The Fearless

Pamela Capizzi advocates for human rights in Burundi. Her organisation TRIAL International aims to create legal precedents for the victims of torture and repression. Not an easy task in war-torn Burundi, especially since she has been unable to enter the country for almost a decade. But Capizzi remains optimistic.

Early on in her career, Pamela Capizzi was determined to work in the Middle East and she decided to learn Arabic. Then came an internship with TRIAL International. She stayed on to coordinate the non-profit’s activities in Burundi and was harrowed by the reports of human rights abuses in the country. With financial support from the zivik Funding Programme, Trail International has been able to help lawyers prepare for trails and provide them with mentoring, enabling them to represent their clients more effectively.

Burundi has been marred by instability for decades. With a population of approximately 11.5 million and an annual average GDP of $270 per capita, it is one of the world’s poorest countries. Violence continues to erupt between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority in particular. In 1966, the military seized power. Six years later, state troops massacred more than 100,000 people in response to a Hutu rebellion. “Burundi has been in a state of permanent crisis since 2015,” says Capizzi. That December, she returned to Europe just hours before unrest plunged the country into turmoil. 24 hours later, and she would have been unable to leave the country anytime soon. But even that narrow escape didn’t shatter Capizzi’s resolve.

In April 2015, Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza announced his bid for a third term in office, which was at odds with the constitution. Civil protests erupted, a subsequent coup failed. Hundreds of thousands have fled the country since, seeking safety in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Tanzania and other neighbouring countries. But peace has not returned. Trial’s 2020 annual report found that the country is beset by a ‘culture of impunity.’

©Magali Giradin

Most cases never go to trial

Yet Trial International remains unwaveringly committed to its mission, successfully fighting for its clients.

In December 2020, a court in the former capital of Bujumbura sentenced a man to life imprisonment for raping an underage girl, who received the equivalent of roughly €500 in compensation. Usually, cases like this are never taken to court. But the victim’s lawyer had received training from Trial International in 2016 and 2017.

With a team of 35 employees, Trial has represented more than 3,100 survivors and trained over 1,500 lawyers across the world. In Burundi, the NGO has developed a three-pillar approach to help rebuild the country’s judicial system. Firstly, it supports the investigation opened by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2017. Secondly, it represents victims in lawsuits and aims to create legal precedents that will benefit as many victims as possible. Thirdly, they offer training to human rights lawyers in their respective countries.

A few years back, Pamela Capizzi used to travel to Burundi herself, usually staying a fortnight to offer training. “What shocked me the most was the divide between excessive wealth and abject poverty,” says the lawyer. Much of the training she has completed herself has focused on preventing and avoiding crises. That doesn’t entail action-style weapons training, though. Working in crisis regions such as Burundi is all about de-escalation, conforming with official orders and, ideally, steering clear of dangerous situations. Cybersecurity and encryption, too, have become crucial issues for legal experts like Capizzi.

Every case in which justice prevails is a minor victory

©Trial International

But the only time Capizzi was able to enter Burundi was in her first year working for Trial. The situation deteriorated in 2016: journalists working for the BBC and Le Monde were denied visas, the country withdrew from the International Criminal Court and Pamela Capizzi’s own visa extension request was rejeced in October 2016. Since then, she has been working from Ghana or the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance. The extensive travel itineraries reflect Capizzi’s personality: curiosity is one of her defining traits.

Trial International is working on twelve cases against Burundi before the African Commission on Human Rights, and 20 more have been submitted to UN committees and the International Criminal Court.

Given its limited resources, Trial International is unable to handle every case it is made aware of. What is more, the ICC only has jurisdiction over crimes committed by state actors, which effectively leaves Capizzi and her colleagues with no leverage to prosecute torture or sexualised violence committed by non-state actors.

Burundi’s judicial system also lacks sufficient funding. Sometimes, there isn’t even enough petrol available for judges to visit a far-away prison. At other times, people in custody are simply forgotten: Pamela Capizzi describes the case of a defendant who has been waiting for a fair trial since January 2016 – the documents relating to his case are incomplete, say the authorities.

Still, Capizzi remains adamant. She started speaking up for the most vulnerable early. As a law student in Milan and Geneva, she worked for the International Red Cross and the United Nations Human Rights Office in Geneva.

That makes it so much easier for me to see the fruits of my labour

These internships equipped Capizzi with a wealth of experience, but: “The United Nations is a huge institution. I never dealt with victims directly, the chains of command are long.” She prefers to meet and train people in their immediate settings. “That makes it so much easier for me to see the fruits of my labour.”

Capizzi is fluent in French, English and Spanish. Her first language is Italian. For the time being, she will keep working for Burundi. One day, though, she wants to fight for justice in the Middle East. To make that happen, though, she knows she’ll have to polish her Arabic first.

She isn’t one to succumb to illusions. For the predictable future, Burundi is stuck in a state of crisis, she says. “This makes it all the more important to establish a culture of human rights and international law in the country. The international community must continue to support the people,” she insists. For her, every case won at court amounts to one small step in the right direction. After all, she is a self-proclaimed optimist. As she explains: “Without that mindset, I wouldn’t be able to do my job.”

©Magali Giradin

About the author

Nathanael Häfner is a financial editor at Zeit Online. He studied social sciences at the Cologne School of Journalism and has worked as a freelance journalist for Süddeutsche Zeitung, taz and Spiegel Online.

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About the zivik Funding Programme

The zivik Funding Programme supports civil society actors worldwide in preventing crises, transforming conflicts, and creating as well as stabilising peaceful social and political systems. With their commitment, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) complement state actors by providing significant perspectives and activities. The zivik Funding  Programme is providing funding for international, national or local NGO projects, which are dealing with civil conflict resolution and peacebuilding efforts.

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