Burundi: in state of fear, education union is targeted by government violence

(Original article: Education International, Dec. 14, 2015)

The international community is offering support to Burundi’s education union as the country’s government has gone on a rampage of violence against civil society over the past weekend.

With what has been described by Human Rights Watch as the most serious incident since the start of the crisis in Burundi in April, the numbers of killed and executed during the weekend raises to at least 87, according to the BBC. This level of violence against civil society and the “enemies” of the regime has put the affiliate of Education International (EI) in an even greater risk than the one it already faced during the past months.

Under government surveillance since April 2015, the Education International (EI) affiliate Syndicat des Travailleurs de l’Enseignement du Burundi (STEB) faced another severe blow as recently as December 7, when authorities ordered the closure of the union’s bank account. This will have a direct impact on the union’s field activities,in a national context where teachers and students need a voice.

Since political turmoil erupted this spring many representatives of Burundi’s civil society, including some STEB leaders, have been forced to seek refuge both within the country and abroad.  At least 250 teacher unionists have fled so far and a STEB regional secretary has been incarcerated since 6 July. On 18 November, Refugee International (RI) released a field report on internally displaced persons in Burundi.

The report says that “the vast majority of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), of whom RI interviewed are professionals working in civil society, independent media, and medical and education professions. They fled after multiple threats, arrests, torture, and even the rape of female family members – actions allegedly carried out by different security actors, including police and Imbonerakure. Refugee International collected testimonies of how these IDPs were subjected to various forms of violence resulting from their actual or perceived political views.”

Living in a state of fear

The STEB provides the same account as the RI report: “Almost all of the active leaders of civil society, who are not in exile, hide in terror. Those who are caught are killed or abducted to be tortured or raped. Their bodies are thrown into the street or in mass graves. The lucky ones are imprisoned,” said one official who preferred not to be named.

The current President of STEB, Mrs. Eulalie Nibizi, who has lived in exile since May 15, 2015, has faced harassment several times in the past for her uncompromising commitment to teacher rights. Education International has submitted her name for the Arthur Svensson Trade Union Rights Award.

Union activism

Through committed activism, the union has won many achievements through tough negotiations and strike actions. Among notable many notable wins, the union has obtained a Teacher Housing Fund with subsidies from the state and from education workers, career development opportunities for all civil servants and has brought an end to school fees for the children of teachers. The union’s success is now in question as the government instils fear.

International solidarity

Education International is going to submit allegations of the abuse to both the African Union and the European Union. The EU has launched a consultative process on Burundi regarding human rights violations under the article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement.  Last November, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2248 strongly condemning increasing killings, torture and other human rights violations in Burundi. The UN Security Council stated its intention to consider “additional measures” against all actors whose actions and statements impeded the search for a peaceful solution to the crisis.

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