Human Rights Defenders in Burundi: Betrayers or Contributors?
Author: Vital Nshimirimana
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 09/05/2012
The United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders defines human rights defenders as people who “individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights”. In this light, human rights defender is every person who takes any action to promote and protect human rights, be it on a daily basis, less often or frequently, individually or in association with other persons or organizations. Too often, human rights defenders dedicate their lives, endeavours and means to the protection and promotion of human rights. As such, one would expect due recognition of their efforts to the welfare of the humanity and therefore deserved support and protection.
However, human rights defenders are frequently threatened in their lives, families, freedoms and properties. It is a matter of fact that activists be jailed while advocating against human rights violations or are literally targeted by killers. Over the years, Burundian human rights defenders have experienced such mistreatment that to date many are scared in engaging in the noble cause of defending human rights.
In Burundi, imprisonments or killings of human rights defenders are a new phenomenon since the very civil society in which they group is young. Burundian civil society became actually very active from the 2000s. To date, many agree that human rights defenders are permanently targeted for their thoughts, especially whenever they raise inconvenient voice regarding human rights abuses or when public affairs or common good are at stake.
Many denunciations are made through local media. As such, the majority of people know on a daily basis what is going on in terms of human rights abuses. Remarkably, because of fear, threats and intimidation directed towards human rights defenders, the common reaction for many whenever they interact with a human rights defender is not to congratulate or support her or him for their endeavours to defend human rights, but to share their concern and worry regarding human rights defender’s safety and they conclude that the latter should be very conscious. This attitude testifies a context of widespread fear within the society characterised by impunity in as much as it has proven quasi impossible to challenge “unreachable perpetrators” of the most horrible human rights abuses including assassination, murders, torture, corruption and misuse of public funds to name but few.
Human rights defenders in Burundi have a risky mission since they try to unearth and denounce the wrongs committed by top decision- makers for corruption, embezzlement, misuse of public funds and human rights abuses. Hence, they are portrayed as the enemies of the republic whose purpose is to sabotage democracy and safety of the country.
The political context which stems from the controversial electoral results of 2010 was a catalyst of many threats directed against human rights defenders. In effect, the latter, especially journalists were jailed for example when they interacted with opposition leaders or members. Most importantly, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP, 2011) points out that activists that engage in seeking justice for Ernest Manirumva, an anti- corruption leader assassinated in 2009, are frequently targeted for their actions. In the same way, peaceful demonstrations were interfered by the national police at least twice and civil society leaders arrested without any charge. Meantime, groups of demonstrators targeting some civil society leaders individually, including Pacifique Nininahazwe, the Chairperson of FORSC (Forum for the Reinforcement of Civil Society) were organized with the blessing of public authorities (Observatory for Human Rights Defenders, 2011). This leads many to assert that regarding public freedoms, citizens are not treated on a same footing.
The annual report released in late 2011 by the Observatory of Human Rights Defenders discloses that in Burundi, human rights defenders are rapidly considered as opposition members, those involved in combating corruption and embezzlement subject to judicial harassment whereas those fighting impunity are subject to judicial or administrative harassment.
To some extent, the attempt to assimilate human rights defenders with opposition members aims at misleading the opinion by labelling activists as angry people who belong to the loser camp and whose agenda is to undermine the journey towards democracy. As such, activists are viewed as a national threat or the betrayers of the nation especially by the ruling party members, including its youth affiliated wing. Therefore, human rights activists’ activity is strictly monitored and challenged.
The relationship between human rights defenders and public powers was worsened since 2009 when the anti -corruption activist and Vice- President of the Anti- Corruption and Economic Malpractice Observatory (OLUCOME) was kidnapped and assassinated by unknown people believed to be close to the power. In effect, a series of investigations conducted after his assassination by the FBI pointed out the involvement of some high ranking personalities in the National Intelligence services and the police (HRW, 2012). Human rights defenders involved in the campaign “Justice for Manirumva” are repeatedly accused for interfering in judicial matters because they often claim that those who were prosecuted are not the real responsible of the crime and that the process is a masquerade totally organized to mislead the opinion. Meanwhile, the ruling for those accused of assassination of Manirumva was criticized to have ignored an important path leading to the truth. In this respect, the Director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (HRW, 2012) claims that: “ The Public Prosecutor willfully ignored calls to investigate senior figures within the Burundian security services and national police who may have been involved in the killing of Manirumva”(n.p).
