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UN launches high-level probe of Burundi rights abuses

People gather to demonstrate outside the office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner in Bujumbura, against a report by investigators tasked by the UN Human Rights Council with probing rights abuses in Burundi since it descended into violence in April 2015, over President Pierre Nkurunziza's controversial decision to run for a third term. Burundi's government is behind systematic human rights violations, including executions and torture, UN investigators said, warning of the looming risk of "genocide". / AFP PHOTO / Tony KARUMBA

People gather to demonstrate outside the office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner in Bujumbura, against a report by investigators tasked by the UN Human Rights Council with probing rights abuses in Burundi since it descended into violence in April 2015, over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to run for a third term.<br />Burundi’s government is behind systematic human rights violations, including executions and torture, UN investigators said, warning of the looming risk of “genocide”. / AFP PHOTO / Tony KARUMBA

The UN decided Friday to send a high-level team of investigators to Burundi to probe rights violations after a report warned of possible “crimes against humanity” and the risk of genocide.

The UN Human Rights Council voiced “grave concern” at soaring violations seen in Burundi since April 2015 and voted to immediately dispatch a Commission of Inquiry, which it only sets up in rare situations of significant worry.

Currently there are only two other active commissions of inquiry — one for Syria and the other for South Sudan, which descended into war in 2013.

The decision came after a lower-level team of experts reported to the council earlier this month that Burundi’s government was behind systematic abuses, including executions and torture.

They said they could “not exclude that some instances of these gross human rights violations amount to crimes against humanity,” and warned that “given the country’s history, the danger of the crime of genocide also looms large.”

Friday’s resolution called for a one-year investigation into abuses committed since the country descended into violence in April 2015, over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to run for a third term — a vote he won in July.

The resolution was backed by the European Union and passed with 19 votes in favour, seven opposed and 21 abstaining.

Investigators should examine whether the violations “may constitute international crimes, with a view to contributing to the fight against impunity,” the text said.

The inquiry should also aim to “identify alleged perpetrators,” of abuses “with a view to ensuring full accountability,” the text said.

It urged Burundi, one of 47 Council members, to “cooperate fully” with the probe.

But Burundi ambassador Renovat Tabu slammed the text, insisting that dispatching more investigators to his country was “inappropriate and unjustified.”

He maintained that the expert report used as a basis for the resolution “contains falsehoods, lies and manipulations,” and insisted the situation in his country had “normalised”.

Activists meanwhile hailed the resolution, with Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch describing it as “an important step toward ending impunity”.

The violence in Burundi has left more than 500 people dead and pushed more than 300,000 people to flee the country.

The violence has sparked concern over a return to civil war, like the one fought along ethnic lines in the country from 1993 until 2006 between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, which claimed an estimated 300,000 lives.

It has also sparked fear of a wider crisis in Africa’s volatile Great Lakes region, with the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda having been fuelled by similar ethnic tensions.

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