The Republic of Burundi is a constitutional, multiparty republic with an elected government. The 2018 constitution, promulgated in June, provides for an executive branch that reports to the president, a bicameral parliament, and an independent judiciary. In 2015 voters re-elected President Pierre Nkurunziza and elected National Assembly (lower house) members in elections boycotted by nearly all independent opposition parties that claimed Nkurunziza’s election violated legal term limits. International and domestic observers characterized the elections as largely peaceful but deeply flawed and not free, fair, transparent, nor credible. There were widespread reports of harassment, intimidation, threatening rhetoric, and some violence leading up to the 2018 referendum and reports of compelling citizens to register to vote and contribute financially to the management of the elections planned for 2020.
The National Police of Burundi, which is under the Ministry of Public Security’s authority, is responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order. The armed forces, which are under the Ministry of Defense’s authority, are responsible for external security but also have some domestic security responsibilities. The National Intelligence Service (SNR), which reports directly to the president, has arrest and detention authority. The Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party, has no official arrest authority but some were involved in or responsible for numerous detentions and abductions. They routinely assumed the role of state security agents and as such detained and turned over individuals to members of the official security services, in some cases after harassing or physically abusing them. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings on behalf of the government; forced disappearances on behalf of the government; torture on behalf of the government; arbitrary arrest and politicized detention on behalf of the government; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners; significant problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; the worst forms of restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests of journalists, censorship, and the existence of criminal libel and slander laws; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement; restrictions on political participation, including elections that were not found to be transparent, free, or fair; significant acts of corruption; trafficking in persons; violence against women to which government negligence significantly contributed; crimes involving violence targeting minority groups and persons with albinism; criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct; and use of forced or compulsory or worst forms of child labor.
The reluctance of police and public prosecutors to investigate and prosecute cases of government corruption and human rights abuse and of judges to hear them in a timely manner resulted in widespread impunity for government and CNDD-FDD officials, and their supporters and proxies.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution and law provide for freedom of speech and press but ban “defamatory” speech regarding the president and other senior officials, material deemed to endanger national security, and racial or ethnic hate speech. Restrictions on freedom of speech and the press increased significantly following dissent against the president’s 2015 announcement that he would seek a third term in office and government accusations of media complicity in the 2015 failed coup. These restrictions continued and were applied to press outlets, including those critical of the government or the human rights situation in the country. Journalists and outspoken critics reported harassment and intimidation by security services and government officials. Social media networks, primarily Twitter and WhatsApp, served as news outlets, often replacing traditional news outlets. Forces allied to the CNDD-FDD repressed media perceived as sympathetic to the opposition, including print and radio journalists, through harassment, intimidation, and violence.
Freedom of Expression: The penal code, passed in 2009, protects public servants and the president against “words, gestures, threats, or writing of any kind” that is “abusive or defamatory” or would “impair the dignity of or respect for their office.” The law also prohibits racially or ethnically motivated hate speech. The penalty for conviction of insulting the head of state is six months to five years in prison and a fine of 10,000 to 50,000 Burundian francs ($5.40 to $27). Some journalists, lawyers, NGO personnel, and leaders of political parties and civil society stated the government used the law to intimidate and harass them.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: The government owned and operated daily newspapers in French and Kirundi, Le Renouveau and Ubumwe, and a radio and television station, Burundi National Television and Radio. The directors general of both outlets report to the Presidency. Rema FM, a CNDD-FDD radio station, also enjoyed support from the government, although it was technically independent. Radio Isanganiro was the country’s largest independent radio station. Iwacu, an independent newspaper that was generally critical of the government and its policies, continued to publish articles in French and English. It was sanctioned, however, by the National Communications Council (CNC) for reporting that was alleged to be biased against the government, and its journalists reported several incidents of harassment by national security services. On October 22, police arrested four journalists covering unrest in Bubanza, along with their driver. They were charged by the prosecutor with complicity in undermining state security. On November 20, the Ntahangwa Court of Appeal refused temporary release for the journalists but released the driver.
The CNC maintained its requirement that Iwacu close the comments section of its website. The 2018 suspension, in connection with a criminal complaint, of Ikiriho, a generally progovernment online news outlet, continued at year’s end. On November 21, the CNC suspended the online television station and the comments page of the news website NAWE.bi.
In 2017 the CNC announced a decision to withdraw the licenses of Radio Bonesha, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), and Radio/Television Renaissance for breaches of their agreements with the CNC or for not abiding by content regulations. These three stations were shuttered by the government in 2015 after unidentified men destroyed their broadcasting equipment following a failed coup. Radio Bonesha continued to operate a website, and RPA continued to broadcast into the country from Rwanda.
The Voice of America (VOA) was suspended in May 2018 for an initial period of six months; the suspension was never formally renewed at the six-month mark, and the organization was suspended indefinitely in April. VOA removed its equipment from Burundi in November. In announcing the suspension, the CNC cited the outlet’s decision to broadcast “biased” information “contrary to the rules of the [journalistic] profession” and to employ journalists the government claimed were subject to arrest warrants. The government suspended the BBC at the same time and in April revoked its broadcast license, citing a documentary it produced that the government stated was defamatory. In announcing its decision to revoke the BBC’s license and prolong the VOA’s suspension indefinitely, the CNC issued a prohibition for any journalist to provide information to either outlet.
