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OHCRC: Burundi's elections aren't 'credible and free'

Cai Nebe
May 20, 2020

As Burundi holds elections, the UN's human rights body says the country fails to meet conditions for free and credible polls. In a DW interview, Doudou Diene from OHCRC cites Burundi's history of human rights abuses.

A woman carries her ballot papers during Burundi's election
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/B. Mugiraneza

A general election is underway on Wednesday in the East African nation of Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza is stepping aside after 15 years of rule that has seen massive repression of opposition politicians, civil society and independent media.

Burundians will choose a new president, parliamentarians and local councilors in the elections, which are being held without regional or international election observers.

As elections were taking place, DW talked to Doudou Diene, president of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi at OHCHR, the United Nations body mandated to promote and protect human rights.

The commission has been tasked to investigate human rights violations and abuses in Burundi since 2015.

DW: What type of violence are you expecting around Burundi's elections?

Doudou Diene: We are not expecting any violence. We are monitoring the situation as is our mandate. Our mandate isn't political - it's to document human rights violations, to identify the responsibilities of this violation, to analyze them, to read international law, to see if it is a crime against humanity.

So what we have documented is that the conditions - the debate and the democratic factors - necessary to perform a credible and a free elections are not met accurately in Burundi. This is why we are letting the international community know about this situation.

There are fundamentally three factors: violations of the right to life, liberty and physical integrity; violations of civil liberties; and violations of economic and the civil rights. Especially in the electoral process, the opposition parties have historically not been able to to benefit from their rights. This is why we are saying that conditions [in Burundi] are not yet met for free and credible elections.

You are quite willing to talk about this, even though it is election day in Burundi. Why is it important for you to get this message out?

Because it is our mandate as an international independent commission of inquiry. The mandate is to document the violations of human rights. Burundi has a history of the highest level of violence and the violations of human rights in the context of electoral process. This is a long, long history in Burundi.

Photograph of Doudou Diène
Doudou Diene is a legal expert and a chair of the UN's Commission of Inquiry on Burundi at OHCHRImage: picture-alliance/Photo12/D. Grenon

This is why we had to put it in our [Commission of Inquiry 2019] report to call upon the authorities of Burundi to prove to the internal community that there is change and that human rights will be respected and elections will be held in a credible and a free conditions.

And this is why, after documenting the situation, we have alerted the international community.

Just to clarify, international observers have not been permitted at this election?

Yes. This is one of the key factors which is worrying about the elections. They have not accepted even observers from the African Union. They didn't refuse the election observers from the East African community but they said that these observers will be put into [a 14-day] quarantine because of the coronavirus. At the same time, [last week] they expelled the WHO representative [and other experts coordinating the coronavirus response in Burundi]. All these these measures and actions are indicative of an increasing level of violations of human rights.

How much influence did the United Nations or other regional bodies have in steering this election to be as free and fair as possible?

The first point is that it's important for the Burundi people to know that the international community is very carefully following this situation and is absolutely sensitive to the situation of the people and that they are monitoring the situation. The second point is that if observers aren't accepted in the country, it's clear that the country has many issues. Authorities may be very sensitive because this election is a golden opportunity for change.

How is COVID-19 affecting this election?

Mostly in two ways. The first thing is that there is no doubt that COVID-19 is an international universal pandemic for all countries. And there is no doubt that the risk is [higher] when people get together in numbers. People know that by going to vote - and getting to be close to each other - they may get the disease. Certainly, many people in Burundi will not go to the election, despite whatever they may think of the government politically and socially.

This interview was conducted by Cai Nebe. It has been edited for brevity and clarity.