At the beginning of June the Burundian Parliament promulgated a media law that threatens the freedom of the country’s press. The law requires journalists to reveal their sources, imposes fines for contravention of the law and obliges journalists to hold a university degree. It also bans reporting considered to undermine national security. While the government claims that the law seeks to professionalise the media and prevent the incitement of ethnic hatred, its enactment has sparked condemnation by the United Nations (UN), European Union (EU) and human rights critics, who argue that the right to freedom of expression is an essential part of democracy. It is worth noting that the African Union (AU) has remained silent. The law is symptomatic of a larger concern; a shrinking of political space in the country and continued human rights violations that jeopardise the fragile peacebuilding process.
Burundi’s history is marred by ethnic-related violence between Hutus and Tutsis. As massacres continued into the 1990s, the international community put pressure on the country to resolve the conflict through a power-sharing agreement. The peace-making process ended in 2009 and peacekeeping troops withdrew soon afterwards. As the war-torn country moved ahead in restoring peace and security, it adopted a number of strategies to address its political, social and economic challenges. Among these was the Growth and Poverty Reduction Strategy that was placed on the agenda of the UN Peacebuilding Council, which focussed on issues such as governance and corruption, the promotion of human rights and action to combat impunity. A land commission was established to address land claims arising from the reintegration of returnees, disputes arising from the scarcity of land and poor security of land rights. There was also a push to tackle women’s rights in land and inheritance laws.
Elections were held in 2010 and considered inclusive by the UN and international observers, but opposition parties disputed the results and boycotted the rest of the electoral process, leaving the party in power, the Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD), as the sole candidate. The UN Peacebuiding Commission noted that during this period there was an increase in human rights violations, including summary executions and torture, as well as political assassinations. Main opposition leaders went into exile and there was a narrowing of freedom of expression, movement and assembly. The international community subsequently pushed for the prosecution of extrajudicial killings and the establishment of transitional justice mechanisms.
Progress has been made in a number of areas and the UN has provided support for the reform of the electoral code and promoting dialogue through consultations with political parties in order to draw up a road map for the 2015 elections. Reforms have been made to combat corruption and measures have been taken to improve the business climate.
Nevertheless, despite the establishment of a National Human Rights Commission and promises by the government to prosecute perpetrators, human rights violations still occur with impunity. While the Gatumba attack in 2011, when over 30 people were shot in a bar just outside Bujumbura, led to prosecution, Human Rights Watch noted that the trial was seriously flawed and that the report of the commission of inquiry was not published. In addition, there has been a delay in the implementation of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with the UN arguing that blanket amnesties cannot be given for grave crimes and critics claiming the current framework lends itself to political influence. The Land Commission has been accused of favouring returnees and generally ruling in favour of ethnic Hutus. Tensions are compounded by limited economic growth, the country’s energy deficit and limited infrastructure.
Most recently, the adoption of the media law presents a serious concern regarding the freedom of the press and democratic governance in general, and there have been discussions in Parliament over the possible banning of political demonstrations. Human Rights Watch has also raised concerns over impunity for crimes committed by the ruling party’s growing youth league. In addition, there are allegations that the president is planning to amend the Constitution in order to allow him to extend his rule past two terms. UN and International Crisis Group reports have also noted that Burundian rebel groups are active in the Kivus in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with links to the political opposition. These developments represent a worrying trend: the shrinking of political space in the country and the possibility of a resumption of violence.
It is vital that the government takes swift action to condemn political violence and hold those responsible for human rights violations accountable. It must ensure political plurality and the development of political dialogue in the lead-up to the elections and prioritise land disputes in an impartial manner. The international community must continue to monitor human rights-related developments and voice its concerns. Moreover, it should support the National Human Rights Commission and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Political inclusivity and dialogue, and enduring support to the electoral process not just during but also before elections, also need to be emphasised. Burundi’s peace was hard won, but in order to prevent a regression to conflict, much needs to be done to ensure that the root causes of hostilities are addressed in a sustainable manner.
Amanda Lucey, Researcher, Conflict Management and Peace Building Division, ISS Pretoria