Human Rights Watch report on Burundi highlights election flaws

Human Rights Watch recently released a report on Burundi's summer election that cited election flaws, such as intimidation. International organizations knew about these flaws, but didn't respond.

Sylvain Liechti/AP
Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza, right, casts his vote at a polling station in his hometown of Mumba in Ngozi province, northern Burundi during the elections this summer.

Human Rights Watch recently released a new report on Burundi, the first in-depth look at the country since the debacle of elections this summer.

The reports squarely calls out Burundi's Minister of Interior for illegal crackdowns against political opposition parties, during and after the election, details the disappearance into exile or hiding of opposition leaders; and catalogs so many overtures of authoritarianism that it's hard not to see a trend.

It's also hard to understand the relative international silence on these issues. In the two days before June's presidential election, for example, at least 26 people were arrested, many charged with "inciting the population not to vote" – which does not actually exist as a crime in Burundian law, according to HRW's sources. Just as the presidential campaign was about to begin, all of Burundi's opposition pulled out of the election; the minister of interior then said only political parties fronting candidates were legally allowed to meet. Arrest warrants were issued for two major opposition figures.

And yet, no international organization – not the UN, not the EU, which fronted a major observation mission there – condemned these moves publicly. The UN office in Burundi has gotten a little more vocal in recent months, as the HRW report documents, but relative to the threats, intimidation, and arrests, there's a non-conversation that seems, at best, like indifference.

I was in Burundi in June, during the presidential elections and the craziness that preceded them. I was reporting on the UN Peacebuilding Commission for the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The commission is a new UN body charged with promoting stable peace in post-conflict societies. It is supposed to be, I heard again and again and again in the countries I visited, "aggressively political." It was neither. And until now, neither has anyone else.

There are a lot of reasons for that, and I can't pretend to know many of them. But here, maybe, is one. HRW writes:

Burundians and international observers had hoped that national and local elections—the country’s first since the end of a nearly 16-year civil war in 2009—would consolidate Burundi’s democratic gains and showcase years of successful investment by the United Nations, regional governments, and donor states in moving Burundi from an era of violence to one of multiparty democracy.

HRW's characterization is itself a little grandiose – the first mostly-post-conflict presidential election, much more successful by most accounts than the second one, was in 2005, and it went pretty well despite the holdout rebel group waiting four years to sign a peace deal. And even some of the UN folks I talked to who worked in Burundi then find the idea of the "Burundi success story" naive. But the delusions we create can be powerful.

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