country because of a regime that does not tolerate any dissent.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank the Subcommittee on International Human Rights of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development of Canada's House of Commons for its sustained interest in the political crisis in my country since April 2015. We must always remember that this crisis is the result of President Pierre Nkurunziza's desire to secure a third term of office, in violation of the Burundian constitution of March 2015 and the Arusha peace and reconciliation agreement for Burundi of August 28, 2000. We have always greatly appreciated the subcommittee's reports and recommendations. Holding new debates and meetings about the situation in Burundi keeps the country on the international community's agenda, at a time when the authorities in Burundi are trying to bury the crisis and keep saying that “everything is fine”.
There have been no improvements in the situation in Burundi since April 2015. On the contrary, it keeps deteriorating and there is no solution on the horizon at this time.
With respect to security, there has been a calm period in the country since the gunfire stopped in the city of Bujumbura. The streets of the capital are no longer littered with dead bodies as they were at the start of the crisis. That said, many people, primarily opponents of President Nkurunziza's regime, keep disappearing, without the slightest police or judicial investigation of these disappearances.
What has changed, however, is the modus operandi of the crimes: operations to abduct citizens have become more discrete; extrajudicial executions are committed in secret; and bodies are thrown into lakes or graves guarded by Imbonerakure militiamen. A general climate of fear reigns among the population, which is controlled by the Imbonerakure militia, who have nearly all police powers, and who also commit many acts of violence.
There is still a risk of civil war. A number of attacks in northwestern Burundi have been reported recently, with the RED-Tabara movement taking credit.
Politically, the Burundian authorities are keeping the political space closed. The main civil society organizations are still banned, as are most independent media.
Last May, President Nkurunziza had a new constitution adopted by referendum which makes it possible for him to override a number of inconvenient provisions of the Arusha Accord. Although he announced that he will not be a candidate in 2020, there is nothing stopping him from seeking two more terms of office and remaining in power until 2034. The new constitution allows him to establish a monarchy. With a view to evading potential proceedings of the International Criminal Court, he made sure that this convention stipulates that no Burundian person may be extradited. As Mr. Armel said, this constitution was adopted in a climate of terror and without any independent international observation.
As to human rights, serious violations are ongoing, as noted in the latest report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. This report mentions possible crimes against humanity, including murders, extrajudicial executions, torture, rape of women, and enforced disappearances.
In addition to these serious violations, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi condemned hate speech from the country's most senior officials, including President Pierre Nkurunziza.
True to form, Burundi's authorities responded by denying the claims and hurling insults. They threatened to withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council, saying the UN experts were not welcome and calling the commission's chair the son of a slave trader. After the commission of inquiry submitted its first report in September 2017, Burundi withdrew from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Socio-economically, Burundi's economy is in shambles and its people live in unspeakable poverty. Despite that, Pierre Nkurunziza's regime clings to power, thanks mainly to the money it receives from its peacekeeping missions in Somalia and the Central African Republic. These missions have made it possible for the regime to encourage, and build support among, the most zealous elements of the repression, access the money to pay the Imbonerakure militia and limit fluctuations in Burundi's currency. It is quite the paradox: peacekeeping missions are helping to stabilize other countries while strengthening Burundi's bloody dictatorship.
In those difficult conditions, human rights organizations are continuing to document human rights violations. Most work in exile but have built very good relationships with the people and rely on observer networks that have been in place for years. The work of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi and the investigation of the International Criminal Court are based mainly on the documentation provided by human rights organizations, which are in need of greater international support.
For instance, my organization, the FOCODE, has been documenting enforced disappearance cases since April 2016. Before we got involved, the narrative on the current repression in Burundi was practically silent on the issue of enforced disappearances. Families would tell us that loved ones had been arrested by elements in the security forces but that they could not locate them in the official institutions. Paralyzed by fear and the possibility of reprisal, families opted not to speak out about the incidents, all the while faced with an agonizing dilemma. Should they keep looking for their loved one or assume they had been killed and mourn the loss?
On April 28, 2016, the FOCODE launched the Ndondeza campaign against enforced disappearances in Burundi. “Ndondeza” is a Kirundi word that means “help me find my loved one”. Since then, the FOCODE has documented 91 disappearances out of approximately 300 cases submitted by families looking for their loved ones. We regularly post the cases we have identified on our website, and we indicate the person's name as well as the circumstances surrounding their disappearance.
Our research shows that most of the victims are people who protested against Pierre Nkurunziza's third term, opposition party supporters, members of the former army or former rebel movements deemed to be opponents of the current regime, human rights advocates such as journalists and civil society activists and, in rare cases, Imbonerakure militia members who could testify to crimes committed by the regime. The forces involved in the disappearances are most often the national intelligence service, in other words, Burundi's secret service, the national police, the army and the Imbonerakure militia. Unfortunately, Burundi's authorities never comment on the cases of citizens who have disappeared.
Given this bleak situation, it's natural to wonder what can be done about the crisis. What can Canada do to help?
First of all, it is crucial that Burundi remain on the international community's agenda. Canada will soon become a member of the UN Security Council, and we expect it to urge the council to keep up pressure on Burundi's authorities.
Second of all, the solution to the crisis in Burundi inevitably lies in the various political players coming together for genuine talks. The Burundi government boycotted the fifth round of the inter-Burundi dialogue, as Mr. Armel mentioned, and, over the past three years, the East African Co-operation has basically failed to bring the government and opposition to the same table. The UN and the African Union need to lead the dialogue process, and meaningful action needs to be taken against any player that thwarts the dialogue.
On that note, I'd like to underscore something. One of the recommendations in your recent report is to take targeted sanctions against certain Burundian officials, mainly by imposing a travel ban and freezing their assets.
Third, the 2000 Arusha accord must underpin the solution to the crisis, and Pierre Nkurunziza's new constitution must be rejected.
Fourth, getting the country back on track hinges on such key elements as the dissolution of the lmbonerakure militia, the protection of exiled leaders, the reinstatement of civil liberties, including for independent media and civil society, the reform of security and defence forces, and refugee repatriation.
Fifth, the solution to the crisis in Burundi must not include impunity for international crimes. It must ensure that the current International Criminal Court process is respected and that an independent judicial system equipped to prosecute perpetrators of serious crimes in Burundi is established.
I see I'm going to run out of time.