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Human Rights (Burundi)

Volume 609: debated on Thursday 5 May 2016

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Kris Hopkins.)

I am pleased to see the Minister in his place to respond. I thank the Speaker for granting this debate; it is a privilege to raise in the House the human rights situation in Burundi, which I had the privilege of visiting in 2013 and 2014 and where I received a welcome from the Burundian people that could not have been warmer.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) and I jointly called for this debate, so we are dividing the allotted speaking time between us. I acknowledge with great respect the work that he has already undertaken, including the debate that he secured last December, to which the Minister also responded. It is unfortunate that the matter must be revisited so soon, but the human rights situation in Burundi has deteriorated further since. Indeed, the day after last December’s debate, more than 100 individuals were murdered by Government security forces on the worst day of violence in Burundi since the crisis began.

The crisis started a year ago after President Nkurunziza contentiously announced that he would seek a third term, triggering an unsuccessful coup followed by presidential elections in July 2015 that were declared by the UN as neither free nor fair. As I mentioned, there were major disturbances in December, including fighting on the streets by armed opponents of the President, both Hutu and Tutsi. They mounted an attack on a barracks, after which Government troops moved through the neighbourhoods of the capital that were thought to have supported rebels, reportedly killing as many as 700 people and subsequently transporting them to mass graves in state vehicles.

Since then, while there has fortunately been no repeat of fighting on that scale, killings continue on a regular basis. Weekly reports are coming in of new violence and killings and of the Government adopting a strategy of eliminating their opponents. Grounds for suspicion have been described as razor thin. A scared 15-year-old was killed while simply running away from the police. A cameraman and his family were killed, seemingly in the wrong place at the wrong time. Another victim was a teenage boy selling eggs. Other killings seem not so random, with reports of young men who had opposed the Government being hunted down in a refugee camp some distance from Bujumbura to which they had fled. Of most concern are the reports that people are now being targeted for their ethnicity as well as for their political affiliation, with a disproportionate number of the minority Tutsis being sidelined from Government institutions and with the army, which has recently considerably increased in size, being divided into Hutus and Tutsis. Such reports have increased concern in the international community, and it is right that the House discuss this issue now so that we can add our voices to those calling for help to achieve stability and justice for the Burundian people.

Burundi was already one of the poorest countries in the world before the crisis began. It has the second-lowest income and is highly dependent on external aid, with almost half of the state budget externally financed. However, the suspension of aid flows over the past year mean that the share of the budget accounted for by aid is projected to fall by a third this year. Further economic decline and the redirection of funds by the Government from social programmes to the army have combined to produce a humanitarian emergency that has resulted in severe malnutrition. There are reports that people are beginning to starve. The price of rice has trebled in some areas. Farmers who used to sell vegetables to people on the road can no longer do so, saying that their customers have disappeared, fearful of being out and about. Medical supplies dwindle. Children, who make up half of Burundians, suffer disproportionately as a result of violence, exploitation, and family separation. More than 230,000 people have fled in the past year alone, and that number is increasing. Most have gone as refugees to Rwanda and Tanzania, but some have gone to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda.

In Burundi, people cannot freely move around, given a proliferation of police roadblocks and the chance of being arrested if caught in the wrong place. Alarmingly, there have been reports of hundreds of Burundians, perhaps more—they are often young Burundians; those between their mid-teens and mid-20s—having disappeared or been tortured, reportedly with gun butts, electric cables, bricks or metal rods, with some having even been required to sit in acid. There are reports of girls being raped in front of their parents and of mutilations, such as the removal of genitals and even of hearts. UN human rights records show 600 cases in 2015 and more than 340 during the first four months of this year. Private media outlets have been shut down, and civil society organisations have been closed or banned. Perhaps worst of all, Burundi has become a place of fear. In cities, people fear abductions, torture and murder; in the countryside, they fear hunger, as the economy collapses. Even among the Government’s higher ranks there is a constant fear of assassination, a reality in evidence all too clearly only a couple of weeks ago when a major general in the Burundi army, who had returned to Burundi just three weeks earlier, after a two year-peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, was shot in his car while going to work with his wife and four children, whom he was going to take to school.

Perhaps the biggest fear of all is that this conflict, which has so far been fought on political lines, could divide Burundi on ethnic ones, between Hutus and Tutsis, and lead to new massacres. History has shown that such events can happen swiftly, as in Rwanda in 1994, with the outside world barely noticing until it was too late. To prevent that, above all, is surely why we in this place must sound an alarm and call on our Government to call on the UN and others in the international community to do all they can to step in to secure peace and stability for the people of Burundi.

