The recent change in Burundi’s leadership has raised hopes among international partners that a somber chapter in the country’s history may finally be coming to an end. There’s optimism that new relationships can be forged with president Évariste Ndayishimiye and his administration to usher in rights-respecting reforms.
But these hopes should not come at the expense of much-needed independent human rights scrutiny. In a recent letter to the United Nations Human Rights Council, 43 organizations, including Human Rights Watch, urged member states to adopt a resolution renewing the mandate of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi.
The commission was established in September 2016 to investigate human rights violations and abuses in Burundi since the crisis broke out in April 2015, and a year later found reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity were being committed. Its mandate has been renewed every year since. At the time, the European Union reacted strongly to the crisis by suspending direct budgetary support to the government and imposing targeted sanctions against four individuals – one of whom is a senior official in the current government – alleged to be involved in the crackdown.
The EU should avoid sending the government signals that would disincentivize human rights reforms, such as ending the commission’s mandate in the absence of measurable progress.
Despite some promising, piecemeal signs of potential reform, strong concerns remain. Since his election, Ndayishimiye has made disparaging comments about human rights defenders, whistleblowers, political dissidents, members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, and those generally perceived to be criticizing the government. Security incidents continue to be recorded by local media, who are still unable to work freely and independently, and the ruling party’s notorious youth league, the Imbonerakure, has not been reined in. In July, the commission’s experts warned “Burundi needs more than a new President to break the cycle of violence.”
This is not the time to relax scrutiny. As of today, the commission remains the only independent mechanism with sufficient resources and experience to document, monitor, and report on human rights violations in Burundi, and the only one tasked with identifying perpetrators and ending impunity. EU member states should support the renewal of its mandate and propose specific actions Burundi should take to facilitate a much-hoped for rapprochement with the international community. Failing to renew the mandate would signal to the government its strategy of stonewalling independent bodies investigating abuse has worked. Until Ndayishimiye shows a willingness to translate promises into action, the commission should continue its work.