In 2013 the government passed a media law that requires journalists to reveal sources in some circumstances and prohibits the publication of articles deemed to undermine national security. In 2014 parliament revised the law following journalists’ successful appeal to the East African Court of Justice. The court’s decision caused parliament to remove from the media law some of its more draconian elements. Following the failed coup in 2015, the government invoked the law to intimidate and detain journalists. In September 2018 the government passed a law to regulate accreditation of journalists by increasing the prerequisites to include minimum requirements for education and prior experience and threatening criminal penalties for journalists found working without credentials. Reporters indicated there were lengthy delays in the accreditation process that prevented them from being able to work. Those who were able to continue working complained that government agents harassed and threatened media that criticized the government and the CNDD-FDD. Journalists had difficulty corroborating stories, as local sources were intimidated.
Violence and Harassment: The majority of independent journalists fled the country during and after the political crisis and crackdown in 2015; most had yet to return, citing threats to their safety. Several media outlets stated they received explicit threats that they would be closed if they published or broadcast stories critical of the government. The government detained or summoned for questioning several local journalists investigating subjects such as human rights abuses, corruption, or refugees fleeing the country. Journalists experienced violence and harassment at the hands of security service members and government officials. On February 12, a journalist for National Radio and Television of Burundi was arrested for filming police beating street vendors in Bujumbura. A police spokesperson stated the journalist was arrested for taking unapproved photographs and videos.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government censored media content through restrictive press laws established by the CNC, an organization that is nominally independent but subject to political control. According to Freedom House, observers regarded the CNC as a tool of the executive branch, as it regularly issued politicized rulings and sanctions against journalists and outlets. In 2016 the CNC passed two decrees regarding media activity, one for domestic journalists and one for foreign outlets operating in the country. The first compels all journalists to register annually with the CNC. The second limits the access granted to international journalists and establishes content restrictions on the products disseminated by these outlets. Broadly interpreted laws against libel, hate speech, endangering state security, and treason also fostered self-censorship, including by journalists working for the national broadcaster. Those who did not self-censor faced “reassignment” to jobs where they did not have access to the public or were fired.
The CNC regulates both print and broadcast media, controls the accreditation of journalists, and enforces compliance with media laws. The president appoints all 15 members, who were mainly government representatives and journalists from the state broadcaster.
Nongovernmental Impact: Many members of the governing party’s Imbonerakure youth wing collaborated with government security forces to inhibit freedom of expression. In some cases they were official members of mixed security councils, which comprise police, local administration officials, and civilians. The Imbonerakure’s members often occupied positions that were reserved for local citizenry, giving them a strong role in local policing. The mixed security committees remained controversial, as lines of authority increasingly blurred between Imbonerakure members and police. Journalists and human rights defenders accused Imbonerakure members of acting as irregular security forces and of using government resources to follow, threaten, attack, and arrest individuals they perceived as opposition supporters.
The government sometimes restricted or disrupted access to the internet or censored online content. Some citizens relied heavily on the social media platforms WhatsApp, Twitter, and Facebook on both internet and mobile telephone networks to get information concerning current events. There were no verifiable reports the government monitored email or internet chat rooms. Several journalists stated they were generally freer in their reporting online than in radio and other media more closely controlled by the government, particularly when posting in French or English rather than in local languages. Several radio stations that were closed after the failed coup in 2015 continued to broadcast radio segments and issue articles online.
Some media websites were occasionally unavailable to internet users in the country. Publications affected included the newspaper Iwacu and the online publication Ikiriho prior to its suspension in October 2018 by the Ministry of Justice. There was no official comment on the outages; both the reason and mechanism remained unclear. In most cases the outages lasted a few days before access was restored.
There were allegations that hiring practices, student leadership elections, and grading at the University of Burundi were subject to political interference in favor of CNDD-FDD members.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution and law provide for freedom of peaceful assembly, but the government severely restricted this right (see section 1.d.). The law requires political parties and large groups to notify the government in advance of a public meeting and at least four days prior to a proposed demonstration and allows the government to prohibit meetings or demonstrations for reasons of “public order.” When notified, authorities in most cases denied permission for opposition members to meet or demonstrate and dispersed meetings already underway. By contrast, supporters of the CNDD-FDD and government officials were regularly able to meet and organize demonstrations on short notice; these demonstrations were frequently large and included participation by senior officials.
There were frequent reports by journalists and members of opposition parties that they were detained, harassed, arrested, or physically beaten for having held “illegal meetings”–often involving no more than a handful of individuals. Victims of these actions were primarily members of the CNL party, although occasionally other parties were also victims.
The constitution provides for freedom of association within the confines of the law, but the government severely restricted this right.
In 2017 the government enacted a law constricting the liberties of international NGOs. The law includes requirements that international NGOs deposit a portion of their budgets at the Bank of the Republic of Burundi and that they develop and implement plans to attain ethnic and gender balances in the recruitment of local personnel. The law contains several clauses that give the government considerable control over NGO selection and programming.
In September 2018 the government’s National Security Council announced a three-month suspension of international NGOs, effective October 2018. The minister of the interior clarified that the government was suspending NGO operations until they provided documents demonstrating compliance with the country’s NGO and banking laws. The minister required NGOs to submit a copy of their cooperative agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a memorandum of understanding with the appropriate technical ministry, a certification of compliance with banking regulations, and a plan to comply with the law’s ethnic and gender balances within three years. He stated that the ministry would review the files of each NGO as soon as it received their submissions and that NGOs failing to provide documents within three months would be closed. Many organizations viewed the suspension as a politically motivated restriction on civil space. The suspension had an immediate and significant impact on NGO operations, including on their provision of basic services. Some international NGOs were allowed to continue medical and education programs during the suspension. By early 2019 the government lifted the suspension on all NGOs except two that were asked to leave the country. Enforcement of the new requirements has been sporadic. Representatives from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or Ministry of the Interior visited a small number of NGOs and requested additional detail on their activities. With the exception of requests for the overall percentages of their staff composition by ethnicity, NGOs reported the questions were not excessive or invasive.
