Since Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans last spring to run for a third term, the tiny East African country has been rocked by civil unrest. Close to 300,000 people have fled Burundi as refugees and, according to the U.N., some 500 people have been killed.
The Burundian government claims the third term does not violate the constitution; Nkurunziza’s opponents say it does. Since the violence began last year, Burundi has repeatedly refused outside interference; state officials at first threatened to treat peacekeepers like an invading army. Then, this week, authorities blocked the arrival of three U.N. human rights investigators who were due to visit Burundi.
And on Wednesday, 94 of Burundi’s 110 national assembly lawmakers voted in favor of a plan to withdraw the country from the International Criminal Court. The decision was then unanimously approved by the senate, and now waits only for the president’s approval.
In a phone call Wednesday, Burundian Ambassador to Washington Ernest Ndabashinze told Foreign Policy that his government is “very happy about that, because we have seen the ICC manipulated by some countries.”
“It sounds like the ICC was created just for Africans when there are other cases in the world, but no one is working on that,” he said.
Since its creation in 1998, no nation has voted to withdraw itself from the ICC. But assuming Ndabashinze speaks for Nkurunziza’s administration, it sounds like the president is prepared to give the legislation the green light.
“It’s in the past for us,” the ambassador told FP on Wednesday. “We are not a member of the ICC now.”
The United States has repeatedly expressed concern about human rights in Burundi, where refugees have accused security forces of hunting down government opponents, executing them in the streets, then throwing their bodies in mass graves. Earlier this year, Amnesty International published satellite imagery they said indicates the existence of those graves — claims that the Burundian government has vehemently denied.
On Wednesday, State Department spokesman John Kirby said at a press briefing that the United States is “concerned by recent developments with regard to Burundi’s human rights situation, including the Burundian government’s announced decision to proceed with legislation that would lead to withdrawal from the International Criminal Court.”
“Such a move…would isolate Burundi from its neighbors and the international community at a time when accountability, transparency, and engaged dialogue are most needed,” Kirby said.
But the United States itself is not a member of the ICC. That point was not lost on Ndabashinze, who scoffed when asked whether Burundi sought U.S. advice on the court decision. “How do you want us to consult the U.S. when the U.S. is not a member of the ICC?” he asked.
Burundi is one of a number of African nations to express concern that the only ongoing cases at the ICC involve Africans, which they see as purposeful targeting of the continent’s leaders despite human rights violations taking place elsewhere. Ndabashinze told FP that while Burundi may be the first to vote to leave the ICC, the international community can expect other African nations to follow. According to the Associated Press, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon would need to receive a letter from the Burundian government requesting to leave the court, and Burundi will not be able to leave until a year from the date that letter is received. Ban’s spokesman told the A.P. he has not yet received such a letter.
As for those banned human rights investigators? “The three people had been decried as persona non grata,” Ndabashinze said. “Instead of making an investigation, they were there to advance regime change.”
Photo credit: AFP / ONESPHORE NIBIGIRA