Civil society welcomes Burundi ICC investigation

Streets of Burundi, 2015 © Ventures Africa
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Pre-trial ICC judges have announced that they have authorized the ICC prosecutor to open an investigation into alleged crimes committed in Burundi or by nationals of Burundi outside Burundi in 2015-17. The decision was made under seal on 25 October 2017, but not issued for public release in order to protect victims and potential witnesses. The ICC retains jurisdiction over the situation even though Burundi's withdrawal from the ICC Rome Statute came into effect on 27 October 2017. Most of the crimes under consideration were allegedly conducted by state security forces against civilians opposed to Burundian President Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office.

"The decision of the ICC is a relief for the victims and a real beginning of the end of impunity in Burundi. From now on the authors, co-authors and accomplices of the crimes must understand that the games are over, they will not be able to amuse themselves while committing crimes on the civil population without fear of justice," said Lambert Nigarura, president of the Burundi Coalition for the ICC.

“The Coalition for the ICC welcomes today’s announcement by the ICC of the opening of an investigation into alleged grave crimes in Burundi - it offers victims inside and outside the country a chance for justice and redress, including for victims of alleged sexual and gender-based crimes,” said Jelena Pia-Comella, deputy executive director of the Coalition for the ICC. "Widespread and systemic patterns of violations allegedly conducted by state security forces against civilians opposed to President Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term in office have been widely documented by United Nations investigators and civil society organizations, who themselves have been subject to severe repression. In opening this investigation, the ICC prosecutor is responding to a crisis that has seen thousands killed or disappeared and up to 500,000 fleeing to neighbouring countries, creating further instability in a region that is still emerging from the horrors of the Rwandan genocide in 1994."

“We are heartened to see the sensitivity of the prosecutor and judges to the need to protect victims and potential witnesses in opening this investigation into a particularly volatile and violent crisis," Pia-Comella continued. "We call for strengthened ICC communications, particularly in French, to make sure that justice is seen to be done by those most affected by the alleged crimes. With ICC member states preparing for the annual Assembly of States Parties this December, this investigation is a timely reminder that the ICC must be provided with both the resources and cooperation necessary to deliver meaningful justice to victims in Burundi and wherever else it is needed around the world.”

According to Human Rights Watch, in late April 2015, the announcement by the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD – FDD) that President Pierre Nkurunziza would run for a third term ignited protests in the capital, Bujumbura, and later in other locations. Members of the Burundi ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure, and government security forces, particularly the national intelligence service (Service national de renseignement, SNR), have killed and tortured scores of opposition political party members and other perceived opponents since the start of the crisis.

“Members of the Imbonerakure and government forces’ devastating track record of unchecked abuses, which include rape, torture, and executions, left Burundi ripe for ICC scrutiny,” said Param-Preet Singh, associate international justice director at Human Rights Watch. “ICC involvement means victims in Burundi and their families may one day see those responsible brought to justice.” Judges Chang-ho Chung, Antoin

“The ICC has published a courageous decision, especially since the announced investigation will be confronted with numerous difficulties because of the absence of cooperation of an authoritarian regime. Since 2015, the Burundian authorities have tried to cover their crimes by limiting or refusing the entrance of international observers and journalists. Burundi has attempted to evade international justice by being the first country to withdraw from the ICC. Today’s announcement shows that this attempt was futile., said Karine Bonneau, said FIDH International Justice Officer. 

According to an ICC press release: "Pre-Trial Chamber III, considered that the supporting materials presented by the ICC Prosecutor, including victims' communications submitted to the Prosecutor, offer a reasonable basis to proceed with an investigation in relation to crimes against humanity, including: a) murder and attempted murder; b) imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty; c) torture; d) rape; e) enforced disappearance and f) persecution, allegedly committed in Burundi, and in certain instances outside of the country by nationals of Burundi, since at least 26 April 2015. The Chamber noted that, according to estimates, at least 1,200 persons were allegedly killed, thousands illegally detained, thousands reportedly tortured, and hundreds disappeared. The alleged acts of violence have reportedly resulted in the displacement of 413,490 persons between April 2015 and May 2017.  

The crimes were allegedly committed by State agents and other groups implementing State policies, including the Burundian National Police, national intelligence service, and units of the Burundian army, operating largely through parallel chains of command, together with members of the youth wing of the ruling party, known as the "Imbonerakure".  

ICC judges said that "the prosecutor is authorised to extend her investigation to crimes which were committed before 26 April 2015 or continue after 26 October 2017 as long as the investigation or prosecution relate to the crimes allegedly committed during the time Burundi was a State Party to the Rome Statute."

They also said that "Burundi has a duty to cooperate with the Court for the purpose of this investigation since the investigation was authorised on 25 October 2017, prior to the date on which the withdrawal became effective for Burundi. This obligation to cooperate remains in effect for as long as the investigation lasts and encompasses any proceedings resulting from the investigation. Burundi accepted those obligations when ratifying the Rome Statute."  

Public Redacted Version of "Decision Pursuant to Article 15 of the Rome Statute on the Authorization of an Investigation into the Situation in the Republic of Burundi" 

Questions and Answers document