(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • If UN is to be credible, it must act on Burundi before it's too late

    The Burundian government carries the primary responsibility for protecting its citizens from crimes against humanity, but instead it’s the main abuser.

    A UN Commission of Inquiry reported last month that the security forces, the intelligence service, and the ruling party militia bare the greatest guilt for two years of killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, disappearances, and sexual violence in Burundi.

    With the government unwilling to protect its population, it falls to the international community to provide that shield.

    But although Burundi remains on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Security Council in New York, the reaction by the world body has so far been insufficient.

    During the most recent session of the Human Rights Council last month, two resolutions on Burundi were adopted.

    The first, led by the European Union, extended the mandate of the commission of inquiry – set up to investigate human rights abuses – for a further year. It received support from two African member states, Botswana and Rwanda.

    The second resolution was a last-minute bid by the African Group, which sought to discredit and dismantle the panel of inquiry launched by the Human Rights Council in 2016.

    It called for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to send three separate experts “to engage with the Burundian authorities and all other stakeholders”.

    Burundi has promised to cooperate with those experts. But the likelihood they will have any real impact is in doubt given Burundi’s past refusal to cooperate with UN initiatives that seek an end to the crisis in the country, which pits President Pierre Nkurunziza against an opposition that claims his rule is illegal, and demands his ousting.

    For example, in July 2016, the UN Security Council authorised 228 police officers to monitor the security situation. The resolution was an attempt to salvage the reputation of the Council, which needed to be seen as doing something. However, due to government opposition, the police officers were never able to deploy.

    Following the outcome of the Human Rights Council meeting last month, it is unlikely that the Security Council will take strong action – such as targeted sanctions – despite Burundi rejecting its legally-binding resolutions.


    Divided UN


    In New York as in Geneva, Burundi remains one of the most divisive issues. Some Security Council members – primarily China, Russia, and Egypt – see the situation as an internal human rights affair rather than a peace and security issue.


    The position of those who want the Security Council to be more engaged on human rights issues, led by the United States, is sharply opposed by those who want the Council to remain focused on more traditional security matters.


    All members of the Security Council are waiting to take their cues from African states – primarily Burundi’s neighbours – Tanzania and Uganda.


    Given the relatively strong African consensus in Geneva opposing what is characterised as outside interference, and the ongoing – although stalled – mediation efforts led by the East African Community, those members of the Security Council interested in stronger action are unlikely to push for that in the current climate.


    Despite the new UN secretary-general’s focus on crisis prevention, the case of Burundi shows how difficult it is to implement prevention measures in specific cases.


    The Human Rights Council has no way of enforcing decisions and relies on the cooperation of UN member states, including Burundi. The Security Council is unlikely to act until a situation has already spiralled out of control and threatens international peace and security.


    On the ground, three scenarios could jolt the Security Council into action.


    The first could be an escalation of attacks from outside Burundi, such as by the Democratic Republic of Congo-based rebel group, the Popular Forces of Burundi. The FPB’s leadership recently vowed to increase attacks. This would likely intensify the violence and could even lead to civil war in the long term.


    The second scenario could centre around the more than 400,000 refugees in neighboring countries. Tanzania, which hosts almost 60 percent of fleeing Burundese, has already reached a deal with Burundi and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, which will see the repatriation of almost 12,000 refugees, many of whom want to leave ill-equipped camps.


    If the refugee flow does not stop, Tanzania may change course and ask the Security Council to do something.


    A third scenario could see an intensification of internal division within the ruling party, which would likely see a deterioration of the security situation, especially if an attempt is made to prevent Nkurunziza from running for a fourth term.


    All three of these scenarios would pose an even greater risk of mass atrocities. If the UN is serious about prevention, it must take credible action on Burundi now before it is too late.


    TOP PHOTO: Burundi police on patrol


    If UN is to be credible, it must act on Burundi before it's too late
  • International action needed over Burundi now

    Two years ago, President Pierre Nkurunziza ignited a political crisis in Burundi when he announced that he would run for a controversial third presidential term. Thousands of people were killed, disappeared, and tortured in the violence that followed, and more than 417,000 have fled the country.

    Human rights violations remain systematic and widespread. But because they today occur on a smaller scale than in late 2015 and early 2016, they largely escape the attention of the international community. That is a mistake.

    The preconditions remain for mass atrocities. The trigger could be Nkurunziza’s apparent willingness to amend the constitution and run for a fourth term in 2020. The African Union, the United Nations, and the East African Community should work together now to compel the president to find a political solution to the conflict.

    Roots of the crisis

    The current political crisis was sparked in April 2015, when the former rebel group and now ruling party CNDD-FDD announced that Nkurunziza would run for a third presidential term. Despite opposition over the constitutionality of the move, Nkurunziza’s bid was confirmed in a controversial interpretation by the Constitutional Court.

    Nkurunziza was re-elected in July 2015 in polls that were deemed neither free nor credible by the UN. He now appears intent on consolidating and retaining power at all cost. This includes amending the constitution’s presidential term limits and the ethnic power-sharing quotas enshrined in the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement that ended the 1993-2005 civil war.