In 2017 the government also enacted laws governing domestic CSOs. The law requires CSOs to register with the Ministry of the Interior (or with provincial governments if they operate in a single province), a complex process that includes approval for an organization’s activities from the Ministry of the Interior and other ministries, depending on the CSO’s area(s) of expertise. Registration must be renewed every two years, and there is no recourse when authorities deny registration. The law provides for the suspension or permanent closure of organizations for “disturbing public order or harming state security.”
In 2016 the government permanently banned five CSOs it claimed were part of the political opposition. In 2016 the government announced its intention to ban Ligue Iteka, the country’s oldest human rights organization, for “sow(ing) hate and division among the population following a social media campaign created by the International Federation of Human Rights and Ligue Iteka in which a mock movie trailer accused the president of planning genocide.” The ban took effect in 2017; Ligue Iteka has continued to operate from Uganda and report on conditions in Burundi. There were no further reported closings of domestic CSOs.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government severely restricted these rights.
The government generally cooperated with the local UNHCR office and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. On August 24, the governments of Tanzania and Burundi signed an agreement whereby they agreed to the return of roughly 180,000 Burundian refugees in Tanzania, “whether voluntarily or not,” starting in October. Initial returnees were determined to be voluntary; however, later media reports indicated that some refugees who had initially volunteered to return, changed their minds but authorities disregarded their change of mind and forced them to leave. As of November 31, international organizations and human rights groups concluded that Tanzanian authorities were making conditions for refugees so difficult that in many cases their returns could not legitimately be considered voluntary. Nonetheless, there were no reports that the agreement between Burundi and Tanzania on cross-border criminal pursuit had been used to repatriate refugees forcibly. In December the governments of Burundi and Tanzania agreed to a three-week pause in returns, and further convoys of returnees were halted through the end of the year.
In-country Movement: According to several news sources, the government enforced the use of household logbooks, cahier or livret de menage, that listed the residents and domestic workers of each household in some neighborhoods of the capital. In numerous instances police arrested persons during neighborhood searches for not being registered in household booklets. Persons who attempted to cross the border to flee violence and reach refugee camps were sometimes stopped and turned back by police, the SNR, or Imbonerakure members. Stateless persons also faced restrictions on movement because, in addition to lacking identification documents, they may not apply for driver’s licenses and may not travel freely throughout the country.
Local governments established checkpoints on roads throughout the country on a widespread basis officially for the collection of transit taxes on drivers and passengers; the checkpoints were often staffed by police or members of the Imbonerakure. Checkpoints were also established for security purposes. There were frequent allegations that those staffing the checkpoints sought bribes before allowing vehicles to proceed. In some instances members of the Imbonerakure were accused of using the checkpoints to deny free movement to individuals for political reasons, such as failing to demonstrate proof of voter registration or of contributions for the funding of elections, for refusal to join the ruling party, or for suspicion of attempting to depart the country in order to seek refugee status.
Foreign Travel: The price of a passport was 235,000 Burundian francs ($127). Authorities required exit visas for foreigners who held nonofficial passports and who did not hold multiple-entry visas; these visas cost 48,000 Burundian francs ($25.95) per month to maintain. Most foreigners held multiple-entry visas and were no longer subject to this requirement. Stateless persons may not apply for a passport and may not travel outside the country.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated there were 103,000 IDPs in the country as of December. According to the IOM, 77 percent were displaced due to natural disasters while 23 percent were displaced for political or social reasons. Some IDPs reported feeling threatened because of their perceived political sympathies. Some IDPs returned to their homes, but the majority remained in IDP sites or relocated to urban centers. The government generally permitted IDPs at identified sites to be included in programs provided by UNHCR, the IOM, and other humanitarian organizations, such as shelter and legal assistance programs.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has a system for providing protection to refugees.
UNHCR estimated 75,000 refugees were in the country as of December, with a further 8,212 in the process of seeking asylum. Of the refugees and asylum seekers, more than 98 percent were Congolese, including arrivals during the year. Continuing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo prevented their return. Efforts begun in 2015 to resettle Congolese refugees in third countries continued.
Access to Basic Services: Refugees residing in camps administered by the government and the United Nations and its partners received basic services. The large percentage of refugees residing in urban areas also accessed services, such as education, health care, and other assistance offered by humanitarian organizations.
According to UNHCR an estimated 974 persons at risk of statelessness lived in the country. All were from Oman, were awaiting proof of citizenship from the government of Oman and had lived in Burundi for decades. Most of those who remained at risk of statelessness had refused an offer of Burundian citizenship from the government if they could not get Omani citizenship. Stateless persons face limited freedom of movement because they were ineligible for driver’s licenses and passports.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage. The country held legislative, communal, and presidential elections during 2015, but the international community and independent domestic organizations widely condemned the process as deeply flawed. Several progovernment CSOs observed and validated the elections. The UN Electoral Mission in Burundi was the sole international observer of the voting; the African Union (AU) and the EU declined to participate in the process. Intimidation, threats, and bureaucratic hurdles colored the campaigning and voting period, resulting in low voter turnout and a boycott by most opposition parties.
Recent Elections: During 2015 the government held four separate elections, including for communal councils and the National Assembly (June), president (July), the Senate (July), and village councils (August). Citing their inability to campaign fairly and freely, most opposition parties called on their adherents to boycott the elections. The CNDD-FDD won absolute majorities in the National Assembly and Senate.
