FILE - This is one of the Ebola treatment centers set up in Monrovia, Liberia, by the aid group Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières.
FILE - This is one of the Ebola treatment centers set up in Monrovia, Liberia, by the aid group Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières.

Aid groups are decrying Burundi’s decision to suspend nongovernmental organizations, amid ongoing concerns about human rights violations in the country.

The action by Burundi’s National Security Council stops the work of groups such as Doctors Without Borders and Catholic Relief Services, both of which deliver vital health care to some of the country’s most vulnerable people.

“It is NGOs that provide services to the population and fill the gaps of the government services in health and education that are not provided by the government,” said Nicolas Agostini, the representative to the United Nations for Defend Defenders, a Ugandan NGO that advocates for human rights activists across East Africa.

“So the impact is clearly on the people of Burundi who have already borne the brunt of the crisis,” Agostini said.

Political turmoil has gripped Burundi since 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he’d run for a third term, defying critics who said he was constitutionally limited to just two. Since then, security forces and the youth wing of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure, have targeted opponents and perceived opponents with arrests, rape, torture and killings, according to Human Rights Watch.

Members of the Imbonerakure pro-government youth m
FILE - Members of the Imbonerakure pro-government youth militia chase after opposition protesters, unhindered by police, in the Kinama district of the capital Bujumbura, Burundi, May 25, 2015.

Last month, a United Nations commission of inquiry said the ongoing rights violations in Burundi may amount to crimes against humanity.

Amnesty International denounced the move to suspend NGOs. “The measures announced are vague and amount to heavy-handed state interference into the internal affairs of nongovernmental organizations,” said Sarah Jackson, Amnesty International’s deputy director for East Africa, the Horn and the Great Lakes.

“This repressive measure follows increasing restrictions on civil society space and should be reversed immediately,” Jackson added.

Legality questioned

Some have questioned the legality of the decision.

“Burundi’s National Security Council has no legitimacy to suspend international NGOs, because NGOs operate under a protocol with the foreign affairs ministry,” Dieudonne Bashirahishize, a lawyer representing a dozen Burundi civil society organizations in exile, told VOA’s Swahili service.

FILE - Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza arriv
FILE - Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza arrives for an independence day celebration in Bujumbura, July 1, 2017.

The suspended NGOs will have three months to prove they have complied with the new rules, said Burundi’s minister of the interior, Pascal Barandagiye.

Barandagiye met with delegates of the organizations Tuesday and outlined the conditions they must fulfill to resume operating. NGOs must deposit money in the central bank, sign an agreement with the foreign affairs ministry, agree to support the government’s national development plan and adhere to ethnic quotas when recruiting employees.

Bashirahishize said the demand for racial quotas is politically motivated.

“According to Burundi’s constitution and the Arusha peace deal signed in 2000, ethnic quotas should be observed only in political and security institutions such as the government, the parliament and the army. This condition can’t be applied to international nongovernment organizations,” Bashirahishize said.

Burundi is made up mostly of people from the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups. Animus between the groups fueled a 12-year civil war that ended in 2005. The country had made progress in healing racial wounds in the decade after the war, but in recent years, racial strife has returned in the midst of the ongoing political crisis.

“It seems the government is trying to enforce ethnic-based quotas for NGOs with, I think, 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi. Which might be an attempt to further ethnisize the crisis, and which is very concerning,” Agostini said.

Agostini also criticized the Burundian government’s demand that NGOs sign a cooperation agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It’s the hallmark of a government that seeks total control of its population. Any independent voice is targeted,” he said.

Earlier this year, Burundi banned VOA and the BBC weeks before a referendum on constitutional changes to further extend Nkurunziza’s presidency.