Burundi Informal Interactive Dialogue
Tomorrow (26 February) Security Council members will hold an informal interactive dialogue (IID) to discuss the situation in Burundi. Assistant Secretary-General for Africa Bintou Keita will brief. Burundi has been invited to participate; it is not yet clear whether this will happen, although several Council members have urged it to do so. It chose not to attend the last IID on Burundi, held in August 2019. Burundi does not believe that it belongs on the Council’s agenda and has said so repeatedly in public statements. The delegations of Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda have also been invited to participate in the meeting. Each of these regional stakeholders hosts significant populations of Burundian refugees. It is also unclear if they will take part in tomorrow’s meeting.
This meeting was originally envisaged as a formal meeting, but the President of the Council—Belgium this month—decided instead to hold an IID, a closed, informal meeting format that allows for the participation of non-Council members. It did not face any opposition to this change. The Council has held discussions on Burundi in the IID format before. The last formal Council meeting on Burundi took place on 30 October 2019, and during that meeting, then-Special Envoy to Burundi Michel Kafando announced his intention to leave his post. He characterised the situation in Burundi as tense because of “an increase in the level of political intolerance and a growing threat to civil and political freedoms”. At that meeting, China and Russia reiterated their position that Burundi no longer belongs on the Council’s agenda, as they believe that the situation is not a threat to international peace and security.
The Council’s last resolution on Burundi was resolution 2303, adopted in July 2016. Several elements of that resolution, such as the creation of a United Nations police component in Burundi for an initial period of one year, have never been implemented.
A political crisis in Burundi began in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would run for a controversial third term that year, leading to mass demonstrations and a sharp increase in violence and repression against his opponents. The opposition contended that a third term would violate Burundi’s 2005 constitution, which says that the president should be elected by “universal suffrage” for a maximum of two five-year terms. They further contended that the 2000 Arusha Peace Agreement that served as the basis of the constitution provided no exception to the two-term limit. Nkurunziza’s supporters argued that for his first term in 2005, he had been elected not by popular vote but through a vote of the parliament, and therefore remained eligible for a third term.
Nkurunziza won the third term and, according to a subsequent amendment to the constitution, would be able to run again and remain in power up until 2034. Some members are worried about the upcoming 20 May elections, emphasising that they need to be free and fair. Nkurunziza has said that he does not plan to run, and the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD)—Nkurunziza’s party (and Burundi’s ruling party)—has announced that their Secretary-General, Evariste Ndayishimiye, will run as their candidate.
Hundreds of civilians have been killed since April 2015 in clashes with security forces, and about half a million people have fled the country. Significant repression of the media has also been a feature. On 30 January, a Burundian court sentenced four journalists, arrested in October 2019, to two and a half years in prison for trying to undermine state security. The journalists worked for one of the last remaining private news organisations in Burundi. Voice of America and the BBC have seen their operations suspended by Burundi since 2018.
A majority of Council members have human rights concerns, particularly as elections draw closer, and emphasised these during the Council’s last public meeting on Burundi on 30 October 2019. The human rights situation in the country has also garnered attention in other international fora. On 23 October 2019, the Human Rights Council’s (HRC) Commission of Inquiry on Burundi gave an oral briefing to the Third Committee of the General Assembly on their 4 September 2019 report (A/HRC/42/49). The report, which was presented to the HRC during its 42nd session on 17 September 2019, concludes that serious human rights violations have continued to be committed in Burundi since the Commission’s last report, which covered 2017-2018. It identified the youth league of the CNDD-FDD, the Imbonerakure, and government security forces as the main perpetrators. The September 2019 HRC report also identifies several risk factors in the run-up to the 2020 presidential and legislative elections and calls for close monitoring of the situation.
On 16 January, the European Parliament adopted a resolution strongly condemning “the current restrictions on freedom of expression in Burundi, including the broader sets of limitations to public freedoms, as well as the large-scale violations of human rights, intimidation and arbitrary arrests of journalists and the broadcast bans that have reinforced the climate of fear for Burundi’s media, increased the constraints on reporting and prevented proper coverage, in particular in the run-up to the 2020 elections”.
The East African Community (EAC) is ready to deploy an electoral observation mission and has sent a preliminary technical assessment team to Burundi. The Burundi government seems open to the EAC mission, which could range from deploying long-term observers in April to short-term observers arriving in May right before elections. A large part of today’s discussion at the Burundi Configuration of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) focused on such a potential mission. However, the EAC has indicated that it lacks funding. This, coupled with the current lack of an AU electoral observer mission, may lead member states to brainstorm on ways to support Burundi ahead of elections.
It appears that a goal of this meeting is to have the Council and Burundi be forward-looking and action oriented, focusing on better cooperation. Burundi and the UN have had a difficult relationship in the past. While the election will likely be the main focus of the meeting, participants are also expected to highlight lingering concerns related to the humanitarian situation and ongoing human rights violations.