The EU’s election observation mission reported that sufficient conditions for credible elections were not met. The AU also declined to send observers because the conditions were not conducive to credible, transparent, free, and fair elections. According to the International Crisis Group, the National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) and the Ministry of the Interior created bureaucratic obstacles to opposition parties, including failing to recognize party leadership, refusing to permit legal party meetings, and favoring CNDD-FDD loyalists for positions on provincial and communal election committees.
In 2017 President Nkurunziza announced a referendum to amend the constitution. He warned that any opposition to holding the referendum was a “red line,” while stating that opponents of the constitutional changes would be able to make their case. Several government and ruling party officials subsequently made statements threatening individuals opposed to the referendum. In a 2017 speech in Cibitoke province, Sylvestre Ndayizeye, a senior leader of the Imbonerakure, called on his colleagues to “identify and subdue” those who opposed the campaign. In April a video circulated on social media networks of a CNDD-FDD party official in Muyinga province, Melchiade Nzopfabarushe, threatening to kill opponents of the referendum and dispose of their bodies in Lake Tanganyika. During the months leading up to the May 2018 referendum, there were widespread instances of harassment, intimidation, threatening rhetoric, and some violence against real or perceived opponents of the amendments by party or government officials and their proxies.
The vote on the referendum was largely peaceful, but opposition parties cited irregularities during the vote tabulation process, including the expulsion of accredited monitors from voting stations. The Constitutional Court rejected an appeal by the Amizero Y’Abarundi coalition of independents to contest the results provided by CENI. No international organizations and few domestic organizations officially observed the referendum, although several progovernment CSOs did.
In 2017 the government began a campaign to generate citizen contributions to a fund for elections, with the intention of domestically financing future elections. In 2017 the government released a decree formalizing the campaign, under which amounts were to be automatically deducted from the salaries of civil servants. Deductions began in January 2018. The decree specified that contributions from other citizens were to be voluntary but identified recommended contribution levels for salaried employees and for farmers. Beginning in 2017, however, and increasing significantly following an announcement by the minister of the interior in June 2018 of relaunching efforts to generate contributions from citizens, government officials and members of the Imbonerakure pressured citizens to donate. There were reports of violence, harassment, intimidation, arbitrary arrests, denial of freedom of movement, and denial of basic services to citizens who failed to demonstrate proof of payment. These involuntary contributions continued throughout the first half of the year. There were numerous reports that these collections were carried out by the Imbonerakure using threats of violence, and in many cases families were forced to contribute multiple times. In July the president announced that fundraising goals were reached but that “voluntary” contributions were still welcome. Nevertheless, as of July isolated reports of involuntary collections continued.
Political Parties and Political Participation: According to the law, to qualify for public campaign funding and compete in the legislative and presidential elections, parties needed to be “nationally based,” i.e., ethnically and regionally diverse, and prove in writing they were organized and had membership in all provinces. The Ministry of the Interior recognized 35 political parties. On February 14, the Ministry of the Interior registered the previously unapproved National Forces of Liberation-Rwasa under the new name, the CNL. The Union for National Progress (UPRONA), led by Evariste Ngayimpenda, remained unrecognized, except for a small faction that broke off and pledged its allegiance to the ruling party.
Other parties, such as the Union for Peace and Development, were recognized by the Ministry of the Interior but were unable to operate due to intimidation and suppression by the government. The Movement for Solidarity and Democracy remained suspended, and the Supreme Court’s decision on a motion to ban it permanently was still pending at year’s end.
Ministry of the Interior interference in opposition party leadership and management contributed significantly to the weak and fractured nature of opposition parties. The government stated that the law allows only legally constituted political parties, coalitions of political parties, and independent candidates to run for office and that unrecognized leaders of parties and political actors not associated with a party could play no role in the political process. Parties not recognized by the government were largely unable to conduct political activities and even recognized parties, such as the CNL, were frequently restricted from conducting political activities. The constitution’s ban on coalitions for independents further constrained the options of unrecognized parties and disenfranchised them.
The constitution also includes measures increasing restrictions on independent candidates, including a measure that prevented individuals from running as independents if they had claimed membership in a political party within the previous year or if they had occupied a leadership position in a political party within the previous two years. The constitution also provides that independent candidates for the National Assembly must receive at least 40 percent of the vote in their district in order to be elected, a standard that did not apply to candidates representing political parties.
Individuals often needed membership in, or perceived loyalty to, the ruling political party to obtain or retain employment in the civil service and the benefits that accrued from such positions, such as transportation allowances; free housing, electricity, and water; exemption from personal income taxes; and interest-free loans. During the year there were reports of individuals facing harassment, arbitrary arrest, and violence, including torture and killing, for refusing to join the CNDD-FDD at the hands of members of the Imbonerakure, government officials, or other ruling party supporters. These reports, along with the pressure placed on citizens to register as voters or to provide contributions for elections, led some observers to suggest that the space for citizens to support an opposition party or be apolitical was diminishing, constituting an impingement on freedom of expression and association.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit the participation of women and members of minorities in the political process, and women and minorities did participate.
The constitution reserves 30 percent of positions in the National Assembly, Senate, and Council of Ministers for women, and government institutions hired persons after the elections to meet gender and ethnic quota requirements. The 2017 international NGO law extended this quota to NGO employment. Women were not well represented in political parties and held very few leadership positions. Some observers believed that tradition and cultural factors kept women from participating in politics on an equal basis with men.
The constitution provides for representation in all elected and appointed government positions for the two largest ethnic groups. The Hutu majority is entitled to no more than 60 percent of government positions and the Tutsi minority to no less than 40 percent. The law designates three seats in each chamber of parliament for the Twa ethnic group, which makes up approximately 1 percent of the population.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, yet corruption remained a very serious problem. The government did not fully implement the law, and some high-level government officials engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. The constitution provides for the creation of a High Court of Justice to review accusations of serious crimes against high-ranking government officials. The anticorruption law applies to all other citizens, but no high-ranking person has stood trial for corruption.
Corruption: The public widely viewed police to be corrupt, and petty corruption involving police was commonplace. There were also allegations of corruption in the government, including incidents related to lack of transparency of budget revenue related to gasoline importation; to the management of public tenders and contracts, including in the health sector; and to the distribution of the country’s limited foreign currency reserves to finance imports. The Burundian Revenue Office has an internal antifraud unit, but observers accused its officials of fraud.
The state inspector general and the Anticorruption Brigade were responsible for investigating government corruption but were widely perceived as ineffective.
Financial Disclosure: The law requires financial disclosure by elected officials and senior appointed officials once every five years, but it does not require public disclosure. The Supreme Court receives the financial disclosures. By law the president, two vice presidents, and cabinet ministers are obligated to disclose assets upon taking office, but the nonpublic nature of the disclosure means compliance with this provision could not be confirmed. No other officials are required to disclose assets.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
Domestic and international human rights groups struggled to operate in the face of governmental restrictions, harassment, and repression. The law requires CSOs to register with the Ministry of the Interior, a complex process that includes approval for an organization’s activities. Registration must be renewed every two years, and there was no recourse for organizations denied registration or renewal. By law an organization may be suspended permanently for “disturbing public order or harming state security.”
Many human rights defenders who had fled the country in 2015 remained outside the country at year’s end. Those who remained in the country were subjected to threats, intimidation, and arrest. The cases of Germain Rukuki and Nestor Nibitanga, who were convicted in 2018 and remained in jail at year’s end, and three members of PARCEM, who were held from April 2018 until January when they were released following a successful appeal of their convictions, were emblematic of the judicial threats faced by human rights monitors from both recognized and unrecognized organizations.
In 2016 the government banned five CSOs led by opponents to the president having a third term and in January 2017 banned Ligue Iteka. Ligue Iteka and other organizations without official recognition continued to monitor the human rights situation. Members of both recognized and unrecognized organizations reported being subjected to harassment and intimidation and took measures to protect the identities of their employees and their sources. In January the government indefinitely suspended PARCEM for allegedly undermining public order and security.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: In December 2018 the government requested that the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) close its office in Bujumbura, abrogating the 1995 memorandum of understanding under which the OHCHR worked in the country. The government cited the existence of national institutions as evidence that the OHCHR office was no longer necessary. The government had suspended cooperation with the office in 2016 in response to the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi (UNIIB) report that found “reasonable grounds to believe” security forces and Imbonerakure had established multiple detention facilities that were unacknowledged by the prosecutor general and included allegations that senior leaders were personally complicit in human rights violations. On February 28, the OHCHR closed its office.
The UN Human Rights Council created the three-member COI in 2016 to investigate human rights violations since 2015; its mandate was renewed in 2017 and again in September 2018. The government refused to allow commission members to enter the country after publication of the 2016 UNIIB report, did not respond substantively to any requests for information from the commission, and in October 2018 declared the commission members, who never had access to the country, to be officially unwelcome in the country. In September the commission delivered its annual report, finding there was reason to believe that grave violations of human rights and crimes against humanity continued to be committed in the country, including extrajudicial killings, systematic torture, sexual violence, and political oppression. The COI reported these violations were primarily attributable to state officials at the highest level and to senior officials and members of the SNR, police, the Burundian National Defense Forces, and Imbonerakure. Following the annual report, in September its mandate was once again extended. Government officials dismissed the report, and the Ministry of Human Rights broadcast a radio report that stated the government “will never work with the [COI],” adding that the decision to once again extend its mandate was supported by the European Union and other countries “with the objective of maintaining Burundi in a state of colonialism.” They concluded, “The Government of Burundi does not promote human rights to please the international community.”
In 2016 the AU announced it would send 100 human rights monitors and 100 military monitors to the country and stated that the Burundian president supported the deployment. Approximately 40 human rights monitors and eight military monitors deployed in 2016, but the government did not grant permission for the rest of the monitors to enter the country. The 40 monitors stayed in the country until September 2018, when the number was reduced due to a gap in financing. In November 2018 the AU Peace and Security Council voted to extend the mission with reduced staffing levels. According to the AU, the monitors were limited in what they could do because the government had yet to agree on a memorandum of understanding for the monitors. As of October, the 10 civilian and three military AU monitors who remained, and who did not make their reports public, were the only external monitors in the country.
Government Human Rights Bodies: Parties to the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement of 2000 committed to the establishment of an international criminal tribunal, which had yet to be implemented, and a national Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which was adopted into law in April 2014. Between becoming operational in 2016 and October, the TRC gathered testimony and conducted outreach activities under its mandate to investigate and establish the truth regarding serious human rights and international humanitarian law violations committed in the country. The TRC is also mandated to establish individual responsibilities and those of state institutions, individuals, and private groups.
Based on testimonies collected from September 2016 to May 2018, the commission provisionally identified thousands of mass graves of varying size throughout the country dating from the time of its mandate as well as numerous allegations of killings, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, and violations of due process rights. Some CSOs and opposition political figures raised concerns that, in view of ongoing human rights abuses, political tensions, a climate of fear and intimidation, fears of retribution for testimony, and restrictions on freedom of expression, conditions were not conducive for an impartial or effective transitional justice process. CSOs cited concerns that the participation of ruling party members in deposition-gathering teams could reduce the willingness of some citizens to testify or share fully their stories. Some of the TRC commissioners were perceived by some CSOs as representing the interests of the ruling party and therefore not impartial. A lack of funding and qualified experts adversely affected the TRC’s ability to operate. The operating environment did not change during the year.
Ombudsman Edouard Nduwimana’s mandate included monitoring prison conditions and encouraging interreligious dialogue. During the year he also focused on dialogue with opposition political parties, both within and outside the country.
The CNIDH, a quasigovernmental body charged with investigating human rights abuses, exercised its power to summon senior officials, demand information, and order corrective action. In 2016 the Global Alliance of National Human Rights Institutions (GANHRI) provisionally downgraded CNIDH’s accreditation due to concerns regarding its independence. In February 2018 GANHRI confirmed its decision, suspending CNIDH’s right to participate fully in global meetings with counterparts. The CNIDH also monitored the government’s progress on human rights investigations but did not regularly release its findings to the public. In April a new group of commissioners was appointed to a four-year term and took steps to implement measures to help the CNIDH restore its accreditation.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law prohibits rape, including spousal rape, with penalties of up to 30 years’ imprisonment for conviction. The law prohibits domestic abuse of a spouse, with punishment if convicted ranging from fines to three to five years’ imprisonment. The government did not enforce the law uniformly, and rape and other domestic and sexual violence were serious problems.
In 2016 the government adopted a law that provides for the creation of a special gender-based crimes court, makes gender-based violence crimes unpardonable, and provides stricter punishment for police officers and judges who conceal violent crimes against women and girls. As of October the special court had not been created, and no police or judges had been prosecuted under the law.
The Unit for the Protection of Minors and Morals in the National Police is responsible for investigating cases of sexual violence and rape as well as those involving the trafficking of girls and women. The government-operated Humura Center in Gitega provided a full range of services, including legal, medical, and psychosocial services, to survivors of domestic and sexual violence. As of early September, the center had received 878 cases of sexual and gender-based violence and domestic violence.
The September COI report stated that officials and members of the Imbonerakure were responsible for cases of sexual violence, including cases in which women were targeted because they or their relatives were supporters of the political opposition. Credible observers stated many women were reluctant to report rape, in part due to fear of reprisal or social stigma.
Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, including the use of threats of physical violence or psychological pressure to obtain sexual favors. Punishment for conviction of sexual harassment may range from a fine to a prison sentence of one month to two years. The sentence for sexual harassment doubles if the victim is younger than 18. The government did not actively enforce the law. There were reports of sexual harassment but no data available on its frequency or extent.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization. For additional information, see Appendix C.
Discrimination: The law provides for equal status for women and men, including under family, labor, property, nationality, and inheritance laws. Women faced legal, economic, and societal discrimination, including with regard to inheritance and marital property laws.
By law women must receive the same pay as men for the same work, but they did not (see section 7.d.). Some employers suspended the salaries of women on maternity leave, and others refused medical coverage to married female employees. The government provided only limited resources to enforce labor laws in general and did not enforce antidiscrimination laws effectively.
In June 2018 the minister of education released a guidance letter stating that female primary and secondary school students who became pregnant or were married during their studies would not be allowed to reintegrate into the formal education system but could pursue vocational training. This provision also applied to male students believed to have had sexual intercourse leading to pregnancy but did not affect married male students. Prior to this guidance, female students who became pregnant were required to seek the permission of the Ministry of Education to re-enter school and then transfer to a different school, leading to high dropout rates; male students were not subject to this requirement. In June 2018 the minister revoked the guidance and announced the establishment of a committee to facilitate the reintegration of students, including pregnant students, who “face any challenges during the academic year.” Reports persisted that, especially in remote areas, pregnant girls were still prevented from attending school.
In 2017 President Nkurunziza signed into law regulations requiring unmarried couples to legalize their relationships through church or state registrations. The Ministry of the Interior subsequently announced that couples who did not marry before the end of 2017 could face fines of 50,000 francs ($27), based on the provisions of the criminal code against unmarried cohabitation and that children born out of wedlock would not be eligible for waivers on primary school fees and other social services. The campaign was subsequently extended into 2018, and there were no reports of the threatened consequences being implemented. Government officials continued campaigns during the year to implement the president’s decree, but as of October the movement had lost momentum and there were no reports that the law was enforced.
Birth Registration: The constitution states that citizenship derives from the parents. The government registers, without charge, the births of all children if registered within a few days of birth, and an unregistered child may not have access to some public services. For additional information, see Appendix C.
Education: Education is tuition-free, compulsory, and universal through the primary level, but students are responsible for paying for books and uniforms. Secondary students must pay tuition fees of 12,000 Burundian francs ($6.48) per quarter; secondary school is not compulsory. Throughout the country provincial officials charged parents informal fees for schooling at all levels.
Child Abuse: The law prohibits violence against or abuse of children, with punishment for conviction ranging from fines to three to five years’ imprisonment, but child abuse was a widespread problem. The penalty for conviction of rape of a minor is 10 to 30 years’ imprisonment.
The traditional practice of removing a newborn child’s uvula (the flesh that hangs down at the rear of the mouth) caused numerous infections and deaths of infants.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18 for girls and 21 for boys. Forced marriages are illegal and were rare, although they reportedly occurred in southern, more heavily Muslim, areas. The Ministry of the Interior discouraged imams from officiating illegal marriages. For additional information, see Appendix C.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The penalty for conviction of commercial sexual exploitation of children is 10 to 15 years in prison and a fine of between 500,000 and two million Burundian francs ($270 and $1,080). The penalties for conviction of child pornography are fines and three to five years in prison. There were no prosecutions during the year.
