A group of UN investigators have warned against a looming risk of genocide in Burundi, saying a “general trend of ethnically divisive rhetoric by the government” means that the conflict could spill into other African countries.
“Given the country's history, the danger of the crime of genocide also looms large,” said a Tuesday report by three independent UN experts, adding that in Burundi, some “gross human rights violations have [taken] and are taking place, committed primarily by state agents and those linked to them.”
The UN Human Rights Council tasked the team of the three in January with a probe into cases of rights abuses in Burundi, eight months after violence erupted in the country over a controversial decision by President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third term. Nkurunziza won the votes in July despite fierce opposition and rampant street demonstrations.
At least 1,000 deaths, including 564 cases of executions between April 26, 2015 and August 30, 2016, have been verified, the experts said, adding that torture, sexual abuse and arbitrary detention have happened "on a massive scale."
The experts said they received satellite images as well as testimonies verifying earlier reports about the existence of mass graves in Burundi. They added that security forces have been engaged in targeting civilians and military personnel whose names were on a pre-planned list destined for death.
They said women and girls related to men in the opposition parties had been sexually harassed or abused, while there had been reports corroborating that men had fallen victim to sexual mutilation.
The report warned that Burundi’s "downward spiral is unlikely to be reversed" without dramatic changes from Burundi's government and “robust engagement” from the international community. It added that the crisis could grip other nations in Africa's volatile Great Lakes, a region known for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.
It said the most worrying case was that the government’s ethnically divisive rhetoric carried “a serious potential of the situation spiraling out of control, including beyond Burundi's borders.”
Burundi has slammed the report, saying it shows the UN’s bias and that the investigators have been “politically motivated.”
The Nkurunziza administration said the report and its conclusions were based on anonymous and unverifiable sources.
An estimated 300,000 people were killed during a brutal civil war between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis from 1993 until 2006 in Burundi.