The life of a human rights defender in Burundi

Christine Vaufrey

Today is Human Rights Day, commemorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The day provides a chance to recall the aspiration to a universal human dignity set out in this document, to face up to contexts where this aspiration is being torn apart and, more than just to feel outrage, to take action.

Indeed, action is the focus of Human Rights Day for the United Nations in 2016. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights is promoting the call to action of Eleanor Roosevelt and people are being encouraged to #Standup4HumanRights in their own homes and communities:

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. […] Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”

But what it means to stand up for human rights depends on where those homes and communities are. And in Burundi, standing up means at the same time risking imprisonment and torture. It means risking your own life.

“So it is you who works with Human Rights Watch?”

In Burundi, this is not a question asked in a tone of admiration. It is a threat, made to any who are investigating human rights abuses in the country. Read: mind your own business or get hurt.

The country is going through a period of conflict and displacement. Political divisions were brought into violent relief by the decision of President Nkurunziza to stand for a contested third term in office early in 2015. Since then reports have emerged of mass killings, targeted assassinations, arrests without charge, torture and sexual violence used as a weapon of war.

Those who seek to challenge such abuses put themselves at great personal risk. Journalism has long been a difficult profession in Burundi, with a law forbidding reporting thought to “undermine national security, public order or the economy” in place since 2013. Now the suppression of media has been particularly vehement. Radio stations have been burned down. A prominent journalist has been missing since July, others have had to flee the country.

But there are those who remain able to monitor, scrutinise and act on violations of human rights. A network of individuals operating across Burundi are every day producing reports on areas where violence is escalating, on disappearances, on wrongful arrests, on massacres.

They are Burundi’s Citizen Reporters. In the face of a growing information vacuum left by a retreating media, a network of local NGOs began a training programme to give Burundians from every region in the country the skills to assess and report on potentially dangerous disturbances and rights violations. Their testimony, which is logged and cross-checked, provides an invaluable account of the consequences of the unrest in Burundi.

But why they truly exemplify the UN’s call to stand up for human rights is that the reporters not only risk arrest or worse to shine a light on human rights abuses, they confront them. In the last year, Citizen Reporters have directly intervened in 483 incidents of violence or abuse. They assist too in the investigation of arrests or disappearances, accompanying families of missing persons to the police or military and act as witnesses when these families seek information.

And in a context where requests for such information are met by threats and violence, it is in these “small places” that the impact of these human rights defenders is felt most. In places where individuals facing rights violations have neither the spotlight of the media nor the support of a legal advocate, the company of a Citizen Reporter can mean the difference between a beating and justice.

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