Women and girls were smuggled to other countries in Africa and the Middle East, sometimes using falsified documents, putting them at high risk of exploitation.
Displaced Children: Thousands of children lived on the streets throughout the country, some of them HIV/AIDS orphans. The government provided street children with minimal educational support and relied on NGOs for basic services, such as medical care and economic support. Independent observers reported that children living on the streets faced brutality and theft by police and judged that police were more violent toward them during the 2015 political unrest than previously. A government campaign begun in 2016 to “clean the streets” by ending vagrancy and unlicensed commerce resulted in the detention of hundreds of persons living or working on the streets. The Council of Ministers approved a roadmap in 2017 for ending vagrancy that would require the return of detained children and adults to their communes of origin. Often when children were returned to their commune of origin, they returned or moved to other cities within a few months. The government established a goal of having no children or adults living on the streets by the end of 2017 but did not meet its goal. Arbitrary arrests and detentions of persons, including children, living on the streets continued.
International Child Abductions: The country is not a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
No estimate was available on the size of the Jewish community. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The constitution prohibits discrimination against persons with disabilities, but the government did not promote or protect the rights of persons with disabilities. Although persons with disabilities are eligible for free health care through social programs targeting vulnerable groups, authorities did not widely publicize or provide benefits. Employers often required job applicants to present a health certificate from the Ministry of Public Health stating they did not have a contagious disease and were fit to work, a practice that sometimes resulted in discrimination against persons with disabilities.
No legislation mandates access to buildings, information, or government services for persons with disabilities. The government supported a center for physical therapy in Gitega and a center for social and professional inclusion in Ngozi for persons with physical disabilities.
The Twa, the original hunter-gatherer inhabitants of the country, numbered an estimated 80,000, or approximately 1 percent of the population. They generally remained economically, politically, and socially marginalized. By law local administrations must provide free schoolbooks and health care for all Twa children. Local administrations largely fulfilled these requirements. The constitution provides for three appointed seats for Twa in each of the houses of parliament, and Twa parliamentarians (including one woman in each chamber) hold seats.
In 2018 a representative of a Twa rights organization stated in the newspaper Iwacu that several Twa had been victims of vigilante killings during the year after being accused, justly or unjustly, of crimes by other citizens. Although the organization did not suggest complicity by government authorities or security services, the representative stated that some local officials had questioned the need for investigating the killings, since the victims were accused of criminal acts. There were sporadic reports of such killings throughout the year.
In 2009 consensual same-sex conduct was criminalized. Article 567 of the penal code penalizes consensual same-sex sexual relations by adults with up to two years in prison if convicted. There were no reports of prosecution for same-sex sexual acts during the year.
The law does not prohibit discrimination against LGBTI persons in housing, employment, nationality laws, and access to government services such as health care, and societal discrimination against LGBTI persons was common.
Criminals sometimes killed persons with albinism, particularly children, in order to use their body parts for ritual purposes. Most perpetrators were citizens of other countries who came to kill and then departed the country with the body parts, impeding government efforts to arrest them. According to the Albino Women’s Hope Association chairperson, society did not accept persons with albinism, and they were often unemployed and isolated. Women with albinism often were “chased out by their families because they are considered as evil beings.”
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions with restrictions. A union must have at least 50 members. There is no minimum size for a company to be unionized. The minister of labor has the authority to designate the most representative trade union in each sector. Most civil servants may unionize, but their unions must register with the Ministry of Civil Service, Labor, and Social Security (Labor Ministry) that has the authority to deny registration. Police, the armed forces, magistrates, and foreigners working in the public sector may not form or join unions. Workers younger than 18 must have the consent of their parents or guardians to join a union.
The law provides workers with a conditional right to strike after meeting strict conditions; it bans solidarity strikes. The parties must exhaust all other means of resolution (dialogue, conciliation, and arbitration) prior to a strike. Intending strikers must represent a majority of workers and give six days’ notice to the employer and the Labor Ministry, and negotiations mediated by a mutually agreed upon party or by the government must continue during the action. The ministry must determine whether the sides have met strike conditions, giving it, in effect, the power to prevent strikes. The law permits requisition of essential employees in the event of strike action. The law prohibits retribution against workers participating in a legal strike.
The law recognizes the right to collective bargaining, but it excludes measures regarding public sector wages that are set according to fixed scales following consultation with unions. If negotiations result in deadlock, the labor minister may impose arbitration and approve or revise any agreement. There are no laws that compel an employer to engage in collective bargaining. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination. The law allows termination of workers engaged in an illegal strike and does not specifically provide for reinstatement of workers dismissed for union activity.
The government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Resources for inspection and remediation were inadequate, and penalties were insufficient to deter violations. Administrative and judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals.
The government placed excessive restrictions on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining and sometimes interfered in union activities. In the wake of participation by union members in antigovernment demonstrations in 2015, unions were subject to similar pressures and restrictions as other elements of civil society. These measures led to a significant reduction in union activism.
Most unions were public employee unions, and virtually no private sector workers were unionized. Since most salaried workers were civil servants, government entities were involved in almost every phase of labor negotiation. The principal trade union confederations represented labor interests in collective bargaining negotiations, in cooperation with individual labor unions.
Most laborers worked in the unregulated informal economy and were not protected. According to the Confederation of Burundian Labor Unions, virtually no informal sector workers had written employment contracts.
