Supporting human rights defenders in Burundi
Since the political crisis in Burundi started in 2015, most human rights defenders have been forced to flee the country to avoid persecution. DefendDefenders (East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project) is a regional organisation working for the protection of human rights defenders and strengthening their work. With their support, Burundian defenders in exile have pushed the UN to investigate violations in Burundi.
In April 2018, Germain Rukuki, a Burundian human rights defender (HRD), was sentenced to 32 years in prison on spurious charges of ‘rebellion’, ‘threatening state security’, ‘participation in an insurrection government’, and ‘attacks on the head of state’. The heavy sentence sent a chilling message to HRDs in Burundi – President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government will not tolerate dissent.
“The government has moved into a new phase of controlling civil society. The political [opposition] has already been dealt with, they have already been eliminated.”
This was the statement of a human rights defender interviewed in July 2014 by DefendDefenders for the report 2015: Burundi at a Turning Point.
This is the current state of affairs in a country that once had a promising and vibrant civil society. Most of the once-independent human rights organisations have now been shuttered and many of the human rights activists forced to flee since April 2015. The country spiralled into a political and human rights crisis following President Nkurunziza’s controversial bid for a third term in office.
The crisis has taken a major toll on Burundian HRDs, so much so that the bulk of requests for protection interventions received by DefendDefenders have come from Burundi. To quantify this, over the last three years, DefendDefenders has received over 260 requests from the country – more than any other covered under the organisation’s mandate.
Building and strengthening national HRD coalitions
Prior to 2015, the civic space in Burundi was relatively open, with civil society organisations operating throughout the country, ranging from informal associations in rural areas to registered non-governmental organisations based in the capital, Bujumbura. Donors made this growth possible. Among them, the support of KIOS, a long-term partner of DefendDefenders, allowed the defenders to continue their crucial work by protecting and promoting internationally recognised rights and freedoms.
With KIOS’ support, DefendDefenders was able to enhance the skills and knowledge of the National Coalition of Human Rights Defenders – Burundi, as well as the coalition in Rwanda. National coalitions are the bridge between DefendDefenders and domestic HRDs in the respective countries under our mandate. Through them, HRDs are able to receive emergency assistance to mitigate the risks faced in the line of duty. In addition, it is possible to build the capacity of the HRDs with the help of national coalitions. In Burundi, the national coalition was established in 2009 and revitalised in 2014 to support local defenders.
Enhancing the advocacy work of HRDs
To build the capacity of the coalition, DefendDefenders conducted workshops on different thematic areas including strategic advocacy, communication, and physical and digital security. With the skills acquired from the training, defenders were able to identify advocacy priorities and messages targeted at different actors able to bring about change.
The training also exposed the HRDs to regional and international human rights mechanisms including the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC). Part of the curriculum for the training covered strategies on how to engage with these mechanisms.
Although the chaos in the country is a setback for the defenders and restricts their ability to mobilise against human rights violations and abuses, they are still able to operate in exile and apply the skills they have acquired.
At the forefront of international advocacy
In the aftermath of the 2015 political crisis in Burundi, the acquired skills and knowledge have been essential. HRDs have been at the forefront at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) and the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), advocating for the international community to pay attention to the deteriorating situation in the country. The advocacy efforts yielded results in 2016 when the UNHRC established a Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. Among other responsibilities, one of the missions of the Commission was to conduct a thorough investigation into human rights violations and abuses that have taken place in Burundi since April 2015 – including whether they may constitute international crimes. In its extensive 2017 report, the Commission of Inquiry found reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed and continue to be committed in Burundi.
Another result of the advocacy efforts was at the level of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). During the 62nd session of the ACHPR, the Commission adopted a resolution expressing concern over the lack of investigation into alleged violations and the government’s refusal to cooperate with international efforts. This would not have been possible without the effort of HRDs who lobbied the Commission to adopt this resolution, increasing international pressure on the country situation.
DefendDefenders continues to support the work of HRDs throughout the East and Horn of Africa sub-region, including in Burundi, by reducing their vulnerability to the risk of persecution and by enhancing their capacity to effectively defend human rights.