On the map
- East African country
- Area: 27,834 km2 (nearly as big as Belgium)
- 10 million inhabitants
- Date of independence: 1962
- 6 out of 10 people live below the poverty line
- 1 out of 10 people can neither read nor write
- Human Development Index*: 180th out of 187 (France is 20th)
- 1 lawyer per 15,278 inhabitants (4 times less than in the United Kingdom)
International crimes in Burundi: rewriting history
Why does the general public know so little about international crimes in Burundi? The attention given to the genocide in bordering Rwanda in 1994 (800,000 deaths) could be a reason. Yet there were just as many victims of international crimes in Burundi as in Rwanda.
Burundi entered a cycle of recurrent violence following its independence in 1962. Of the Burundi population, 85% of people are of Hutu origin and 14% of Tutsi origin, while the Twa population is estimated at 1%. The Hutu, Tutsi and Twa populations have experienced five large-scale occurrences of massacres, rapes, inhuman treatment and pillaging.
In 1965, political assassination, retaliation, attempted military coups, and revolts in some areas of the country followed one after the other, affecting in turn both the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups.
In April 1972, a violent revolt in the south of the country targeted the Tutsi population. Thousands were killed. In response, the army launched reprisals against the Hutu population. This marked the beginning of a systematic massacre against the “elite” Hutu and their children: teachers, students, priests, officials, medical personnel, skilled workers and school children.
In 1988, hundreds of Tutsis were killed in the north of the country during a Hutu revolt, who were then mercilessly suppressed by the army.
In 1993, the President of the Republic (Hutu), along with some of his close collaborators, was assassinated by soldiers (Tutsi). A wave of violence by the Hutu civilian population followed, striking moderate Tutsis and Hutus nearly everywhere in the country. The civil war that followed lasted more than thirteen years and left between 100,000 and 300,000 dead, and countless refugees. There are no official figures, and the estimated number of victims varies depending on who is counting. This situation demonstrates the importance of clarifying the truth about the crimes committed.
The victims number in the hundreds of thousands, spanning over at least two generations. In Burundi, however, victims are not identified and recognised as such.
Following the waves of violence between 1965 and 2007, anyone could be both victim and perpetrator. In a certain crisis (as these waves of violence are known), it is one ethnic group that is the victim and another ethnic group that is responsible for the crimes committed; in another crisis, the roles are reversed. However, in judging a crime, the (criminal) liability is individual. An ethnic group or a category of people cannot be responsible for a criminal act. The same goes for victims: a person is victim, not their social class or ethnic group.
Impunity seems to reign at present. In 1972, a war council condemned people implicated in the crimes committed at that time. But strangely, the condemnations relate to the restitution of property (houses, vehicles, tracts of land), without actually addressing accountability for violent crimes.
The manner in which the Burundian courts deal with what is modestly described as the “disputes of 1993” (leaving between 100,000 and 300,000 people dead) also requires attention. Only several thousand people were prosecuted, which does not reflect the severity of the events. Trials are often tainted by procedural errors, and there have been almost no sentences for those who sponsored, gave orders, or instigated a crime.
In 2006, more than 3,000 so-called political prisoners were freed by the Ministry of Justice. However, most of them had been prosecuted or sentenced for serious crimes. This massive release was due to these prisoners receiving temporary immunity while waiting for transitional justice mechanisms to be implemented.
The Burundian justice system has been very slow to judge the crimes committed. The first trials were held towards the end of the 1990s, but on the basis of inadequate laws.
Under the aegis of the international community, peace agreements were signed in Arusha (Tanzania) between 2000 and 2006, putting an end to thirteen years of civil war. These agreements provide for the creation of transitional justice mechanisms, in particular a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CNVR in the French acronym) and a special court. The aim is to establish a set of national mechanisms in order to determine responsibilities, administer justice, and enable reconciliation.
In 2004, Burundi ratified the Rome Statute, which gives jurisdiction to the International Criminal Court to prosecute crimes committed from that year on.
In 2006, the Burundian government decided to release some 3,000 “political” prisoners in order to, in its words, “reconcile the Burundian people”. These prisoners were given temporary immunity, and will be called to appear before the CNVR.
In reality, the CNVR was only established in 2014, ten years after adopting the law creating it. This delay was due to the risks of lack of independence of this commission from political powers.
At the request of the Burundian government, the United Nations Secretary-General sent an evaluation mission to Burundi in 2004. The aim was to study the possibility of creating an international judicial inquiry commission for crimes committed in the country.
Following this mission, the Arusha Peace Agreement – which brought thirteen years of civil war to an end – recommended establishing a dual mechanism: a special court and a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CNVR).
In 2005, the United Nations Security Council asked the Secretary-General to negotiate with the Burundian government on this twofold recommendation. An agreement was reached to create a truth and reconciliation commission in Burundi as a non-judicial mechanism, and a special court in Burundi as a judicial mechanism.
It was not until May 2014 that the law on the CNVR was finally promulgated, enabling the CNVR to start its work. Its mission is to investigate the large-scale violations of human rights committed between 1962 and 2002. However, contrary to the wishes of civil society, recourse to special courts to open proceedings was strongly rejected by the law.
There is therefore little chance that the “Special Court of Burundi” will ever be established.
Several measures still need to be taken so that the CNVR may function. Its commissioners must be chosen. The procedural rules and funding rules must be adopted. Specific guides on gathering testimony, conducting inquiries, and training investigators need to be developed. Measures for gathering, managing and archiving testimonies need to be organised, as well as measures for the identification and protection of mass graves.
The fight against impunity faces significant hurdles. The past is subject to major differences of historical and political opinion in terms of responsibility for crimes committed. These responsibilities and the issue of impunity are at the centre of a politicised debate.
