Peaceful Assembly in Burundi: Interview with Human Rights Defender Audace Gatavu


Every summer, ICNL has the pleasure of hosting in our Washington, DC office fellows on the frontlines of civil society law reform. For four weeks, they carry out topical, actionable research relating to the legal framework for civil society in their home countries.

Audace Gatavu, a lawyer, civil society activist, and human rights defender from Burundi was one of three fellows in Washington this summer. At the end of his fellowship, we sat down with him to discuss his research on peaceful assembly, his lessons learned, and his recommendations for progressive reform in Burundi.

What was the topic of your research at ICNL?

The topic of my research was the right to freedom of assembly in Burundi – specifically, a case study of a new Law on Public Meetings and Public Demonstrations that was enacted in 2013. This new law has many, many, many restrictions on the right to assembly.  The most problematic restriction is prior notification – which is, in practice, an authorization. Another restriction is that spontaneous assemblies are banned by the law. There is also a time limitation – you cannot have a demonstration before 6 AM or after 6 PM. Another main constraint that civil society faces is that the review mechanisms that exist according to the law do not have a timeframe within which they must reach their decisions. This is a problem because, for example, their decision can be so delayed that once it is released, the very objective of your demonstration may no longer be relevant.

How has the law been implemented in practice?

The text says prior notification is required, but in practice, it’s an authorization. This can be seen in letters that the administration issues in response to notifications, where they clearly say that the meetings will not be authorized. Also, while the text says that the only legitimate grounds for not allowing an assembly is “public order,” in practice they use some illegal reasons.

An example is a demonstration in support of a human rights defender who was in prison. The mayor of Bujumbura was notified, and in response to the notification, the mayor informed civil society organizations that they cannot have a demonstration when there is a judicial case pending. They said that the demonstration could influence the judge, and it was impossible to have the demonstration.

What recommendations do you have for civil society and donors to improve the situation?

To civil society and donors, I say come together and do advocacy and sensitization so that this law can be totally reformed. This reform is possible.

How will you use your research that you’ve done here in Washington to advocate for change in Burundi and in your own work?

I plan to use this research to sensitize civil society organizations. I will organize workshops so that I can explain how this law does not conform to international standards. I will to disseminate the research to civil society organizations, donors, and everyone who may be interested in this field of research.

What have you learned from your research fellowship?

I have learned that law reform is passed through partnership between civil society and government organizations. I have also learned that an enabling legal framework is very, very important for a country to go ahead in development.