One year into the crisis, a deafening silence has fallen over Burundi
One year ago today, on 26 April 2015, Burundian civil society called upon the population to take to the streets. They protested the President decision to run for a third term in office, a move they condemned as being in violation of the Constitution and the 2000 Arusha Accords. The repression that followed the protests was brutal and bloody. Over the past year, the government has orchestrated unprecedented attacks against civil society, gradually chipping away at every aspect its existence. First, the leaders were forced into exile, then bank accounts were frozen, and finally the organisations themselves were forcibly closed. Some, human rights defenders have been threatened, followed, and disappeared, while others watched powerless as their families and loved ones were targeted for their work.
Today, the vibrant campaigns through which human rights defenders once expressed themselves, which were often relayed by local independent media, have been replaced with fearful conversations about disappeared loved ones on social media. Today, Burundians fall asleep to the sound of gunshots and wake to a pervasive and overwhelming sense of fear – fear of speaking to the wrong person, fear of seeing their sons, brothers, and fathers disappear, fear of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
The radios, once the main source of information for the vastly rural population of Burundi, have been effectively silenced. In the run-up to April 2015, journalists were subjected to repeated intimidation, arrests, and imprisonments. On 14 May 2015, they lost their offices, their equipment, and their livelihoods when their radio stations were attacked and burnt down. A deafening silence fell over Burundi, as journalists either went into hiding or fled to neighbouring countries.
And yet, the Burundian community of human rights defenders demonstrated once more its commitment and resilience in the face of adversity. Groups of human rights defenders organised campaigns in exile, ensuring that information collected by monitors inside the country sees the light of day.
Campaigns such as SOS-Torture inform the international community of the on-going rights violations inside the country from the relative safety of exile. Radio stations in exile such as Radio Inzamba have united journalists from different private radios and contribute daily to this flow of information. Other initiatives have been launched, despite operational and financial difficulties. Their monitoring and reporting work is crucial to visibility, and hopefully will one day contribute to bringing justice for the hundreds, if not thousands, that have been disappeared, tortured, and killed.
While the international community has responded to the crisis by conducting a number of high-level visits, the situation has continued to deteriorate. Political dialogue is at a standstill and tensions are rising. The United Nations and the African Union have sent envoys, experts, and monitors to no avail. Reports of mass graves have yet to be properly investigated, and reprisals, or fear of reprisals, against those who cooperate with such mechanisms restrict from the start their access to independent voices.
Lessons should be learnt from the country’s rapid descent into a state of lawlessness. The stage was set for a rapid and ferocious repression, and the police, security forces and other groups affiliated with the ruling party have perpetrated unspeakable crimes. In the run-up to the elections, human rights defenders made numerous attempts to shed light on the worrying developments, often at great personal cost. The international community, namely the UN Human Rights Council, needs to establish a mechanism to ensure thorough investigations into the early warning signs of electoral crises.
Today, we once more urge the international community to increase pressure on the government of Burundi to allow civil society and journalists to resume their activities safely, independently, and without fear of reprisals. We call on African and UN mechanisms to continue and to broaden their engagement with Burundian human rights defenders, to ensure that their voices are an integral part of the solution to this crisis.
A year ago, no one foresaw that violence in Burundi would reach such high levels, or that the once vibrant community of human rights defenders would be attacked so forcefully. Today, we express our support for the Burundian human rights defenders in Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, and elsewhere. Today, we thank them for the work they are still doing under extreme duress, and encourage them to continue united and in solidarity.
Action des Chrétiens pour l’abolition de la Torture – Burundi (ACAT-Burundi)
Association pour les Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues (APRODH)
Coalition Burundaise des Défenseurs des Droits de l’Homme
Coalition de la Société Civile pour le Monitoring Electoral (COSOME)
DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project)
Forum pour la Conscience et les Développement (FOCODE)
Forum pour le Renforcement de la Société Civile (FORSC)
Observatoire de la lutte contre la Corruption et les Malversations Économiques (OLUCOME)
Réseau des Citoyens Probes (RCP)
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