To deal with crimes of the past, everyone needs to have confidence in the justice system.
However, when the Burundian courts dealt with massacres and violence committed in 1993 (between 100,000 and 300,000 victims), both victims and the accused perceived justice as an instrument of those in power. The accused, mainly Hutu, regarded justice as mono-ethnic, biased, and two-tiered (one system for the powerful and another for the poor). The victims, mostly Tutsi, have not received reparations for the harm suffered. Justice was seen as an instrument of repression and as ineffective. The appointment of Hutu judges within courts has helped to reverse this tendency. The intervention by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and later by ASF, has made it possible for victims to benefit from lawyers’ assistance.
Many victims and civil parties deplore the slow and cumbersome progress of the judicial process, which discourages them from filing complaints.
Some people have the feeling that even if justice has taken their suffering into account, the political authorities’ decisions have destroyed any hopes for justice they may have had. They regret not having been consulted or informed about the release of accused persons. They deplore above all, having never received any compensation. Ultimately, many believe they have taken risks for nothing by testifying against the perpetrators.
Some parts of civil society have varying views about how the “disputes” of 1993 have been handled. However, it seems that everyone supports transitional justice, even if the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CNVR) has been the target of criticism, notably in terms of its representativeness of the different groups that make up Burundian society.
Burundi must be able to bring together all of the conditions necessary to reconcile the different ethnic and social groups that have suffered serious violations of their human rights over the last decades.
In order for this to be realised, the expectations for justice that hundreds of thousands of victims have must be met.
Specifically, in order for the truth about everything that happened to be revealed, victims and witnesses must participate fully in the mechanisms of transitional justice, and in the debate on the future National Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CNVR).
Given the extremely sensitive context, ensuring a climate of safety is the prerequisite for their participation. In order for their statements not to be influenced, victims and future witnesses have to feel safe. The matter of protecting the victims of and witnesses to the different crises that Burundi has experienced is therefore essential.
Efforts must now be taken to uncover the truth about the crimes committed in the past, and to establish responsibilities. Otherwise, there is a risk of further frustration on the part of many victims, their successors, families or relatives. This situation can generate feelings un-conducive to any possibility of lasting peace: distrust, suspicion, fear, prejudice, bipolarisation, hatred, and revenge. Indifference to their suffering is dangerous, like an open wound that is covered without being properly cleaned; it risks becoming re-infected.
In order for Burundi to experience genuine dialogue and national reconciliation, it is first necessary to establish the truth about the crimes committed by following a process that is consistent with human rights. This involves compliance with international standards, especially those relating to fair trial and victim participation.
Get to know the people
Driven away by neighbours armed with machetes on the day that President Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated, Pierre (pseudonym) and his family had been living in Bugendana refugee camp for three years when rebels attacked, massacring 648 people. Pierre managed to escape but lost fifteen of his loved ones. Although time has passed, he still thinks about that day and the people he lost each time he passes the cemetery where they are buried. “I’m prepared to forgive the people who massacred my family, but they first need to acknowledge what they did and publicly ask for forgiveness. That’s the only way that we can be sure that they won’t commit these kinds of atrocities again and that trust can be rebuilt.” (©2014 Alexis Bouvy / Local Voices)
“At 18 I was full of ambition, I dreamed of becoming a basketball player!” The rebel attack on the dormitory of the Small Seminary in Buta put an end to Nepo’s dreams. Although he miraculously survived the massacre of his friends, he was shot multiple times and remains disabled in one leg. Today, Nepo is a journalist and conducts a number of radio broadcasts addressing the importance of justice in Burundi. He often recounts his own experience at conferences, calling his people to “never again fall into the trap of ethnic hatred that to this day certain politicians continue to drive us toward.” (©2014 John Pirard)
Irène (pseudonym) lives next to the Bugendana IDP camp. Unlike Pierre, Irène is Hutu. In 1972 soldiers from the national army summarily executed her first husband. In the nineties, one of her sons from her second marriage was led into the rebellion by his uncle. He never came back. “What can justice bring us?” asks Irène. “I was never able to bury my son. I don’t even know where he was killed or where his remains can be found. What I need today is for the State to rebuild my house, because I’m too old to do it myself…” (©2014 Alexis Bouvy / Local Voices)
Crossroads in Burundi
Through the Crossroads project, ASF is contributing to the recognition, handling and reparation of crimes of the past in Burundi.
Crossroads supports efforts to establish a policy and mechanisms of transitional justice likely to result in a genuine reconciliation between the different peoples who make up the Burundian population.
- To establish mechanisms of transitional justice that are legitimate, inclusive, respectful of human rights and gender-sensitive;
- To contribute to the adoption of fair process, in accordance with international standards on human rights;
- To facilitate the effective and active participation of victims and defendants by enabling them to contribute fully to the process of justice.
The project plans a range of activities relating to advocacy; to building the capacities of professionals of the justice system, lawyers and organisations of civil society; to conducting research on transitional justice; and to the adoption and implementation of a law on the protection of victims and witnesses.
These activities are being developed in partnership with other stakeholders involved in establishing transitional justice.
By dealing with crimes of the past, transitional justice and international justice make it possible to combat impunity, to defend the victims of violations and, more generally, to build a lasting peace in Burundi.
Those benefiting from the project include the members and representatives of ministries, state institutions, parliaments, and national legislation services involved in the legislative process; professionals of the justice system (magistrates and lawyers); instructors from the centre for education for judiciary professionals; organisations of civil society; commissioners of the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission; victims and alleged perpetrators of international crimes committed in Burundi.
Meet The Team
Head of Mission
International Justice Programme Coordinator