There was no improvement in the human rights situation in Burundi in 2017. A pattern of arrests, arbitrary detentions, torture, enforced disappearances and killings, mainly targeting opposition and civil society and often carried out by state actors, became the norm. Both men and women have been subjected by the security forces to sexual violence as a means of torture in order to obtain information or confessions. This has included rape and mutilation of genital organs. The judiciary's lack of independence allowed a culture of impunity to flourish, and enabled the authorities to impose heavy sentences on those arrested, without regard to their lack of representation or to claims of torture. The brutal and sometimes clandestine nature of violations by security forces or by those supporting the government has created a deep and widespread climate of fear in Burundi.
The hostile atmosphere forced many members of Burundi's political opposition and independent media into exile, while those who remained continued to face harassment from the authorities and from those sympathetic to the ruling party. The state banned Burundi's oldest human rights organisation, Ligue Iteka, and closed down at least ten radio stations, further restricting civil society and media space. The government approved laws which further restricted the activities of international NGOs and charities. The ruling party's youth league, the Imbonerakure, became further emboldened by the culture of impunity and increasingly acted as a militia, enforcing the regime's policies. A viral video showed the Imbonerakure encouraging the rape of female relatives of members of the opposition. Incidents of hate speech continued, increasing the risk of fostering a climate of ethnic confrontation.
On 29 September 2017, Burundi was one of 13 States to vote against the UN Human Rights Council resolution banning the execution of people on the basis of their sexual orientation. The government views same sex relationships as being against Burundi culture and banned homosexuality in 2009. Under Burundi law, a person engaged in sexual relations with the same sex may be imprisoned for up to two years as well as incurring a fine. LGBT persons in Burundi continue to face threats of physical intimidation, arrest and discrimination.
The Burundian government's combative approach towards international human rights bodies saw them suspend cooperation with the UN OHCHR. Burundi continued its policy of non-cooperation in multilateral fora, refusing to engage with the UN Commission of Inquiry and denying its members entry to the country. After the Commission had found reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity had been committed, the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) in September renewed its work for a further year. The HRC also agreed an additional resolution which mandated the OHCHR to appoint three experts to investigate the human rights situation in 2018.
On 25 October, the pre-Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorised the ICC Prosecutor to open an investigation into alleged crimes against humanity committed in Burundi or by nationals of Burundi between 26 April 2015 and 26 October 2017. On 27 October, Burundi became the first country to withdraw from the ICC.
The UK's human rights objectives in Burundi in 2017 focused on gender equality, civil society and freedom of expression. The UK supported human rights monitoring activities and placed particular emphasis on the prevention of sexual and gender-based violence. The latter included support to women's associations to reduce the stigmatisation of survivors of sexual violence and to increase women's engagement with decision makers, and the development of early warning and investigation processes. Girls' education is also an area of concern given Burundi's high female illiteracy rate of 78% and the fact that 11% of girls are out of school. The UK supports the Global Partnership for Education via funding from DFID of which Burundi is one of 60 recipient countries.
The UK also worked through the EU and UN to intensify international monitoring and reporting of human rights violations and abuses. We supported a UN Security Council resolution which reiterated support for the international efforts to find a peaceful political solution to the conflict, in line with the Arusha Accords. The UK also backed a rollover for the suspension of EU direct financial support to the Burundian administration, confining EU financial support to the population only.
In 2018, the UK will continue to focus on preventing human rights violations and abuses, especially in the build-up to the referendum on the proposed changes to Burundi's Constitution planned for May. The UK will continue to support regional and international efforts, led by the East African Community and former
Tanzanian President Mkapa, to resolve the root causes of the political crisis and to find a peaceful political solution, in particular to prevent any risk of further destabilisation. The UK's human rights priorities will include working with the international community, in particular continuing to support the work of the HRC, the Commission of Inquiry and OHCHR, to bring an end to the violence, hold the perpetrators to account, and promote freedom of expression, respect for democratic freedoms and gender equality.