Although the civil war ended in 2006, mass abuses are still a reality in Burundi – in particular since the 2015 political crisis. The shortcomings of the judicial system, the climate of impunity and the fear of reprisal are the main obstacles that hinder victims’ access to their rights. From 2011 to 2023, when it ended its programme in the country, TRIAL International supported the victims of serious human rights violations in their pursuit of justice.

Since its independence in 1962, Burundi has suffered several coups and violent clashes between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority. The murder of the first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, in 1993 triggered a civil war that lasted until 2006 and cost the lives of 300’000 civilians.

A ceasefire agreement had been signed in 2000 between the government and the main rebel groups, but two Hutu factions’ refusal to stick to the peace process led to an escalation of violence. In 2006, the last active rebel group – the National Liberation Forces (Forces Nationales de Libération, or FNL) – signed a ceasefire agreement with the government, thereby putting an official end to the Burundian civil war.

In 2015, the country dived into a new cycle of violence when president Pierre Nkurunziza refused to yield power. Since then, the party in power has imposed a full-on clampdown against free media, activists, political opponents and human rights defenders. Everyday life remains tinted by hardship and fear. This “standardized crisis” has led the United Nations to put together an ad hoc Commission of Inquiry, which since 2016 seeks to document mass human rights violations in the country. The International Criminal Court also opened an investigation in 2017.

What does TRIAL International do on Burundi?

Until 2016, TRIAL International’s staff was allowed to enter the country and liaise directly with victims. After its representative’s expulsion, it had to conduct its work from outside the county, relying on its Great Lakes regional strategy.

©Phil Moore_BDI_Burundi_2587b
Since 2015, Burundians live in a “standardized crisis” ©Phil Moore

Bringing justice to victims

The Burundian legal system has yet to provide an effective response to punish past and present human rights violations, or to prevent future ones. Therefore, TRIAL International litigated the majority of its cases at supranational level – mainly before the United Nations Committee against Torture, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights and the United Nations Working Groups.

All support came free of charges for victims and TRIAL International did not discriminate on the basis of origin, ethnicity, language, religion or gender.


Documenting abuses

Despite being unable to access Burundi, TRIAL International continued to monitor the situation and document ongoing human rights violations. It thereby contributed to making the victims’ voices heard on the international scene, and to keep the Burundian crisis high on the agenda.

In 2017, TRIAL International conducted a fact-finding mission among refugee populations outside of Burundi, with a special focus on sexual violence. Its findings were transmitted to international bodies and mechanisms monitoring the country.

While the current situation hampers the prosecution of those responsible for mass atrocities, it remains paramount that those violations are properly and rigorously documented. Keeping records remains the only way to ensure that victims could one day get justice – either at domestic or international level.


 Capacity-building for local practitioners

TRIAL International offered a range of trainings for local lawyers. Topics included the documentation of sexual violence crimes, bringing cases before international bodies or invoking international treaties in domestic litigation.

Before 2016, TRIAL International would regularly deliver trainings to lawyers in Burundi. With the country’s growing isolation, it remained convinced of the importance of empowering local actors/tresses. For this reason, Burundian lawyers who had been trained in the past were themselves passing on their know-how to their peers. Additionally, cross-border regional trainings were conducted from TRIAL International’s office in Bukavu, DRC.

Closure of TRIAL International’s program in Burundi

At the end of 2023, TRIAL International concluded its decade-long Burundi program, having explored multifold legal and capacity-building approaches since 2011. Exhaustive efforts over the years led to the recognition that available justice avenues for impactful action had been thoroughly pursued and that Burundian lawyers and human rights defenders – trained and mentored by the organization over the years – are capable to carry on the work.

Despite the program’s closure, TRIAL International remains steadfast in honoring the commitments taken with victims and their families, extending support beyond 2023 on pending cases. This commitment encompasses cases pending before national tribunals and international and regional human rights mechanisms, in particular the UN Committee against Torture and the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights.