Without Freedom of Expression, Democracy Still Africa’s Chimera

Members of Burundi’s ruling party youth wing march at a rally in September 2012. Photo: IRIN/Desire Nimubona

Members of Burundi’s ruling party youth wing march at a rally in September 2012. Photo: IRIN/Desire Nimubona

As it gets closer to the presidential elections in Burundi, tensions rise, says UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonovic, after a three-day trip to assess the country's situation


Just one day after Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonovic, returned from a three-day trip to assess Burundi’s human rights situation, a meeting was held at the New York headquarters of the United Nations yesterday to voice deeper concerns regarding failed efforts at lessening the crisis. 

Mr. Šimonovic’s assessment found that the authoritative governmental system has a stronghold over the political scene which causes strain between parties while the parliament seeks to impose laws that infringe upon the rights of civilians.

“Special attention must be paid to the full respect for freedom of expression, including for journalists and human rights defenders,” said Mr. Šimonovic while speaking with Burundian officials in Bujumbura – the country’s capital. 

The UN Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) earlier had considered the small Central African state one of its top success stories regarding the lessening of bloodshed that decades of ethnic war had caused. Burundi was then placed on the PBC’s agenda for continued assistance in ensuring that countries, once ravaged by war, do not relapse into bloodshed. Therefore the UN Security Council in February, decided to extend its mission to help Burundi until the end of the year. 

However, during previous UN meetings over the past few weeks, high-level officials voiced opinions about the increased and unfavourable restrictions on freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in the country. Officials also cautioned that seemingly impending outbreaks of violence amid political violence and intra-party tensions could become an issue as the crucial 2015 presidential elections draw near. 

“Violence linked to the electoral process must be prevented and harassment against perceived political adversaries must not be tolerated,” said Mr. Šimonovic. “All these are preconditions for free and fair elections in 2015 and for its results to be accepted by everyone.” 

Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, Special Representative of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also highly recommended that authorities intensify efforts to promote better political governance through dialogue and tolerance in order to prevent exacerbation of the situation. “It is also an urgent need to reduce the illicit flow of weapons into the small Central African country,” he added.

In a written statement, Mr. Šimonovic stated that he is particularly concerned about the number of politically motivated incidents involving the youth wing of the ruling party [the Imbonerakure] against perceived political adversaries. Therefore his suggestion was that continued assessment of the human rights situation is important in order to extend support to Burundi.

“Incidents have more than doubled compared to the same period last year so there has to be continued cooperation between the UN and [the government of] Burundi in the area of human rights,” he said. “The Government must ensure that perpetrators of political violence are held accountable.


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