Reflecting back, looking forward: Association for Peace and Human Rights

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As the new year is getting under way, Democracy in Africa has asked key groups and individuals to reflect on developments in Africa during 2012, and look forward to 2013. We have invited them to share with us their insights and predictions, their hopes and their fears. Here, we speak to  René Claude Niyonkuru, Executive Director of the Association for Peace and Human Rights in Burundi.

Can you tell us a bit about the NGO that you work for?

The Association for Peace and Human Rights is a not-for-profit association working to promote peace and human rights in Burundi. We were established in 1998, approved by the Ministerial Order nr 530/689. Our work is with communities, public institutions, and other national and international NGOs working in the field of justice, peace-building, and conflict management (mainly land-related conflicts). We work to foster a culture of human rights and democracy at different levels of society. 

Our research-based advocacy campaigns create a space for interaction between communities and leaders and help to create a place for local voices in national decision-making processes. 

Looking back at 2012, what were the most promising developments for democracy in the Burundi? 

During the last year, we have seen a lot of citizens’ movements seeking to defend and protect their interests in democratic and peaceful ways. People have organized collective actions against the increasing costs of living, human rights abuse (extra-judiciary executions) and better working conditions, largely without incurring State repression.

Freedom of press and expression in Burundi also remained intact last year, despite some cases of judicial harassment against journalists and human rights activists and this is a major achievement that is likely to reinforce the checks and balances of democracy in Burundi. Especially as political opposition in the country remains weak.

That said, there have been some promising developments by the government, who has established some key institutions to promote democracy. For example, the Independent National Human Rights Commission, which is charged with monitoring of human rights violations, has been particularly active during 2012. As well as acting as a watchdog against human rights abuse, this institution has started human rights education campaigns across the country, in collaboration with human rights organizations.

Finally, we have also seen a continuous willingness from the government to encourage a wide consultation on key issues such poverty reduction, transitional justice and local development initiative. This is likely to foster a culture of citizen participation.

 Do you think that these developments will be sustainable in the next year and beyond?

If they are allowed to continue their work, Burundi’s independent press and its active and committed civil society, will continue to widen the democratic space and to hold the government accountable this coming year and beyond.  It is also hoped that the Burundian government will keep the democratic debate and consultation alive, especially in preparation for the transitional justice process and the 2015 elections.

What do you believe are the key remaining challenges to democracy in the country and how might thesis be tackled?

Since the 2010 elections, democratic space has been consistently reduced by the absence of a real political opposition whose most important leaders are now living in exile because they fear for their security.  The Government of Burundi continues to refuse a political dialogue with this political opposition and this reinforces the perception that Burundi is becoming an authoritarian regime once more, backed by a single party system controlling everything.

Human Rights organizations are instructed to shut down and demonised. Some State authorities see civil society organizations as proxies of opposition parties, as they are acting on the frontline, and they face being banned at any time. This is mainly due the fact that those organisations have been vocal in asking the government to put high-ranking officials on trial who have been accused of corruption, the killing of citizens and other human rights abuses.

A restrictive legislation against media organisations and civil society organisations is also likely to be passed during this year, which would be a step backward for democracy in Burundi. 

I do hope that the Government will understand the urgent need for wide consultation with other political actors and civil society organisations to tackle these potential obstacles to democracy. International support and advocacy is also needed to save the democratic achievements that are already in place.

What new and potentially surprising developments do you see on the horizon that will become increasingly important to the way in which democracy functions in Burundi and beyond?

I cannot foresee surprising developments in the short term, but I think that Burundians are a good way to achieving a fully democratic society, considering the political maturity people are showing when they interact with politicians.

The desire to have a say in the management of the common good has gained momentum. However, we will need to be careful that this momentum remains positive, and does not lead to uprisings that we have seen with the ‘Arab Spring’. Burundi is still in a post-conflict environment: this is a fragile state of affairs where resentment around unmet expectations could easily lead to violence. In this context, the general levels of corruption, which weaken the State and its capacity to be responsive, are a particular concern.

If we manage to organize peaceful and inclusive elections in 2015, this will be a turning point for the future of democracy in Burundi and we will achieve a political maturity that will allow Burundians to avoid  being trapped into ethnically-driven political choices, as we used to be, and to build a more accountable and sustainable democracy. And there lies the challenge for both the local actors and the international community. 

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