Ottawa warns Burundi about meddling after speech downplays human rights abuses

'Any attempt by Burundi authorities to move the debate to Canada would be a regrettable, useless and ill-timed distraction,' says Global Affairs Canada.

International observers are alarmed over ongoing crackdown on opposition groups in African country

In April, Burundi nationals from across the U.S. and Canada, along with supporters, demonstrated outside U.N. headquarters, calling for an end to political atrocities and human rights violations unfolding in Burundi under the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza. (The Associated Press)

The federal government is warning Burundian authorities against attempting to sow discord within the diaspora community in Canada.

Global Affairs Canada issued a sternly worded statement following a controversial event last week in Quebec City, at which a senior member of the current Burundian government spoke.

In an address at the conference, Willy Nyamitwe, a communications advisor to President Pierre Nkurunziza, said reports of human rights abuses by Nkurunziza supporters are overblown.

International observers have grown alarmed about an ongoing government crackdown on opposition groups in Burundi. The United Nations and several rights groups have documented numerous cases of torture and extra-judicial killings in the East African country.

Human Rights Watch has said abuses have also been committed by armed opposition groups.

"I wanted the Canadian opinion to hear another part of the story about Burundi, because some news stories are really biased about Burundi," Nyamitwe told CBC News following his July 30 speech.

But Global Affairs Canada cautioned the Nkurunziza government about trying to use Quebec's large Burundian expatriate community as political leverage.

"Canada was not officially informed of which participants were to take part in the Quebec City meeting," Global Affairs said in a statement to CBC News.

"However, any attempt by Burundi authorities to move the debate to Canada would be a regrettable, useless and ill-timed distraction."

Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion in the House of Commons. His department, Global Affairs Canada, issued a sternly worded statement directed at the Burundi government. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Controversial participants

Besides Nyamitwe, the Quebec City meeting featured a number of other supporters of the Burundian government, including controversial Belgian activist Luc Michel, who in the past has been associated with far right political parties.

The meeting was dismissed as "government propaganda" by Richard Moncrieff, Central African Project Director with the International Crisis Group, a think tank that monitors violent conflicts.

"It's fairly clear that it wasn't meant to be a balanced perspective," Moncrieff said.  

"The government at the moment doesn't tolerate proper debate and difference of opinion. It just wants to have people echo back its own point of view at the moment."

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza being sworn in for a third term at a ceremony in the parliament in Bujumbura, Burundi in 2015. (Gildas Ngingo/The Associated Press)

But those who attended the meeting said it was an important opportunity to share information that is often left out of media reports.

"Hutus didn't invest in media when they came to power," said Marie Banyankindidagiye, an audience member who described herself as a Hutu, the largest ethnic group in Burundi.

"They need to have more of their voices heard in international media instead of all the lies."

Undermining cordial relations?

Relations within the Burundian diaspora in Canada are generally cordial in spite of political and ethnic differences, said Charles Makaza, who heads the Alliance des Burundais du Canada, a group aligned with the opposition.

"What we observe is two distinct groups: one that is pro-government, one that is anti-government," Makaza said.

"What they do is they separately organize events where the other side can come or not come, but I wouldn't go as far a saying there is high tension."

But Makaza is also concerned that meetings like the one held in Quebec City could undermine relations between the two groups. He wants Ottawa to ban similar meetings from taking place in the future.

Long-running crisis

Burundi has been in the throes of a prolonged political crisis since Nkurunziza announced last April that he will seek a third term as president, which many argue is a violation of the peace accords that helped end a decades-long civil war in 2005.

Rising tensions have prompted fears Burundi could slide back into a civil war pitting its ethnic Hutu and Tutsi communities against each other. The previous conflict claimed an estimated 300,000 lives.

Jean Claude Niyonzima, a suspected member of the ruling party's Imbonerakure youth militia, pleads with soldiers to protect him from a mob of demonstrators after he came out of hiding in a sewer in the Cibitoke district of Bujumbura, Burundi, Thursday May 7, 2015. Niyonzima fled from his house into the sewer under a hail of stones thrown by a mob protesting President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek a third term in office. (Jerome Delay/The Associated Press)