On 15 May 2014, the President of the Republic of Burundi promulgated a legislative act establishing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), to address the violations committed during the country’s troubled history. The new act will determine the mandate, composition, structure and functions of the TRC. The intention is for the TRC to establish facts regarding the multiple violations of human rights from Burundi’s independence in 1962 to 2008, when the latest ceasefire agreement was signed.

The establishment of a TRC process is an integral part of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Accord, signed in Tanzania in August 2000, between the conflicting Burundian parties. The significant role that South Africa played in Burundi’s peace and reconciliation process cannot be overstated. First, the leadership and charisma of the late Nelson Mandela, and other South African leaders, was paramount to the successful signing of the Accord. Secondly, the deployment of South African troops to protect the returning Burundi politicians was seen as a crucial step to creating new political institutions based on power-sharing arrangements between former belligerents. The first protocol of the Arusha Accord established the basis for the implementation of the process of transitional justice. It showed the principles and measures that could reinforce the fight against impunity of crimes, the way the social injustices could be addressed in Burundi and among these was a recommendation on the creation of the TRC.

The TRC process is intended to establish a permanent historical record which will raise the awareness of Burundians about their past. It is anticipated that the recovery of the truth will lay the foundations upon which sustainable reconciliation, including reparations, can be achieved. According to the Establishing Act, the aim of the TRC will be to create a space for all the victims and perpetrators of crimes committed during the recurrent conflicts to know the truth about the past and to express what they have experienced.

Unlike neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi does not have that many visible massacre memorials. Photographs of victims of Rwanda's 1994 genocide displayed at the Gisozi Genocide Memorial Centre. Photo: Radu Sigheti/Reuters

Unlike neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi does not have that many visible massacre memorials. Photographs of victims of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide displayed at the Gisozi Genocide Memorial Centre. Photo: Radu Sigheti/Reuters

According to the new Act, the TRC will advise the government of Burundi on the implementation of an effective and genuine process. The Commission will also be in a position to request the government of Burundi to make reparations for victims when the financial means allow.

One of the serious challenges the reconciliation process is likely to face is the land issue. This problem is linked to the return of refugees who are demanding land for cultivation. The scarcity of land will ignite new waves of community-based conflicts which can easily become a stumbling block to the reconciliation. In fact, in many cases reconciliation will be highlighted by the willingness of the settlers to give back the land to returnees.

While the adoption of the TRC Act is a new and positive development in the implementation of the Arusha Accord provisions, and after a decade long period of waiting, the United Nations (UN), civil society and political actors from the opposition remain skeptical about the possible results of the creation of the TRC in Burundi under the leadership of the incumbent regime. Civil society and the UN are two of the stakeholders who convened the Tripartite Committee that organized and conducted national consultations on transitional justice in Burundi in 2010. This Tripartite Committee is currently not associated to the decision-making process on this issue.

The process leading to the elaboration and the adoption of the TRC Act has been controversial. Between 2012 and 2013, the Burundi Parliament called for contributions from the civil society and views of political actors and religious organizations. A few recommendations have since been incorporated into the Act. The approach raised a lot of concerns especially from the civil society and from the political opposition who felt excluded from the process. When it was time for the adoption of the Act, the members of parliament from the opposition parties – the Union pour le Progres National (UPRONA) and the Front pour la Democratie au Burundi (FRODEBU-Nyakuri) decided to boycott the sessions. Finally, the TRC Act was adopted by 81 members of parliament, composed of members of the ruling party, the Conseil National pour la Defense de la Democratie – Forces Nationales pour la Defense de la Democratie (CNDD-FDD) out of 106 from the National Assembly.

Today, there are concerns that the CNDD-FDD is trying to control the process from the top down, at the expenses of other interested parties. The civil society and political party leaders are particularly concerned by the process of electing the TRC commissioners in a process that may be under CNDD-FDD control. If there is no agreement on how the selection of commissioners is to be handled, there is a risk of a flawed process and compromised results, which will undermine efforts to promote peace in the country.

Burundi

The opposition and the civil society organizations criticized the TRC Act for not incorporating a judicial mechanism to prosecute perpetrators. However, such a proposal to combine judicial and non-judicial mechanisms (which the TRC is) from the CSO and the opposition is problematic. The example of the Sierra Leone TRC and its confusion with the Special Tribunal for Sierra Leone, can lead to a lack of clarity among the population as to the purpose of the TRC. The TRC is a non-judicial mechanism, whose primary objective is truth recovery as a means to enable reconciliation in the long-run. A tribunal functions to adjudicate and issue punishment to perpetrators – a function which cannot be undertaken by a TRC. Critics of the establishment of the TRC, such as the president of “Front pour la Democratie au Burundi” Leonce Ngendakumana, argue that it is not even the appropriate time to establishment such an important mechanism. In addition, civil society organizations are concerned with the lack of transparency of the process. For example, after the adoption of the Act, an ad-hoc committee in charge of selecting the commissioners was created but to date its members remain undertermined. This adds to the anxiety felt by civil society members who are demanding more clarity and transparency in the process.

Ultimately, the situation is not as gloomy as skeptics tend to depict. After a long waiting period, the general sentiment is that hope for dealing with the past and pursuing genuine reconciliation is on the horizon. The establishment of the TRC in Burundi is becoming a reality and this is a positive move. Even though the process has been contentious and arduous, this may be the one window of opportunity to establish such a mechanism. The alternative is that no progress will be achieved in the short to medium-term on dealing with the past in Burundi. As one analyst observed “There is never a good time for establishing a Truth and Reconciliation Commission”. In addition, all stakeholders should keep in mind that reconciliation is a process. With such a perspective, it is important that no one withdraw from the process. For those opposed to the way the process is carried out, the best thing to do is not to boycott the initiative. Everyone should be on board as long as the door is open for this possibility, and then use their presence to voice their concerns. If left on the outside of such a process one is less likely to influence the process. The example of the strategic mistake of Burundian opposition parties which withdrew from the 2010 electoral process provide experience in this regard, and it should be a good example of what to avoid.

It is important for the international community to support the reconciliation processes in Burundi to ensure that the incumbent regime complies with international best practice, especially with an emphasis on the inclusivity of all concerned parties. In this regard, given South Africa’s prominent role in the signing of Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Accord, in 2000, it should continue to provide support to the Burundian TRC process. In particular, the South African Presidency and the Department for International Relations and Cooperation can play a pivotal and crucial role in terms of advising the Burundian leadership on the challenges of navigating the path to reconciliation.

This article was originally published by The Institute for Justice and Reconciliation and is republished here with their permission.