Burundi: hate speech and high-risk elections in the midst of a pandemic

Press release
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Paris – Nairobi – 18 May 2020. In the run-up to the presidential, legislative and communal elections to be held on 20 May 2020 in Burundi, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and its member organisation for Burundi, Iteka, the Burundian League for Human Rights, warn on the risk for health and the risk of an outbreak of violence, as incidents and arrests have been mounting for several days during a very tense election campaign. As these elections will, once again, be held in an almost entirely closed environment, we call on the international community to redouble its vigilance and to remain seized of this high-risk situation and warn the Burundian authorities against any acts of violence.

The election campaign in Burundi has taken place in the midst of an international Covid-19 pandemic, in defiance of the appropriate health security rules. Political rallies and public gatherings have drawn large crowds, while very few measures have been put in place to counter the spread of the virus in a country where health services remain weak and ill-equipped.

The recent decision of the Burundian authorities to declare some of the members of the World Health Organization (WHO) office, including its country representative, persona non grata, with the obligation to leave the country before 15 May 2020, is a worrying sign.1

"The Burundian regime, isolated on the international scene, has decided to hold elections at any cost in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis, at the risk of seeing the pandemic explode at the regional level. Considering how tense the campaign has been—full of violence and inflammatory rhetoric—the country risks sink into deadly clashes as soon as the results are known," said Anschaire Nikoyagize, President of the Burundian Human Rights League ITEKA.

For the period between 27 April and 10 May 2020, Iteka was able to document the death of 12 people, including killings, torture of six people, one case of gender-based sexual violence, the abduction of four people who are still missing, and the arbitrary arrest of nearly 90 people. These acts were allegedly committed mainly by police and intelligence officers and members of the Imbonerakure, the militia of the ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). Most of the victims are reportedly members of the main opposition party, the National Council for Liberty (CNL), which recently stated that 200 of its activists have been imprisoned since the beginning of the campaign.2 There have been regular clashes between CNL and CNDD-FDD activists, resulting in several injuries and deaths.

Irresponsible hate speech and incitement to violence punctuated the election campaign, raising fears of large-scale violence as soon as the results are announced on 4 June.

At public meetings, administrative representatives called on the Imbonerakure militia to "chase away" members of the CNL party if the ruling party won the elections.3 At the opening of the presidential party’s election campaign, members of the party had already sung songs with particularly aggressive and threatening content against opposition parties and movements.4

The presence of large numbers of civil society representatives in exile, as well as the recent quarantine measures imposed by the authorities upon entry into the country, make election observation difficult if not impossible at the national, regional and international levels, raising fears of the worst for the running of elections.

Given this deleterious context, FIDH and ITEKA call on the political parties and leaders in contention to show restraint and to refrain from any hate speech that could potentially ignite an already explosive situation.

Our organizations also call on the Burundian authorities to take all necessary measures to protect the health and lives of its citizens during the electoral process, to release opponents and other persons arbitrarily arrested and detained, and to bring to justice those responsible for violations committed during the electoral process.

Lastly, we call on the international community, and more specifically the African Union, to be very vigilant about the electoral situation, including the health situation, in Burundi, and to take the necessary action against those responsible for violations and for any act that undermines democracy in the electoral context, including through individual sanctions.

Press Contact:

Eva Canan
Press Officer | Attachée de presse
FIDH | International Federation for Human Rights
+33 6 48 05 91 57


Since 2015, voting in Burundi has been synonymous with repression and violence. The last presidential election in April 2015, in which the current president in power since 2005, Pierre Nkurunziza, was re-elected, marked the beginning of a serious political, security, humanitarian and human rights crisis in the country. In a context already marked by protests and repression, a presidential referendum was held in May 2018 to amend the Constitution to allow Mr Nkurunziza to run for a fourth term. Shortly thereafter, Mr Nkurunziza decided not to run for re-election in 2020, and a candidate from the ruling party, Evariste Ndayishimiye, was chosen in January 2020.

Thus, since 2015, civic space has been greatly reduced in Burundi, and serious human rights violations have been committed with impunity by representatives of the ruling regime and its Imbonerakure militia. Serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, targeted killings, enforced disappearances, torture and sexual violence, as well as arbitrary arrest and detention, have been committed. Violations of civil liberties, including freedom of expression and association, were also perpetrated and many political opponents and members of civil society were forced into exile.

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