Alarmed by Burundi media curbs, UN human rights office reiterates call for free and fair elections

Mothers line up to register their children in Rwanda after fleeing their native Burundi. Photo: UNHCR/S. Masengesho

1 May 2015 – The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has expressed its deep concern about measures taken this week by Burundian authorities to seriously curtail rights to freedom of expression and assembly, urging measures to ensure the space necessary for the conduct of free and fair elections in the country.

“The reported use of live ammunition by intelligence and security forces during protests is particularly alarming and we urge the authorities to ensure that international standards, including the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, are fully respected,” said spokesman for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) Rupert Colville today.

Mr. Colville noted that hundreds of people have also been detained since demonstrations began on April 26 after the country’s ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) party nominated Pierre Nkurunziza as its presidential candidate, and that according to one credible report, more than 400 individuals are being held in extremely overcrowded conditions, with detainees having to sleep standing up.

“Detainees have also been beaten, particularly on their feet and buttocks, with some of those released having trouble walking due to the beating,” he told a press briefing in Geneva today.

“With the electoral campaign due to officially begin in just nine days, we call on the authorities to ensure the space necessary for the conduct of free and fair elections,” he said.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also expressed concern today about the situation in Burundi, as some 26,000 people have fled violence in the country seeking safety in neighbouring Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Tanzania.

Among recent developments is a communications clampdown, under which platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Viber and WhatsApp having been blocked by authorities, and Radio Publique Africaine shut down. Humanitarian actors are concerned that a media and communications blackout could serve to fuel rumours and further fan an already high level of anxiety among the population.

“Restricting independent coverage by closing radio stations, curbing live coverage of protests and curbing the use of social media will not succeed in quashing dissent,” Mr. Colville said today. “Freedom of expression and the right to information must be protected.”

He also recalled that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, had stressed during his visit to Burundi two weeks ago that “criticism is a vital element of democracy, not a threat that must be crushed. The right to freedom of expression and opinion is enshrined in international treaties ratified by Burundi, and the Government is obliged to uphold those treaties.”

The numbers of persons killed stood at least six persons, and one soldier shot dead, according to the local Red Cross.

UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac said the agency was coordinating with the UN human rights office about verification visits to prisons in the capital, Bujumbura, and was auditing the number of schools that had closed because of insecurity in the municipalities of Bujumbura.


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