Archive for the 'Burundi news' Category

Justice, Not Platitudes

November 27, 2007

Robert Krueger’s new book on Burundi is excellent, yet deeply flawed.

Robert Krueger’s new book provides an impressively detailed – and long overdue – account of the atrocities by Tutsis against Hutus in Burundi during the 1990s. But his view that Burundi’s war criminals should not be prosecuted for their crimes – and by extension that Burundi’s victims should be denied their right to justice – flies in the face of international human rights standards, and does not reflect the opinions of the overwhelming majority of Burundians I have heard from since my sister Charlotte was murdered by Hutu-extremists in Burundi in December 2000 (

Neither is Robert Krueger’s view shared by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, who have carried out detailed research in Burundi since the early 1990s. These groups share the view of many Burundians that the ongoing failure to punish those responsible for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity is a driving force behind the abuses which still go on today, under the new, ostensibly “democratic” government:

Few who have lost loved ones in violent circumstances would dispute that forgiveness has a role to play. But what’s disappointing is that Mr. Krueger appears to conflate the slow, painful and deeply personal victim-led process of forgiveness with a formal, government-led arrangement in which ”forgiveness” is equated with “immunity from prosecution”, and in which amnesty can be granted to the perpetrator against the victim’s will.

What Mr. Krueger fails to mention in his account of South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, is that the majority of victims – including the family of the murdered anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko – opposed the granting of amnesty to their abusers. Many felt embittered by the process, not “reconciled”, and – perhaps most damningly of all – many felt that the TRC had undermined rather than advanced the process of communal reconciliation:

Even with such problems, South Africa’s TRC is widely regarded as the most successful such “experiment”. In the majority of cases, according to Human Rights Watch, (, amnesty processes have yielded results ranging from the disappointing to the disastrous. In Sierra Leone, for example, arguably a far more apt comparison with Burundi than South Africa, a 1999 amnesty preceded a massive upsurge in violence by the RUF rebels. In Zimbabwe, amnesties have repeatedly been granted in the name of “reconciliation”, with the predictable result that violence and abuse have become endemic. In Rwanda, a series of de facto amnesties for massacres of Tutsis actually preceded the 1994 genocide. As Robert Krueger himself notes, the violence that began in Burundi in 1993 had its roots in the unpunished crimes of the 1970s – and was itself preceded by the granting of a general amnesty.

Another disturbing distortion is the conflation of justice with “retribution”. Most victims I know want to see their loved ones’ killers prosecuted not out of some crazed “blood lust” (many oppose the death penalty), but to stop the perpetrator from doing it again, to deter others, and to restore the dignity of the dead. It seems deeply unfortunate that the most basic, common sense rationale for justice as practiced worldwide from Japan to Djibouti, should be deemed inappropriate in a situation as manifestly unjust as Burundi.

Faced with a history as horrific and complex as Burundi’s, it is all too tempting to throw up our hands and ask “why doesn’t everyone just forgive each other?”. But it seems sad that someone who has witnessed the consequences of impunity firsthand should take such a seemingly simplistic view. To suppose that the cycle of corruption, impunity and abuse can be ended while killers retain their power and influence seems both naive and irresponsible.

Few would dispute Mr. Krueger’s opinion that prosecuting every perpetrator in Burundi may prove an impossible task. But to move from this to the conclusion that no-one should therefore be prosecuted is a bit like saying that because a government can’t cure everyone with TB, they shouldn’t try to cure anyone.

The eminently pragmatic solution agreed – under international pressure – by the Burundian authorities in 2005 ( is the formation of a “special chamber” within the Burundian judiciary to prosecute those suspected of leading and orchestrating the worst of the violence, combined with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with more junior figures. But like the nominally-democratic government of Cambodia, the government of Burundi has many members who are themselves implicated in serious crimes. In Cambodia, it took years of international pressure before the government finally followed-through on its promise to deliver justice for the Khmer Rouge victims. In Burundi, the authorities have likewise, to date, shown a marked reluctance to honour the part of the 2005 deal that involves war criminals getting prosecuted. In the meantime, these criminals continue to kill, rape, embezzle, and destabilise the country. It is sad that, rather than using his influence to press the Burundian government to keep their promises, Mr. Krueger chooses instead to downgrade the right of victims – guaranteed in article eight of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to “an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals”.