    Now Nkurunziza has hinted that he may run for a fourth term in 2020, arguing that the will of the people is “above the judiciary”

    Now Nkurunziza has hinted that he may run for a fourth term in 2020, arguing that the will of the people is “above the judiciary”. The government has authorised a commission to review the constitution, but none of its 15 members who were appointed in May have a background in constitutional law.

    Furthermore, the commission is under the direct oversight of the president’s office, raising concerns as to its independence. Its proposed draft amendments are expected by the end of the year.

    To long-term observers, the decision to review the constitution does not come as a surprise. The CNDD-FDD has never been a supporter of the Arusha agreement and refused to sign. It objected, inter alia, to ethnic power-sharing quotas between Hutu and Tutsi – the two main ethnic groups in the country.

    The constitution guarantees an ethnic balance of, at most, 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi in both decision-making roles and within the public administration.

    The army too has benefited from an ethnic balance following the end of the civil war and has been seen as a stabilising force in Burundi. The army’s contribution to international peacekeeping missions has afforded Burundi both prestige and much-needed funds.

    However, according to a recent report by the International Federation of Human Rights, the army is now slowly being purged of Nkurunziza’s opponents, both real and perceived. These changes to the constitution and the army are dangerous.


    Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza at a commemoration for the country's 53rd year of independence.
    Burundi Government

    Underlying risk factors

    Burundi presents many underlying risk factors that, if triggered, could lead to mass atrocities. Burundi’s post-independence is replete with episodes of large-scale violence, which is one of the most reliable predictors of future mass atrocities.

    The state structures seem unable to counter human rights violations; the judiciary is tightly controlled by the government, and state organs – most notably the police and the National Intelligence Agency – are among the main perpetrators of violence.

    The CNDD-FDD’s armed youth militia, the Imbonerakure, appear to be ready and willing to escalate the violence. The Imbonerakure have already created a climate of fear and intimidation, referring to their opponents as “lice” and “dogs” and taking part in the human rights violations. Neither civil society nor a free media are able to counter these trends, suffering from severe restrictions and repression.

    International response

    It has become apparent that Nkurunziza has few scruples over the ethnicisation of the conflict. In the absence of his commitment to Arusha, a carrot-and-stick approach involving the African Union, the UN, and the regional East African Community may compel the president to the negotiation table to find a political solution.

    The AU initially reacted strongly against the deteriorating situation in Burundi. On 17 December 2015, at the height of the violence, the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) recommended the deployment of 5,000 troops with or – if necessary – without the government’s consent.

    Many saw this as a realisation of Article 4(h) of the AU’s Constitutive Act, which allows it “to intervene in a Member State… in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”. The PSC had hoped to force the government to the negotiation table. However, in light of Nkurunziza’s warning that any deployment would be met by force, the AU Assembly was split and ultimately did not endorse the decision.

    The AU has since withdrawn from engagement on Burundi. In its stead, the UN Security Council authorised 228 police officers in July 2016 to monitor the security situation. The government again refused and the decision has not been implemented. In September of the same year, the UN Human Rights Council mandated a commission of inquiry for Burundi, but the commissioners were denied entry.

    More on Burundi:

    Neglected but not over

    Who are the Imbonerakure?

    Scars deepen as fear rules

    Burundi's walks away from International Criminal Court

    Urgent measures needed

    In light of the government’s refusal to cooperate with the AU and UN, when it meets to discuss Burundi this week the Security Council should impose asset freezes and travel bans against those who threaten Burundi’s peace and security.

    This decision would be in line with action taken by the European Union, the United States, and Switzerland, which have imposed targeted sanctions on a number of individuals. The EU has also suspended direct financial assistance to Bujumbura.

    The UN must also continue its contingency planning in case the situation deteriorates. It is currently “ill-equipped to mount the type of peace enforcement operation that may be required in the event of mass atrocities in Burundi,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres noted earlier this year.

    The Human Rights Council should suspend Burundi’s current membership during its next regular session in September. It is unconscionable that as a member of the council, Burundi refuses to cooperate with its mechanisms and fails to uphold the human rights of its population.

    The punitive measures taken by the UN will hopefully encourage the president and his government to re-engage with an East African Community-led mediation effort, which is trying to find a political solution to the conflict.

    While the talks appear to have stalled due to the government’s refusal to negotiate with the political opposition, a new round has been scheduled for later this month.

    Nkurunziza’s visit to Tanzania last week (his first trip outside of Burundi since a failed coup attempt in May 2015) to meet with Tanzanian President John Magufuli may revive the government’s commitments to the talks. Magufuli is thought to be one of the few regional actors with influence over Nkurunziza.

    As the crisis is inherently political, only a political solution can end it. However, it has become clear that the international community must compel Nkurunziza to find a negotiated settlement to prevent any further deterioration.

    (TOP PHOTO: Protesters raise their hands in front of police in the Musaga neighbourhood of Bujumbura, Burundi, on May 4, 2015)

    International action needed over Burundi now

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