In 2015 the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Burundi submitted a complaint to the International Labor Organization (ILO) stipulating that executive committee members of one of its affiliates were unfairly dismissed and that employment contracts were unjustly suspended or terminated. Evaluation of the case was postponed twice, and in June the ILO noted the government’s failure to respond to repeated requests for information.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law prohibits most forms of forced or compulsory labor, including by children. The penalty for conviction of forced labor trafficking was sufficient to deter violations, but the government did not effectively enforce applicable laws. Resources for inspections and remediation were inadequate. Workplace inspectors had authority to impose fines at their own discretion, but there were no reports of prosecutions or convictions.
Children and young adults were coerced into forced labor on plantations or small farms in the south, small-scale menial labor in mines, carrying river stones for construction in Bujumbura, work aboard fishing vessels, or engaging in informal commerce in the streets of larger cities (see section 7.c.).
Citizens were required to participate in community work each Saturday morning from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. Although enforcement of this requirement was rare, there were sporadic reports that communal administrators fined residents who failed to participate, and members of the Imbonerakure or police sometimes harassed or intimidated individuals who did not participate.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor but does not generally apply to children working outside of formal employment relationships. The law states that enterprises may not employ children younger than 16, with exceptions permitted by the Labor Ministry. These exceptions include light work or apprenticeships that do not damage children’s health, interfere with their normal development, or prejudice their schooling. The minister of labor permitted children age 12 and older to be employed in “light labor,” such as selling newspapers, herding cattle, or preparing food. The legal minimum age for most types of “nondangerous” labor varies between the ages of 16 and 18. The law prohibits children from working at night and limits them to 40 hours’ work per week. Although the law does not apply to the informal sector, the Ministry of Labor stated that informal employment falls under its purview.
The Ministry of Labor is responsible for the enforcement of laws on child labor and had many instruments for this purpose, including criminal sanctions, fines, and court orders. The ministry, however, did not effectively enforce the law, primarily due to a dearth of inspectors and inadequate resources, such as insufficient fuel for vehicles. As a result the ministry enforced the law only when a complaint was filed. Fines were not sufficient to deter violations. During the year authorities did not report any cases of child labor in the formal sector, nor did they conduct surveys on child labor in the informal sector.
In rural areas children younger than 16, often responsible for contributing to their families and their own subsistence, were regularly employed in heavy manual labor during the day, including during the school year, especially in agriculture. Children working in agriculture could be forced to carry heavy loads and use machines and tools that could be dangerous. They also herded cattle and goats, which exposed them to harsh weather conditions and forced them to work with large or dangerous animals. Many children worked in the informal sector, such as in family businesses, selling in the streets, and working in small local brickworks. There were instances of children being employed as beggars, including forced begging by children with disabilities.
In urban areas child domestic workers were prevalent, accounting for more than 40 percent of the 13- to 15-year-old children in the country, according to a government survey from 2013-14. Child domestic workers are often isolated from the public. Some were only housed and fed instead of being paid for their work. Some employers, who did not pay the salaries of children they employed as domestic servants, accused them of stealing, and children were sometimes imprisoned on false charges. Child domestic workers could be forced to work long hours, some employers exploited them sexually, and girls were disproportionately impacted.
Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The constitution recognizes workers’ right to equal pay for equal work. The constitution does not specifically prohibit discrimination against any group but rather provides for equal rights. Authorities reported no violations of this equal rights requirement. Much of the country’s economic activity took place in the informal sector, where protection was generally not provided. Some persons claimed membership in the ruling party was a prerequisite for formal employment in the public and private sectors. Members of the Twa ethnic minority, who in many cases lacked official documentation, were often excluded from opportunities in the formal economy. Women were excluded from some jobs, and in 2017 a government decree prohibited women from performing in traditional drumming groups. Persons with albinism experienced discrimination in employment.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The official minimum wages, unchanged since 1988, were below the official line of poverty, but unofficial minimum wages more reflective of labor market forces prevailed. These, too, were below the international poverty line. According to the World Bank, 73 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. More than 90 percent of the working population worked in the informal economy; minimum wage law did not apply to the informal sector, where wages were typically based on negotiation and reflected prevailing average wages.
The labor code limited working hours to eight hours per day and 40 hours per week, but there are many exceptions, including for workers engaged in national security, guarding residential areas, and road transport. Security companies received guidance from the Labor Ministry allowing workweeks of 72 hours for security guards, not including training. A surcharge of 35 percent for the first two hours and 60 percent thereafter must be paid for those workers eligible for paid overtime. Workers are supposed to receive 200 percent of their base salary for working weekends and holidays, but only become eligible for this supplement after a year of service. There is no legislation on mandatory overtime. Breaks include 30 minutes for lunch as a generally observed practice, but there is no legal obligation. Foreign or migrant workers are subject to the same conditions and laws as citizens.
The labor code establishes appropriate occupational safety and health standards for the workplace, but they often were not followed. Many buildings under construction in Bujumbura, for example, had workforces without proper protective equipment, such as closed-toe shoes, and scaffolding built of wooden poles of irregular length and width.
The Labor Inspectorate in the Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing the laws on minimum wages and working hours as well as safety standards and worker health regulations. The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were insufficient to deter violations. The labor inspectors’ mandate is limited to the formal sector except where international agreements extend that mandate to all employment, according to ministry guidelines. The government did not allocate sufficient resources to address enforcement needs, such as that necessary for training and transportation for inspectors.
Although workplaces rarely met safety standards or protected the health of workers sufficiently, there were no official investigations, no cases of employers reported for violating safety standards, and no complaint reports filed with the Labor Inspectorate during the year. There were no data on deaths in the workplace. Workers could leave the work site in case of imminent danger without fear of sanctions.