Robert Krueger’s new book is excellent in many ways. But he has done Burundi’s victims a gross disservice by perpetuating the idea that a distorted and politicised notion of ”forgiveness” could serve as a meaningful substitute for justice. The 21 victims of the December 2000 “Titanic Express” massacre – my sister Charlotte among them – deserve better than that. So do the 156 Congolese Tutsi refugees massacred by the same group at Gatumba in August 2004 and the thousands of others, both Hutu and Tutsi, who have been killed in the past two decades. The families of the dead want justice – not platitudes – and we have already waited too long.

(NB – this piece began as a response to this article in the Dallas Morning News)


Burundi, UN agree on truth commission, tribunal

May 23, 2007

BUJUMBURA, May 23 (Reuters) – Burundi has agreed to set up a truth and reconciliation commission and a tribunal to try people who committed crimes during the central African nation’s 12-year civil war, the United Nations said on Wednesday.

Louise Arbour, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said Burundi would set up the two bodies soon and that the government had agreed not to give amnesty for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and other serious violations.

“I think this is an important element in the process of peace, justice and reconciliation in Burundi,” Arbour said at a news conference at the end of her five-day visit to Burundi.

The coffee and tea-growing central African nation is emerging from the ashes of civil war that began in 1993 and killed more than 300,000 in a clash between rebels from the Hutu majority against the dominant Tutsi minority.

Analysts say one of the biggest tests for President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government is whether it will carry out a thorough reconciliation process, which is likely to implicate some of its allies and perhaps senior officials.

Nkurunziza himself was a Hutu rebel leader.

“The country needs a more reinforced justice system that will inspire confidence in the population that impunity is eradicated, that they can turn to their state institutions for protection and reparation,” Arbour said.

Even since Nkurunziza took power in August 2005 after his election, the culmination of a U.N.-backed peace plan, Burundian security agents have been implicated in assassinations, torture and extrajudicial killings.

The truth commission and the tribunal will be set up after national consultations to be led by a nine-member panel with three members each from the government, the United Nations and civil society groups.

Arbour said negotiations were still ongoing as to how the two bodies would work together, and on the scope of freedom and authority the tribunal’s prosecutor would have.

“The United Nations advocates of course a large degree of independence for the prosecutor to conduct inquiries,” she said.

Donors are meeting in Burundi on Thursday and Friday, and the watchdog Human Rights Watch this week urged them to make ending impunity a condition of aid.

International pressure helped free Burundi dissidents

April 21, 2007

From South African Mail and Guardian

Pressure from the international community, NGOs and civil society led to the acquittal recently of five alleged coup plotters imprisoned in Burundi in August this year. The men were arrested and charged with plotting to overthrow the government, but the accusations were widely believed to have been fabricated by elements in the government. Well-placed sources in Burundi said the judge’s decision to acquit five of the accused was a “political decision due to international pressure.”…

…Had it not been for his lawyer’s rapid public denouncement of the torture, which led to a visit from the minister of human rights, who acknowledged the torture, Niyonzima believes that he and the other alleged coup plotters would be dead.

“In terms of the law we were innocent, but in terms of the political will, we were the enemies,” says Niyonzima.

He believes that they owe their liberty not to the court system but to the pressure applied to the government by civil society, human rights organisations, the European Union and other foreign donors.

“We will lodge a complaint on an international level,” says Niyonzima.

Ex-President Domitien Ndayizeye arrested in Burundi

August 22, 2006


Nkurunziza (l) and Ndayizeye (r) in 2003

Burundi’s former President, Domitien Ndayizeye, whose meeting with the author’s mother is described in Chapter 12 of “Titanic Express”, has been arrested and accused of plotting to kill his successor, Pierre Nkurunziza – who the author describes meeting in Chapter 14 of the book.

Burundi has been plunged into crisis in recent weeks by government claims that an improbable collection of journalists, human rights activists and politicians from all the main opposition parties have been conspiring to assassinate the leadership of the ruling CNDD-FDD party and seize power themselves.

Critics claim that the alleged conspiracy is merely a pretext to crackdown on government opponents. Most bizarre of all are allegations that the South African intelligence services have played a role in the affair.  

Earlier this month, the Burundian authorities attempted to arrest the country’s leading journalist, Alexis Sinduhije, accusing him of involvement in the plot, before changing their mind under pressure from the international community.