The decision by President Pierre Nkurunziza to seek a third term in office in April 2015 triggered a grave, persistent, and deadly crisis that affects all echelons of Burundian society. A failed coup d’état in May 2015 sparked a swift and systematic crackdown by the government and its security forces against real and perceived perpetrators. The targeted and repeated attacks on Burundi’s once thriving civil society have become so severe that there are no independent human rights defenders (HRDs) working freely in the country today. Local human rights groups painstakingly attempt to document enforced disappearances, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, and extrajudicial killings taking place on an alarmingly regular basis with complete impunity. Since the beginning of the crisis, the deliberate and violent targeting of HRDs, journalists, and their family members has resulted in the deaths or serious injury of several activists, while the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that, as of late April 2017, an estimated 413,477 Burundians have fled the country.
Following the publication of a damning report by the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi (UNIIB) in September 2016, the Burundian government declared the three experts persona non grata, suspended its cooperation with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and adopted legislation to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. A Commission of Inquiry created by the UN Human Rights Council in September 2016 gave an oral update to the Council in March 2017, noting that trends documented throughout 2015 and 2016 seemed to be persisting in 2017, and deploring the Government of Burundi’s refusal to cooperate with the Commission.
Freedom of Association
Throughout 2016, Burundian authorities have continued to harass, arrest, disappear, and, at times, kill civil society and media activists, as well as political opposition members in retribution for their role in organising or participating in the April 2015 protests against the third mandate. Since the government froze the bank accounts of prominent human rights organisations in November 2015, independent civil society has been decimated and its ability to conduct human rights monitoring and advocacy remains heavily impeded. Many HRDs now work from exile, while those who remain in the country face one of the most restricted and dangerous working environments in the East and Horn of Africa sub-region.
Forum pour le Renforcement de la Société Civile au Burundi (FORSC), Forum pour la Conscience et le Développement (FOCODE), L’Action des Chrétiens pour l’Abolition de la Torture au Burundi (ACAT), l’Association Burundaise pour la Protection des Droits Humains et des Personnes Détenues (APRODH) and Réseau des Citoyens Probes (RCP) are among the leading civil society organisations in Burundi. For years, they have engaged public authorities and decision-makers on a number of issues, including human rights, torture, good governance and the rule of law. When the current crisis broke out, ten civil society organisations were suspended on 23 November 2015 and prevented from working in Burundi, as the General Prosecutor and the Minister of Home Affairs argued that investigations were underway in respect of their alleged involvement in the “2015 insurrection.”
On 19 October 2016, Minister of Home Affairs, Pascal Barandagiye, announced that the five NGOs mentioned above are permanently banned under Burundian law. The criminal case against these organisations is still under investigation, and their legal representatives have been forced into exile after receiving death threats. These organisations have played a key role in documenting and exposing gross human rights abuses and violations. The Home Affairs Minister’s decision was a major step towards the radicalisation of a regime that targets civil society and aims to close civic space altogether.
On 24 October 2016, Minister Barandagiye signed a ministerial order suspending five other NGOs, namely Ligue Iteka, the Forum de la Société civile pour le Monitoring des Elections (COSOME), the Coalition Burundaise pour la Cour Pénale Internationale (CB-CPI), the campaign SOS-Torture, and Union Burundaise des Journalistes (UBJ). Authorities allege that the activities of these organisations do not meet the official objectives and mandate of the NGOs, and undermine order and safety of the State. It is worth noting that SOS-Torture is not a national NGO registered in accordance with Burundian law regulating non-profit organisations because it is a campaign initiated in exile to document gross human rights violation following the 11 and 12 December 2015 massacres in Bujumbura. Meanwhile, UBJ is a union of journalists and its registration and regulation falls under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Labour and Civil Servants.
On 3 January 2017, a Home Affairs ordinance issued on 21 December 2016 that banned Burundi’s oldest human rights NGO Ligue Iteka was disclosed. Over the course of more than a quarter century, Ligue Iteka played a critical role in creating and strengthening the human rights movement in Burundi and engaged public authorities even when opposition groups and government forces fought each other in a deadly civil war. Since the outbreak of the current crisis, Ligue Iteka has documented human rights abuses and released regular reports warning of escalating violence and the risk of genocide. According to several HRDs, the ban on Ligue Iteka marks a decisive step towards the complete closure of civic space and the strengthening of a dictatorial regime.
On 16 January 2017, the Court of Appeal of Bujumbura decided to disbar Dieudonné Bashirahishize, Vital Nshimirimana, and Armel Niyongere, three human rights lawyers registered with the Burundi Bar Association, while a fourth, Lambert Nigarura, was suspended from practicing law for one year and prohibited from participating in the Governing Council for five years. The disbarment process was initiated in July 2016 following the collaboration of said lawyers with the UN Committee Against Torture and their participation in its 58th special session where Burundi was reviewed.
The four lawyers are prominent leaders of Burundian civil society and have investigated a number of human rights violations amounting to crimes under the jurisdiction of the ICC. Their disbarment was unanimously condemned by international observers as an act of reprisal. The four lawyers fled Burundi after April 2015 and were not heard by the Court, which initiated an expeditious process. The lawyers were also denied the right to due process as their demand to be granted enough time to prepare and allow their legal counsel travel was not taken into account.
