GENEVA (AP) — The top U.N. human rights assembly approved a resolution on Thursday calling for the quick deployment of experts to Burundi to look into abuses amid spiraling violence in the east African country.
After a U.S.-led diplomatic push, the 47-member Human Rights Council, which counts Burundi among its members, approved the text that calls for the U.N. human rights chief to send in a mission of experts who are to report regularly on the rights situation there.
At least 87 people were killed on Dec. 11 in attacks on military facilities in Burundi's capital, Bujumbura. U.N. officials have expressed fears the African country is headed toward civil war. Burundi has been in turmoil since the April announcement that President Pierre Nkurunziza would seek a third term in office, which he won in a disputed election in July.
Burundi was elected as a member of the Geneva-based Human Rights Council just weeks ago.
"Today's special session is an attempt to prevent — and that's a key word, prevent — mass atrocities by focusing attention and providing expert assistance in the region before it is too late," said Keith Harper, the U.S. ambassador to the council. He said it would add to "pressure" brought through other efforts by the European Union, the African Union and the U.N. Security Council on the Burundi crisis.
The daylong debate among diplomats and advocacy groups was marked by a defense of Burundi's security forces by a government representative, and teary testimony by Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, a Burundian rights advocate. Mbonimpa said he was shot in the face by suspected state intelligence operatives in August.
"The Burundian people lives today, and since the beginning of 2015, with fear in their stomachs," Mbonimpa said in a raspy voice, because his vocal chords were damaged in the attack. "I barely escaped an assassination attempt," he said, recalling that his son and son-in-law were killed weeks later and then wiping his eyes.
U.N. human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein told the council that at least 400 people have been killed since April 26, and nearly 3,500 arrested in the political crisis. He said at least 220,000 people have fled the country.
"The time for piecemeal responses and fiddling around the edges is over," Zeid said.
Zeid called for border controls, a government effort to disarm pro-government militias, efforts to stop the flow of weapons into Burundi, and consideration of "the use of drones" as one way to help monitor frontiers. While Burundi could still block the mission, U.N. officials said they expected the experts will be granted entry.
Elisa Nkerabirori, a representative of Burundi's Human Rights Ministry, spoke on her government's behalf and said the session was called in "haste" and that her government had sought a delay to avoid a schedule conflict with a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Kenya that has drawn many African diplomats.
She said her government praised the "professionalism" of police and security forces to protect innocent civilians.
Speaking later to reporters, Harper responded by saying that "individuals" in those security forces "tied people's hands behind their backs and shot them. I don't consider that professional — maybe she does."
U.N. officials fear the violence in Burundi could take an ethnic turn in a country with a large Hutu majority and Tutsi minority — like neighboring Rwanda.