On the record of tension between civil society and public authorities, an important event occurred in 2009. The denunciation of the Governor of Kayanza (Province in North Burundi) for his involvement in torture and murder of a citizen resulted in the cancellation of the Edict establishing the Forum for the Reinforcement of Civil Society (UN, 2009).The latter decision was followed by an outcry by national civil society organizations, international NGOs and the international community and finally the organization which comprises 146 organizations recovered its rights. In the same vein, the Association for the Defence of the Rights of Persons and Detainees (APRODH) has been under threats of cancellation or change in leadership by the Ministry of Interior (Observatory for Human Rights Defenders, 2011).
The current situation in which donors became reluctant to financially support Burundi leads public senior officials including the spokesperson of the Government to openly accuse human rights defenders for portraying the wrong face of the country and by doing so, they are able to secure funds necessary to run their organizations at the expense of the nation (Arib, 2012).
In the same way, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation decided to expel the Human Rights Watch researcher, Ms Neela Ghoshal in 2010, a week before general elections were held because of a report on pre- electoral violence that her organization released, a report which was viewed as biased according to Burundian authorities (EHAHRDP, 2010).
From then on, tension between Burundi and Human Rights Watch kept increasing. Recently, a report on post-electoral violence that occurred since 2010 targeting hundreds of opposition members was banned by the Ministry of Interior (HRW, 2012) and the Ministry of Justice set up a commission assigned to investigate on those cases, release a counter report and point out the involvement of human rights defenders in the drafting of the report and recommend sanctions thereof.
It is worth mentioning that the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders provides for the right to document and publish all information regarding human rights:
“everyone has the right, individually or in association with others[…](b) as provided for in human rights and other applicable international instruments, freely to publish, impart or disseminate to others views, information and knowledge on all human rights and fundamental freedoms;(c) To study, discuss, form and hold opinions on the observance, both in law and in practice, of all human rights and fundamental freedoms and, through these and other appropriate means, to draw public attention to those matters”(art.6).
Following the killing of Manirumva, other death threats or plans of assassination have been revealed. For example, the leader of the Ligue Iteka in Commune Matongo was killed after he has provided assistance to a vulnerable in a lawsuit before the Supreme Court(Ligue Iteka, 2012).
Regarding the aforementioned case of assassination of Manirumva, Amnesty International (2012) observes that:
The continued failure to deliver justice for Ernest Manirumva’s murder left human rights defenders at risk, especially those working on the Justice for Ernest Manirumva campaign. They were subjected to repeated summonses, threats and surveillance. Two staff members at OLUCOME, the NGO where Ernest Manirumva worked, experienced security incidents in July, including a break-in by armed.
Earlier in the Resolution on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Africa(ACHPR,2004), the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights noted “with deep concern that impunity for threats and attacks and acts of intimidation against human rights defenders persists and that this impacts negatively to the work and safety of human rights defenders”(Preamble). In another resolution issued in 2011 by the same commission, it is striking to notice that the situation might have worsened as we read:
Deeply concerned about the difficult environment in which those who cooperate with African human rights system including human rights defenders in Africa are working in Africa which is characterized in several countries by the persistence of arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of harassment including judicial harassment, threats and other forms of intimidation, of summary and extra-judicial executions and even acts of torture as a result of their activities (Preamble).
Basically, human rights duties is a business of states. The international human rights regime is framed such that state parties to human rights treaties accept to abide by their respective duties. These obligations are set out in the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights but they are more detailed in the General Comment n°31 of the Human Rights Committee (2004). These include the duty to respect, to protect and to fulfil human rights.
The duty to respect is a negative obligation which requires the state to ensure that all agents of the state act in compliance with human right law and refrain from any act that might interfere with, or impair the exercise of the right. For example, police officials must refrain from arbitrary detention of journalists when they investigate human rights abuses. Similarly, public authorities must refrain from prohibiting or interfering peaceful demonstrations.
The duty to protect, on the other hand, requires the state to take all necessary measures to prevent, or put a stop to, any violation of rights by the third parties, including other individuals and groups. Hence, under this obligation, the state must investigate, prosecute and punish violations of rights and insure that victims have access to an adequate and effective remedy under domestic law. For example, state has to investigate cases of killings, threats or intimidation of human rights activists by any agent, be it those of the state or those of non-state actors.
The duty to fulfil requires the state to take all possible measures to ensure that individuals under its jurisdiction are able to exercise their human rights. The duty to fulfil is a positive obligation which requires the state to do whatever it is capable of in order to ensure compliance with human rights treaty. Practically, state must put in place legal and administrative framework that respects human rights and builds national capacity to support the implementation of rights. For example, in the case of Burundi, special guarantees regarding human rights defenders should be set out through specific legal and administrative framework.