Burundi’s National Assembly adopted two bills in December 2016 aimed at closely controlling the action of local and international NGOs. This new legislation requires local NGOs to obtain authorisation from the Minister of the Interior to carry out any activity and to transfer funds of foreign origin through the Central Bank. The work of foreign NGOs must now comply with priorities set by the Government. Stéphane Dujarric, spokesman for UN Secretary-General António Guterres, expressed concern “that the enactment of this law could impede or even threaten the continued free operation of important organisations that are working to assist the Burundian people.”
Freedom of Expression
Since April 2016, the government-led crackdown on free and independent media has continued to the point where today most independent reporting has been stamped out. Following the May 2015 mob attacks on Burundi’s major independent media stations, over 100 journalists have fled to neighbouring countries, and those that remain face arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, or extrajudicial killings.
Due process is rarely respected during these arrests and detentions, and no investigations have been conducted into allegations of torture and other forms of ill-treatment. The difficulties and risks faced by journalists have had a direct impact on the amount of information available on the situation in the country. The pervasive climate of fear that reigns in Burundi today has led most outspoken critics to leave the country or practice self-censorship, and extensive censorship of the media has been reported.
As Burundi celebrated the 26th anniversary of the Charter of National Unity on 5 February 2017, Dorine Niyungeko and Eddy Hatungimana, journalists working for IWACU Press, were reportedly prevented from accessing the Memorial of National Unity where the official celebrations were held. Security forces told the journalists that their media house was not accredited to cover the event. Another journalist of Burundi Eco was also prevented from accessing the venue. Only public media including Radio Télévision Nationale du Burundi, la Radio Scolaire Nderagakura, newspapers Ubumwe and le Renouveau, and ruling-party-backed Radio Télévision Rema FM were allowed to cover the event, according to local monitoring groups. In the same vein, protocol and security services of the President of the National Assembly prevented Voice of America journalists Diane Ndonse and Pacifique Cubahiro from accessing the venue in Bubanza where the anniversary was celebrated. In response, Vice-President of the National Communication Council (CNC) Gabriel Bihumugani explained that when public authorities organise an event with expected media coverage, it can limit access to journalists. The next week on World Radio Day, Bihumugani nonetheless reiterated that “media freedom is real in Burundi. This is a warning against journalists using Internet to tarnish Burundi’s image, who claim that there’s no media freedom here.”
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
Though Article 30 of the Burundian Constitution protects the right to peaceful assembly, public demonstrations in the country have become virtually impossible due to systematic and excessive use of force by security forces. Peaceful demonstrations in April 2015 against the President’s third term sparked a brutal and deadly repression of dissent by government forces. In early June 2016, spontaneous protests, which broke out in response to the arrest of schoolchildren for defacing pictures of the president, were met with violence by police who fired live ammunition and wounded three protestors.
Since July 2016, the government and the ruling CNDD-FDD party, as well as allied groups including non-profit organisations backed by the government, frequently organise rallies dedicated to challenging human rights reports and international human rights mechanisms. It has been reported by local observers that hate speech along political and ethnic lines has become common at these rallies.
 Human Rights Watch, “Burundi: ICC Withdrawal Major Loss to Victims”, October 27 2016, https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/10/27/burundi-icc-withdrawal-major-loss-victims, Accessed April 27 2017.
 Ligue Burundaise des droits de l’homme, “Rapport sur la situation des Droits de la Personne Humaine” 2013-2016, http://web.archive.org/web/20161026044622/http://ligue-iteka.bi/index.php/rapports/situation-des-droits-de-l-homme, Accessed April 21 2017.
 DefendDefenders, “Burundi: Government threatens reprisals and walks out during special review by UN Committee against Torture”, 12 August 2016, Accessed on 4 May 2017
 United Nations Humans Rights Office of the High Commissioner, “Burundi: UN experts raise alarm at growing repression of NGOs and human rights defenders”, 6 February 2017, http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=21145&LangID=E#sthash.SATuWrtg.dpuf, Accessed 2 May 2017.
 Cape Times, “Burundi media warned”, 15 February 2017, https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/cape-times/20170215/281590945318431, Accessed 2 May 2017.
 Forum pour le renforcement de la société civile, “Burundi, troisième mandat au rythme du discours de la haine institutionnalisé”, August 2016, http://forscburundi.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Troisi%C3%A8me-mandat-au-rythme-dun-dicours-de-la-haine-institutionnalis%C3%A9-FINAL.pdf, Accessed April 27 2017.
Version française ci-dessous UN Human Rights Council 36th Session Item 4: Interactive Dialogue with the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi Oral Intervention Delivered by Mr. Vital Nshimirimana Thank you, Mr. President. CIVICUS and DefendDefenders on behalf of 30 African organisations would like to thank the...
37 CSOs call on the UN Human Rights Council to support a resolution that renews the mandate of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, calls for further action to ensure justice for the victims, and initiates action for Burundi’s suspension from the Council.
A joint report with contributions from DefendDefenders' Technology team assesses Internet freedom and the digital resilience of civil society.
On 27th October 2015, the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project (EHAHRDP) celebrated ten years of defending human right activists throughout the East and Horn of Africa. To mark this occasion, EHAHRDP has produced an anniversary publication.
The report details the tactics used by the Sudanese, Ethiopian, Burundian and Ugandan governments to limit the operating environment for civil society in advance of elections.