Rights group raise alarm after Burundi walkout from UN review

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – Civil society groups on Tuesday decried Burundi’s decision to walk out of a review of its human rights record and voiced concerns about a perceived slide in countries’ cooperation with U.N. bodies.

States’ compliance with legally-binding human rights treaties that guarantee important freedoms are reviewed regularly by the United Nations. But in a rare move, Burundi’s 15-member delegation walked out of a U.N. Human Rights Committee meeting on Monday in Geneva because of the presence of what it called “criminals” posing as civil society members.

The incident follows Nicaragua’s refusal to participate in a torture review and Russia’s absence from two reviews last year, amounting to what U.N. Human Rights chief Volker Turk described in June as “a significant lack of cooperation” with the human rights system.

“There’s a trend and it’s becoming a real problem. Before, states were convinced this was important, but there’s been a recent degradation in cooperation with the U.N. treaty bodies,” Patrick Mutzenberg, Director of the Centre for Civil and Political Rights, told Reuters.

Marc Limon, director of Universal Rights Group, called the incident a “serious escalation”.

U.N. committee member Helene Tigroudja said Burundi’s actions were “deeply regrettable” said she did not have broader concerns about compliance. “The vast majority of state parties to the Covenant fulfil their reporting obligations…” she said.

Burundian lawyer and human rights defender Armel Niyongere said government officials quit the Human Rights Committee a few minutes after it began over his presence at the meeting. Niyongere lives in exile after taking part in 2015 protests.

“It’s a real shame. This was an opportunity for them to express themselves,” he told Reuters. A U.N. document showed that the review, which continued without Burundi, brought up arbitrary detentions of political opponents as well as torture.

“We deplore that the committee could not concede to the Burundi delegation request,” Burundi said in a statement, referring to its call to remove “criminals” from the room.

The HRC monitors the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights – a legally binding treaty that guarantees freedom from discrimination and the right to assembly, among other measures. Iran and Venezuela are among countries up for examination by the same committee in October-November.

(Additional reporting by Hereward Holland; editing by Mark Heinrich)