I know that this Minister and other Foreign Office Ministers understand the severity of the crisis in Burundi, as he has been good enough to speak with me and my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford on a number of occasions. But in the light of the continuing deterioration of the human rights situation in Burundi, may I urge that Ministers press the United Nations to consider the deployment of a substantial UN force to Burundi, as outlined in a letter of 15 April from the UN Secretary-General to the UN Security Council? That would help to monitor the security situation, improve respect for human rights and advance the rule of law. We hope that it would stem any further human rights deterioration and facilitate dialogue toward a political settlement with the Burundian Government, to be conducted free of a climate of violence or reprisal. We hope that this would, in turn, help stem the increasing humanitarian crisis and perhaps facilitate the reinstatement of aid, suspended by some members of the international community following the commencement of these disturbances, as soon as possible. I would appreciate the Minister’s specific response on those points.

I also welcome last week’s statement by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court on opening a preliminary examination into the situation in Burundi over the past year. That shows how grave the human rights situation is there. What further support or contribution can the UK offer to help promote peace, stability and a restoration of human rights for the beleaguered people of Burundi?

Finally, on UK aid, the Government have already provided substantial support for refugees from Burundi, and that is appreciated and acknowledged. In view of the numbers involved, which continue to increase, will the Minister use his influence to ask the Department for International Development to encourage other donors to add their support, and to ascertain what further UK support can be provided? Will the Government confirm that they will also look, on the basis that if the UN deployment that I have referred to achieves its objectives, at the reinstatement of bilateral UK aid to Burundi, which was suspended some years ago? Those of us on the Select Committee on International Development have been calling for that for some years.

I look forward to responses on these points from the Minister, if need be after the debate, given that some of them refer to areas where DFID has authority. I do not wish to sound more alarmist than current circumstances indicate, but they are grave. For those of us who have spent time in the past few years in both Burundi and Rwanda, and know how close these countries are, geographically and in other ways, there is deep concern to ensure that our Government and the international community do all they can to ensure that there is no chance of a repeat of the haunting occurrences in Rwanda in the 1990s.

I am most grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to say a few words in this debate.

We had a debate on this subject on 5 December. The reason for bringing it back is that, although there are, in one or two respects, some improvements or signs of light, things have deteriorated substantially in the most important respects.

I will, if I may, start with the positive. There is in Burundi, a country about which many of us care deeply, a huge amount of work going on behind the scenes by faith groups—again, we are talking about faith groups—and others who are really trying to bring relief to people and to calm things down. There has also been great progress in the engagement of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development. I give huge credit to the Minister for that, as he has taken personal responsibility for the matter. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) has said, the terrible situation continues.

Let us remind ourselves of what UN Security Council resolution 2248 says. It condemns abuses,

“including those involving extra-judicial killings, acts of torture and other cruel, inhuman and/or degrading treatment, arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, harassment and intimidation of human rights defenders and journalists”.

That was last year, but all those things continue. As my hon. Friend has said, there are alarming first-hand reports that the violence has taken on an ethnic dimension. I have come across one or two cases—they include one that is quite close to me, the details of which I cannot go into—that indicate that that is so.

The original Arusha agreement, under which settlement was reached 15 or so years ago after the terrible civil war and partial genocide in Burundi, was designed to tackle ethnic tension and to achieve balance between the communities. For some years, that balance did indeed prevail, and Burundi was held up as an example of the agreement working, but the agreement is now not being respected in so many areas. I urge the Burundian Government and President Nkurunziza to go back to those years when it was respected.

Finally, what can we do? We can support the people of Burundi, as we are doing, through the DFID and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We can support the African Union’s peace work and the former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa who is now in charge of that work. He is a man whom I had the honour to meet several years ago, and who is absolutely committed to this matter. We can urge the acceptance of a proper peacekeeping force. Above all, we can urge the people of Burundi, especially the Government of Burundi, to pull back from the brink.

It is indeed a pleasure to be here at a slightly earlier time than billed. Before starting on the substance of this very important debate, may I pay enormous tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce)? For me, today marks 11 years since I entered this House; for others, it is election day. Going forward, we should name today Congleton day. Looking at the Order Paper, I can see that my hon. Friend had questions for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and for the Church Commissioners. I cannot see on the Order Paper whether she raised anything in business questions—hopefully, at that point she had a short break before having debates on faith organisations and Burundi. It should be Congleton day from 5 May to celebrate this active and effective campaign. I look forward to receiving a copy of her local paper with that quote in next week.

I also pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy). I thank both he and my hon. Friend for phoning me, emailing me, bending my ear in the Lobby, and providing important information from their friends and colleagues in Burundi and from others in the world who have a particular interest in Burundi.

