Burundi shutters UN rights office: Bachelet

AFP , Tuesday 5 Mar 2019

Burundi has closed a UN human rights office that has been operating in the country since 1995, UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Tuesday, vowing that the UN would continue monitoring violations there.

"It is with deep regret that we have had to close our office in Burundi after a 23-year presence in the country," Bachelet said in a statement.

The Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said the office was shut down on February 28.

Bachelet noted that the UN rights office in Burundi was set up in 1995 amid massive human rights violations perpetrated in the country after the assassination of president Melchior Ndadaye.

"The Office helped ensure the incorporation of a human rights dimension... which was the bedrock of the country's stability for many years," the statement said.

It stressed that the Burundi office had played a leading role in establishing the emergence of strong civil society organisations.

"Unfortunately, many of these human rights gains have been seriously jeopardised since 2015," Bachelet said.

Burundi has been caught up in crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza sought a third term in office in 2015, provoking civil unrest that left at least 1,200 dead and displaced over 400,000 people.

In October 2016, the Burundi government suspended all cooperation with the office following a report by the UN Independent Investigation in Burundi established by the UN Human Rights Council.

And two years later, in December 2018, the Burundi government requested the closure of the office.

According to the UN, the government maintained that it had made sufficient progress in creating national mechanisms to protect human rights, eliminating the need for the UN office.

For more than two years, the "UN human rights staff were severely hampered in their ability to look into allegations of violations" because of the lack of cooperation, Bachelet said.

Her office said however that it continued to receive allegations of serious rights violations in the country, including killings, enforced disappearances and threats.

Spokeswoman Ravina Shamdasani told reporters that between early 2016 and September 2018, the office had received 1,050 allegations of arbitrary arrests and detentions.

"I am disappointed by Burundi's lack of cooperation in recent years with UN human rights mechanisms - which even went so far as to include threats to prosecute members of the independent international Commission of Inquiry established by the UN Human Rights Council," Bachelet said.

She lamented that many rights defenders and civil society actors have been detained or forced into exile.

"Even as our Office in Burundi closes, we will continue to explore other ways to work to shed light on human rights concerns and support the advocacy, promotion and protection of human rights in the country," Bachelet said.

She said the Bujumbura government had expressed readiness to work with the UN rights office in Geneva after the closure of the Burundi office, and urged it to also cooperate with other UN bodies.

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