US lifts Burundi sanctions citing progress under Ndayishimiye

By Julian Pecquet
Posted on Thursday, 18 November 2021 19:20, updated on Friday, 19 November 2021 16:41

76th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York City
Burundi’s President Evariste Ndayishimiye speaks at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 23, 2021. Mary Altaffer/Pool via REUTERS

President Joe Biden on Thursday lifted sanctions on Burundi, citing democratic progress over the past 18 months under President Evariste Ndayishimiye.

Then-President Barack Obama had declared a national emergency with regard to Burundi on 23 November 2015 after President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid for a third term sparked a coup attempt and post-election violence that killed some 1,200 people and displaced another 400,000.

The declaration handed the US president executive powers to sanction members of the Burundian government and the opposition, including current Prime Minister Alain Guillaume Bunyoni and Chief Police Commissioner Godefroid Bizimana.

The United States recognizes the positive reforms pursued by President Ndayishimiye, while continuing to press the Government of Burundi to improve the human rights situation in the country and hold accountable those responsible for violations and abuses.

In his executive order terminating the emergency, Biden wrote that the violent situation that posed a threat to the “peace, security, and stability” of Burundi “has been significantly altered by events of the past year, including the transfer of power following elections in 2020, significantly decreased violence, and President Ndayishimiye’s pursuit of reforms across multiple sectors.”

The termination unblocks any US property the sanctioned individuals may have had and lifts the ban on their entry into the United States.

“The United States recognizes the positive reforms pursued by President Ndayishimiye, while continuing to press the Government of Burundi to improve the human rights situation in the country and hold accountable those responsible for violations and abuses,” Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo said in a statement.

“President Biden’s action today demonstrates that, consistent with the findings of Treasury’s 2021 Sanctions Review, we are committed to the use of economic sanctions in coordination with diplomacy and other tools of statecraft towards a clear and specific objective. Further, the United States may ease or remove sanctions when circumstances warrant such an adjustment, including in cases where relevant parties change their behavior.”

Foreign Minister Albert Shingiro has made sanctions renewal a top priority since taking office in June 2020.

He is particularly keen to get the European Union to lift its own sanctions on government officials and reverse its aid freeze imposed in 2015, given the bloc’s economic ties to the East African nation, and reportedly hopes to strike a deal by the end of the year.

Burundi’s new ambassador in Washington, Jean de Dieu Ndikumana, has been lobbying for the executive order’s termination since taking office in late June. He tells The Africa Report that the country greatly appreciates the “great and right decision” made by Biden.

“Due to the significant improvements realized by President Evariste Ndayishimiye and his government, the removal of sanctions … shows how much Burundi is back on track,” Ndikumana says. “Now is a great time to work closely to promote the common interests of our two countries”

Ndikumana adds that Burundi hopes the European Union will follow Washington’s lead.

A coalition of 12 non-governmental organisations including Human Rights Watch urged the bloc not to relax sanctions in an open letter to EU foreign ministers in June. The NGO did not respond to a request for comment about Biden’s decision.

Good omen

The US decision will be seen as a good omen in the EU talks but is also a key win in its own right. The travel restrictions on Prime Minister Bunyoni in particular were seen as getting in the way of his function while harming Burundi’s reputation as it looks to boost international investment in sectors such as tourism, fishing and energy.

While national emergency terminations are rare, Thursday’s decision follows a series of positive signs from the Biden administration.

In June, US Ambassador to Burundi Melanie Higgins told President Ndayishimiye that the US planned to lift visa restrictions on the country, local media reported. US consular officials in Bujumbura had stopped processing most non-immigrant visas in June 2020 after the Department of Homeland Security notified the State Department that Burundi was not cooperating with the US in dealing with its citizens and nationals ordered removed from the United States.

On August 3, the United States terminated the visa restrictions “in recognition of the efforts the Government of Burundi took in the timely return home of its nationals who are subject to final orders of removal from the United States,” a State Department spokesperson told The Africa Report. “We recognise and appreciate the Government of Burundi’s improvements on removals matters.”

In July, the State Department upgraded Burundi to its “Tier 2 Watch List” in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, noting “key achievements” in 2020 and congratulating Burundi for “significantly increasing investigations and prosecutions of suspected trafficking offenses.”

Burundi was previously designated as a Tier 3 country between 2015 and 2020, which restricts the provision of certain non-humanitarian and non-trade related foreign assistance absent a waiver. The US government had also paused most military assistance programs for Burundi as a matter of policy following the 2015 crisis.

“As a result, no security assistance was provided to the government of Burundi [in recent years] – including peacekeeping equipment, training, and support flights for Burundian soldiers serving as AMISOM (African Union Mission to Somalia) peacekeepers in Somalia,” the State Department spokesperson said.

The State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) however provided Burundi with $48.8 million in assistance in Fiscal Year 2021 for democracy, governance and human rights, health, and economic growth programming.

Burundi was one of eight African nations targeted by a national emergency, alongside the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Biden has renewed all the others during his first year in office.

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