At the outset, I would like to say that I am answering on behalf of the whole of Her Majesty’s Government. The Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (Mr Hurd), and I work incredibly closely on this and all issues. We are one Government, one HMG.

The United Kingdom is playing a leading role in trying to build a strong and coherent international response. I visited Burundi in December 2015 and have consistently urged the Burundian Government, in the strongest terms, to end the violence and engage in inclusive dialogue. We have suspended development aid, as was mentioned earlier. We have also imposed travel restrictions and frozen assets of those who have undermined democracy and fuelled conflict.

In June 2015, the UK appointed a special envoy to the great lakes, Danae Dholakia, who is very active in delivering our messages on Burundi. In fact, I spoke to her yesterday when she was in Stockholm, working with other special envoys. Through the conflict, stability and security fund, we will be increasing our efforts on the ground. These will include deploying a Burundian co-ordinator in Bujumbura. I know that hon. Members present today, and those on the Select Committee, are keen for us to do more on the ground in Bujumbura, and that message is very much understood.

DFID offices in both Kigali and Dar es Salaam have significantly stepped up their analysis and coverage of the crisis, to ensure that they can respond to an evolving situation and increasing humanitarian need as necessary. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary has visited the refugee camps in Tanzania, where we have consistently provided support to refugees, and in fact increased that support. When I was in Uganda, I spoke to UN non-governmental organisations and DFID, which is providing refugee support in that country, as well as looking at the political relationships across the region.

I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton that when I was in Burundi, I met both the UN and human rights organisations in private to hear their detailed concerns, which are not dissimilar from those that hon. Members expressed. In March I addressed the UN Security Council and regional leaders of the great lakes, highlighting the need for urgent action in Burundi. When I visited Rwanda and Uganda last year, I stressed the importance of the countries in the region playing a constructive role. I also met the African Union’s peace and security commissioner, Smail Chergui, in the margins of the African Union summit in January. The African Union is continuing to lead the international response to the crisis. The British ambassadors and high commissioners across the region continue to lobby their host Governments on the importance of taking action to resolve the situation in Burundi, using all parties, be they regional or international.

As this debate has highlighted, the situation in the country remains extremely fragile. The UN estimates that nearly 500 people have died in the past 12 months, and that 280,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, although you will appreciate, Madam Deputy Speaker, that it is very difficult to monitor precise numbers, and actual figures may well be higher. The International Criminal Court has opened a preliminary examination of the violence committed in Burundi to date. We will continue to work with our partners, including the UN Security Council, to promote accountability through every means available.

Burundi was rightly identified as one of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s 30 priority countries in our 2015 human rights report, published last month. The report makes it clear that the human rights situation in Burundi

“poses a threat to the stability of the country and wider region”.

We are extremely concerned about a further deterioration, which is one reason why I welcome this debate and a continued dialogue around the actions that we can take that militate against further deterioration in that conflict.

In recent weeks, there has been an alarming increase in assassinations, with about 30 in April, compared with nine in March. There seems to be a move from indiscriminate to more targeted killings. Most recently, Brigadier General Kararuza and his wife, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton referred, were assassinated on 25 April with their family on the way to school. I thank my hon. Friend for showing me those photos, along with our hon. Friend the Member for Stafford. As harrowing as the photos are, we have a responsibility to see the reality of the atrocities in order to understand what is happening in Burundi. I condemn these killings unreservedly and call on the Government of Burundi to ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice. I will be writing again to the Foreign Minister and, I hope, speaking to the Foreign Minister of Burundi next week to make these points yet again.

Looking beyond the individual tragedy of each death, we are concerned that these events indicate that, far from abating, the cycle of violence fuelled by the Burundian Government is getting worse. Some of that violence is, I think, directed by the Burundian Government and some is conducted by people outwith the direct command and control of the Burundian Government. It does appear that the nightly violence that was a feature of the conflict has subsided. However, this is no cause for optimism, as more and more people have left the country, are not coming out at night or have gone into hiding.

The Burundian Government continue to encourage a climate of fear and intimidation with abductions, disappearances and arrests still commonplace. Some of those people are taken into police custody, but many are being held by the intelligence services in secret detention facilities, without access to due process. Families fear that they will never see their disappeared loved ones again. Recently there has been a small but significant increase in reports of sexual violence—systematic multiple rape organised as a way of punishing and subduing a community.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has indicated that many detainees show signs of torture. There is an increase in torture in Burundi, over and above the initial killings. Reports suggest that torture and ill treatment are not limited to the capital, where the majority of arrests have taken place. A pattern of abuse is emerging across the country. That may be a result of a time lag in our finding out what is happening outside Bujumbura. The Government of Burundi claim that the security forces are arresting only those suspected of serious crimes. I do not believe that that is true, but even if it were, there is no justification for the ill treatment of prisoners, who have the right to expect the state to protect them, and certainly not to pass them on to the Imbonerakure or other third parties who may be responsible for the torture and killings.

