The victim’s right to an “effective remedy” is guaranteed in international law and recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Yet in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and many other countries around the world, decades of unpunished atrocities have created an insidious culture of impunity, fuelling a cycle of violence which continues to claim innocent lives.
In Burundi, since 1993, hundreds of thousands of people, mostly civilians, have been killed in a brutal sequence of massacre and reprisal.
While Burundi has been nominally at peace since 2005, the situation has deteriorated markedly since 2015, with a significant upsurge in political killings. There are longstanding fears that mass-violence will erupt again in future if those who have committed genocide and war crimes are not held to account.
One of many unpunished crimes is the genocidal killing of 166 Congolese Tutsis at the Gatumba refugee camp in August 2004. Half of those killed were children. Victims were targeted by their attackers solely because of their ethnicity. The following day, a Burundian Hutu-extremist group, Palipehutu-FNL, claimed responsibility for the killings, saying that they had no fear in doing so because they had become untouchable.
The same group is believed to have been behind a massacre four years earlier in which a British aid worker, Charlotte Wilson, was killed in December 2000. Charlotte was among 21 civilians dragged from their bus and shot dead following an ambush close to the Burundian capital. Passengers were selectively killed based on their ethnic background. One Hutu passenger who was released unharmed was told to tell the authorities “we’re going to kill them all and there’s nothing you can do”.
Despite promises from the Burundian authorities to prosecute those responsible, no-one has yet been brought to justice for either of these crimes, or for the many other ethnic massacres that have taken place in the country.
In June 2005, the United Nations Security Council, backed by the UK government, unanimously passed Security Council resolution 1606. In line with the Arusha Peace Agreement, which all parties to Burundi’s civil war had endorsed, this resolution mandated negotiations towards establishing a truth commission and special court to “prosecute those bearing the greatest responsibility for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Burundi”.
The Security Council noted “the need, for the consolidation of peace and reconciliation in Burundi, to establish the truth, investigate the crimes, and identify and bring to justice those bearing the greatest responsibility… to deter future crimes of this nature, and to bring an end to the climate of impunity”.
Yet progress on these promises has been painfully slow, amid growing concern that Burundi’s pervasive culture of impunity will once again stifle efforts to deliver justice and end the cycle of abuse. As one of the largest aid donors to the region, a major contributor to the European Union aid budget, and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the UK has a vital role to play in ensuring that justice in Burundi is at last achieved.
The last two years have seen a renewed upsurge in violence, with state forces and a government-backed youth militia killing dozens of people in the run-up to national elections. These polls were boycotted by the opposition due to this repression and are not seen by international observers to have been free and fair.
Burundi now faces an uncertain future. Over 200,000 Burundian refugees have fled to Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
There are particular concerns about the activity of the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth militia, amid reports of extra-judicial killings, kidnapping and torture. Many who committed atrocities during the decade-long civil war remain on the political scene, inflaming tensions and undermining Burundi’s fragile peace.
Progress towards ending impunity has stalled badly. The government’s plans for a “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” fall far short of the promises made in the Arusha Peace Agreement, and fail to guarantee independence and impartiality. There is a danger that the gains made following the end of the civil war will be lost if progress towards justice and good governance is not brought back on track.
A renewed international focus on ending impunity in Burundi would send a strong signal that those who orchestrate mass-murder will be held to account and cannot evade justice forever.
Justice in Burundi is possible – the agreement in principle is already in place. What we need now is sustained international pressure to ensure that the full terms of the Arusha Peace Agreement and UN Security Council Resolution 1606 are finally implemented.
Justice in Burundi isn’t only about Burundi. The situation is closely tied to that of neighbouring Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mass-killings that began in Burundi in 1993 helped set the stage for the 1994 Rwandan genocide, while more recently the presence of Burundian armed groups in eastern Congo has exacerbated the on-going conflict there.
Renewed war in Burundi would almost certainly have an impact across Central Africa, affecting the lives of millions more people. Acting now to address past atrocities will help to secure a safer and more stable future throughout the region.