On the night of November 6th/7th 2005, Aloys Nzabampema, a senior FNL commander and suspected war criminal, was arrested by Burundian authorities in Bujumbura.
He was reportedly found to be in possession of a number of UN uniforms
when he was arrested. This discovery has raised concerns among many Burundians about a possible compromise of the neutrality of the United Nations mission to their country.
The FNL has carried out a systematic campaign of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Burundi, killing and torturing hundreds if not thousands of civilians, many of them children. Although they have systematically targetted Tutsi civilians, many innocent Hutus and Twa have also been attacked and killed.
Any suggestion of improper links between the UN and the FNL is therefore a source of particular concern to the thousands of Burundians who have lost loved ones at the hands of the group.
At a press conference several days after his arrest, Nzabampema was brought in front of the media by the Burundian authorities. He told journalists that he had obtained the UN uniforms from a Burundian person working for the South African contingent of the United Nations peacekeeping force. This claim has led to a further serious deterioration in relations between the UN's office in Burundi (ONUB), and the wider Burundian general public.
The UN Secretary General's Special Representative to Burundi, Carolyn McAskie, while condemning the FNL's illegal appropriation of UN uniforms, has also criticised some members of Burundi's independent media for accusing ONUB of improper links with the FNL.
The campaign for the prosecution of Agathon Rwasa (CPAR) understands the UN's concern that a worsening of relations between them and the Burundian public may put the security of UN peacekeepers at risk.
But we also believe that Burundi's fledgling independent media must be free to scrutinise the UN's operation in their country and, where necessary, to question and criticise those activities. No organisation, even the United Nations, should be seen to be beyond such scrutiny in Burundi.
It seems particularly unfortunate that ONUB has attacked the Burundian media at a time when its own conduct has been called into such serious question. The illegal procurement by the FNL of UN uniforms is, at the very least, a serious security lapse by the ONUB office. ONUB should therefore, at the very least, apologise for this lapse, rather than lashing at those who have raised concerns about it.
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN's guiding document, states that:Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
The Burundian independent media plays a vital role in safeguarding democracy and exposing human rights abuses. Burundi's courageous independent journalists have been repeatedly attacked, imprisoned and in some instances killed simply for reporting the truth.
We are concerned that ONUB's attacks on Burundi's independent media, which is still heavily reliant on international donors for its survival, may deter legitimate scrutiny and criticism of UN activities, and thus be detrimental to freedom of expression in Burundi. The United Nations should be seen to be upholding the right to freedom of expression, not trying to curtail it.
The campaign for the prosecution of Agathon Rwasa urges swift action to restore full confidence in the United Nations mission to Burundi. ONUB's internal investigation is a good start, but it's not enough. Any suggestion of ONUB complicity with the FNL must be thoroughly and comprehensively investigated by an independent authority. Criminal charges must be brought against any ONUB staff found to have engaged in illegal activity. Appropriate disciplinary measures must be taken against any ONUB staff found to have been negligent in preventing such illegal activity. Burundi
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