I know that many Members are concerned at reports that the violence is increasingly ethnic in nature, and that the spectre of ethnically driven mass violence is hovering over the conflict. Although I share those concerns—there are some indications that ethnicity is an increasing factor—we must steer clear of assuming that the whole conflict is racially motivated. The conflict was primarily political and remains so. My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton explained the history of President Nkurunziza’s attempts to cling on to power for a third term. That was the origin of the conflict. It was not primarily a Hutu-Tutsi conflict. Hutu opponents of Nkurunziza are also being targeted, and initially were targeted in larger numbers, both by the state and by the Imbonerakure, the youth militia, but there is an increasingly ethnic tone to the conflict, which makes the neighbours of Burundi deeply worried and the international community even more worried than we would otherwise have been.

I want to see an end to the conflict and an end to the human rights abuses in Burundi. When I spoke to former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa yesterday, we agreed that the only route to a lasting solution lies in an inclusive political process. I give him my full support in his role as the facilitator of the dialogue established by the East African Community. It is right that we let that dialogue take place, and Benjamin Mkapa is the right person to lead it.

I was disappointed by the postponement of the Burundi dialogue, which was due to take place in Arusha this week. Following my conversations, however, I am encouraged by indications that talks will begin on 21 May. President Mkapa is using the intervening period to bring more people to the talks and to have more bilateral talks before the talks themselves happen.

It is essential that all parties, including people who have taken up arms or who have now left Burundi, are part of the engagement and peace process, because a peace process without all the participants is not a proper peace process and will not lead to peace in Burundi. Everybody needs to be included, and by not engaging in an inclusive dialogue, the Government of Burundi are actively obstructing the national reconciliation process. In my phone call to the Burundian Foreign Minister next week and in my letter to him, I will call on the Government of Burundi to come together with all participants and to allow them in some way, shape or form to be in Arusha for the week of 21 May so that the talks can commence.

It is essential that the talks are based very much on the Arusha accord, but I am flexible about the details of how they take place. Like the rest of the international community, I will follow the lead of President Mkapa when he agrees a strategy for the talks.

We are working with our partners on the UN Security Council to agree a deployment of UN police to Burundi. The force will be tasked with monitoring the situation, promoting respect for human rights and advancing the rule of law—all with the aim of creating conditions that will allow a political dialogue to go forward.

The UN Secretary-General has brought forward three options for the police force. The first is a protection and monitoring force with around 3,000 personnel in uniformed units. The second is a monitoring operation with over 220 officers. The third would involve more of an assessment mission, with 20 to 50 officers working with the Burundian police force to increase its capacity.

The UK Government are trying to seek UN agreement on what should happen, but we want the UN police to work with the African Union’s deployment of 200 military and human rights observers. The monitoring mission will have to go across the whole of Burundi and have an authoritative way to report back to the UN Security Council. Once the mission is in place, there will be the opportunity to scale it up, but it is important that we get individuals on the ground as soon as possible to assist with the mission.

The protection and monitoring option is desirable, but, to be frank, highly unlikely to get the support of the Government of Burundi or, indeed, the agreement of the UN Security Council as a whole. Although this option would be tempting for the British Government, it would take a lengthy time to recruit 3,000 French-speaking officers, and we really need them on the ground now. However, discussions are ongoing in the UN Security Council, and I am more than happy, through parliamentary questions or any other method, to keep the House updated.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford has raised with me specific cases of detention and of people who have died in Burundi. I thank him for doing that, because it has been very helpful. He discreetly did not go into details of those cases, but we are working on them, and we will continue to do so. For anyone listening to the debate who knows about those cases, let me say that Her Majesty’s Government are actively pursuing them. People should find some comfort in that, although it does not immediately provide the certainty that I would like them to have.

Let me assure Members that I am as concerned as they are about the human rights situation in Burundi. The UK Government and our international partners want to end these dreadful abuses and find a peaceful way forward. Only then will the people of Burundi be able to live freely without violence and without intimidation. As I said, I visited Burundi last December. I also visited it way back in 2006, when I met President Nkurunziza. Burundi can be a great country again. It needs our help now, but it has the help and attention of the UK Government.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.