Regarding state’s duties, the UN declaration on Human rights defenders states that:
Each State has a prime responsibility and duty to protect, promote and implement all human rights and fundamental freedoms, inter alia, by adopting such steps as may be necessary to create all conditions necessary in the social, economic, political and other fields, as well as the legal guarantees required to ensure that all persons under its jurisdiction, individually and in association with others, are able to enjoy all those rights and freedoms in practice (art.2.1).
Obviously, the duties to respect, protect and fulfil human rights accounts to the state. As a result, human rights violations that are committed on the territory under its jurisdiction are accountable to the state. Hence, a state cannot bear human rights abuses to other parties to escape its liability. In other words, under international law of human rights, the state is held accountable even for human rights abuses committed by non- state actors.
In the communication of the Commission Nationale des Droits de l’Homme et des Libertés v Chad(ACHPR, 2000), the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights highlights that the African Charter bears to the state, the responsibility to protect human rights even in case of non- state actors. In this communication, the French NGO alleges a series of human rights abuses by the government and its agents including assassination, disappearances, torture, killings, harassment of journalists and arbitrary arrest. Chad denies its responsibility and contends that it had no control over violations committed by other parties, as Chad was in a state of civil war. The Commission held that:
The Charter specifies in article 1 that the States Parties shall not only recognise the rights duties and freedoms adopted by the Charter, but they should also “undertake…..measures to give effect to them”. In other words, if a State neglects to ensure the rights in the African Charter, this can constitute a violation, even if the State or its agents are not the immediate cause of the violation[…]
The African Charter, unlike other human rights instruments, does not allow for State parties to derogate from their treaty obligations during emergency situations. Thus, even a civil war in Chad cannot be used as an excuse by the State violating or permitting violations of rights in the African Charter (para.20-21).
In this communication, the Commission found that despite the fact that the government of Chad was in a state of civil war, it has committed serious and massive violations because it failed to protect those within its borders, irrespective of the fact that the attackers had not been government agents. Regarding human rights defenders, this case is interesting since the latter are often targeted by both state’s agents and non-state actors.
At any time, it is paramount that human rights defenders group and synergize in order to perform far reaching actions and guarantee their safety. In this perspective, the East and Horn Africa Human Rights Defenders Project was created with the aim to empower human rights defenders of the region “by reducing their vulnerability to the risk of persecution and by enhancing their capacity to effectively defend human rights”(n.p). This is equally important because when human rights defenders cooperate with others, they acquire expertise and support and more legitimacy in international arena.
Alongside their mission to denounce and challenge public authorities whenever they fail to comply with their duties regarding human rights, human rights defenders have, as counterpart to their rights, the duty to contribute to the establishment and strengthening of democracy and the empowerment of the society. In this regard, the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights Defenders states that:
Individuals, groups, institutions and non-governmental organizations have an important role to play and a responsibility in safeguarding democracy, promoting human rights and fundamental freedoms and contributing to the promotion and advancement of democratic societies, institutions and processes.
Individuals, groups, institutions and non-governmental organizations also have an important role and a responsibility in contributing, as appropriate, to the promotion of the right of everyone to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other human rights instruments can be fully realized (art.18).
In the same vein, in its resolution on the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights(2004) recognizes “the crucial contribution of the work of human rights defenders in promoting democracy, human rights, democracy and the rule of law in Africa”(preamble,para.1).
Notably, human rights defenders have proven their ability to mobilize citizens around themes such as human rights, good governance; free, fair and transparent election, combating corruption and accountability of rulers. As such, they perform as human rights watchdog and empower the nation by raising its awareness regarding any obstacle to common good.
In sum, human rights defenders play an important role in the society, for they help states improve compliance with their traditional human rights duties. Similarly, by defending core human rights values, human rights defenders contribute to the establishment of the rule of law, the empowerment of the citizenry and welfare of the society. Therefore, human rights defenders deserve due recognition of their endeavours and protection of their person, families, freedoms and properties. Burundi should treat human rights defenders humanely; it goes with its responsibility and honour in the eyes of its citizens and the international community. Public authorities should bear in mind that fear contradicts democracy and peace as Mandela (n.d.) contends:
We discovered that peace at any price is no peace at all. We discovered that life at any price has no value whatever; that life is nothing without the privileges, the prides, the rights, the joys which make it worth living, and also worth giving. And we also discovered that there is something more hideous, more atrocious than war or than death; and that is to live in fear.
Similarly, human rights defenders should not give up because of fear, threats or intimidation. Their reward and honour depend upon their endeavours and commitment to change the society.
Vital Nshimirimana is a Burundian scholar and activist. You can reach him on firstname.lastname@example.org