The promise by President Pierre Nkurunziza for a truth commission in Burundi may well turn out to be an empty one. More than a decade after the Arusha Peace Agreement, which called for a special tribunal and a truth commission in the country, Nkurunziza renewed his pledge in his New Year’s address: “This year will see the establishment of this Commission.” He repeated his promise to the BBC in late February and it was bolstered by a visit by the UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights last week.
By Benoît Frances, Bujumbura
He repeated his promise to the BBC in late February and it was bolstered by a visit by the UN Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights last week. A draft law, published in October, is supposed to be presented to Parliament.
It details conditions for the establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which would be given a two year mandate to examine the 46-year period, from Burundi’s independence in 1962 to 4 December 2008 - “the date on which the last armed movement ceased hostile action.” The mandate would be a broad one, to investigate “all serious acts of violence perpetrated during conflicts of a political and/or ethnic nature.”
However, “the committee [charged with drafting the legislation] was put together overnight, by decree, behind closed doors. This political lockdown began with the naming of committee members,” noted an independent expert familiar with the situation. The committee is headed by Foreign Minister Laurent
Kavakure, and has no representatives from civil society. All its members were named by the president.
The committee’s creation runs counter to national public consultations, surveyed in 2010. “The government
could not control these consultations, as the UN and civil society laid down certain conditions,” Eric Manirakiza, director of Radio RPA Burundi pointed out, recalling that Burundi’s citizens “expressed their
desire for a mixed tribunal and TRC [composed of Burundians and non-Burundians] and that its members not be named by the government.”
According to the draft law, the TRC’s eleven members would be Burundian nationals and named by the President following “broad consultation.” In December, Amnesty International expressed doubt that the independence and impartiality of the TRC would be guaranteed.
Special Tribunal left hanging
Plans for the Special Tribunal, the second vehicle for transitional justice stipulated in the Arusha Peace Agreement, have been left hanging in the air. Its establishment has been postponed until after the TRC’s mandate, as the commission might make recommendations for the criminal prosecution of certain cases. To many observers, this poses a threat.
“Not putting other forms of transitional justice in place gives the TRC the force of a soap bubble,” lamented Emmanuel Ntakarutimana, president of Burundi’s National Independent Human Rights Commission. The result will be, besides an “International Consultation Committee” with no real power, that “everything will play out within a single party,” an NGO executive explained.
The position of Burundi’s ruling party, the CNDD-FDD is well known. In its manifestos in 2006 and 2007, it pledged to pursue “mutual forgiveness” and from there decide whether a tribunal is indeed “opportune.”
This raises the problem of “disguised amnesties,” as one international civil servant calls them. Antoine Kaburahe, director of the newspaper Iwacu, is more direct. “The ruling party was implicated in crimes… it would like to protect itself.” The UN has kept a low profile.
The government was provided with a brief review of “international standards and the necessity of respecting national public consultations,” according to Julie Tétard of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva. This was done via “confidential” memorandum. No waves.
Nevertheless, Tétard refused to call this approach “laissez-faire”. “We are not here to rubber stamp things.” Security has degenerated in Burundi since its contested presidential elections in June 2010, when incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza ran uncontested in the second round.
In past weeks, members of the ruling party have been making the rounds of towns and villages to inform (and attempt to persuade) citizens about “their” TRC. All this with no great success - scepticism reigns.