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UN fears ‘atrocity crimes’ in Burundi, urges action

map_of_burundiBurundi is at risk of imminent “atrocities” that could lead to a Rwanda-style genocide failing urgent international action, the United Nations human rights chief said Thursday.

Saying Burundi was “on the cusp of a full-blown civil war”, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urged the situation be brought before the International Criminal Court.

“Those responsible for human rights violations and instigating violence should be subject to sanctions, including asset-freezes and travel bans,” he said during a special session on Burundi of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva.

“The situation needs urgent, concerted, decisive attention from the international community,” he said. “The involvement of the International Criminal Court in this regard would be of great importance.”

The warning of a risk of looming ethnic bloodshed came as the 54-member African Union said the continent “will not allow another genocide to take place on its soil,” a reference to the horror in Rwanda in 1994.

The special session at the UN’s top rights body is set to debate a draft resolution tabled by the United States pressing for Zeid to urgently dispatch an investigative team to Burundi, with US ambassador Keith Harper decrying “a climate of fear” in the country.

Elisa Nkerabirori, a representative of Burundi’s human rights ministry, meanwhile slammed Thursday’s special session and accused international actors of “deliberately disguising the reality of the situation in Burundi … and supporting the radical opposition.”

Burundi’s crisis began in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a controversial third term, which he went on to win in July.

At least 400 people have died in violence and more than 220,000 have fled the country of around 11 million since the crisis began, according to UN figures.

Zeid decried the widespread use of torture, arbitrary arrests and “pervasive and long-standing impunity”, pointing out that as many as 68 people had been summarily executed in the country in November alone.

Last Friday, the country saw its worst violence in months, with the government saying 87 people were killed in a single day.

Zeid however stressed that other sources said the death toll was “considerably higher,” and alleged that a number of young men had been pulled from their homes and executed.

– ‘Boiling point’ –
“Last Friday’s events are a shocking manifestation of what happens when a country is at boiling point and ready to tip over with any instigation,” Zeid said.

Adama Dieng, a UN adviser for the prevention of genocide, meanwhile warned that both the government and the opposition were manipulating ethnic tensions in Burundi, pitting Hutus and Tutsis against each other.

“The country appears to be on the verge of a descent into violence that could escalate into atrocity crimes,” he told the council.

He voiced alarm that hate speech and rhetoric is currently being used in Burundi that resembles that seen ahead of the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

Zeid too cautioned that “a frightened, uninformed population, on a diet of hate speech and paranoia, is one that may be recruited to the path of violence by either side of the current political impasse,” warning that the consequences would be “catastrophic”.

The upsurge in violence has raised fears of a return to civil war, a decade after the end of a 1993-2006 conflict between rebels from the Hutu majority and an army dominated by minority Tutsis, which left 300,000 people dead.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also warned this week that Burundi was on ” the brink of a civil war that risks engulfing the entire region.”

He said his envoy Jamal Benomar will travel to the region this week to meet with African Union and regional leaders before talks in Bujumbura on opening up a dialogue between the government and the opposition.

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