(Formerly called IRIN) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Ten humanitarian stories to look out for in 2017

    While 2016 taught us to expect the unexpected, IRIN’s eyes and ears on the ground have given us an idea of what to look out for in the new year. We can’t promise everyone else will be covering these stories, but here are ten we’ll be watching:

    The impact of Trump

    Since Donald Trump’s election, speculation has been rife about what his presidency will mean for the wider world. His many statements and tweets on the campaign trail suggest that he intends to prioritise domestic and security interests over foreign aid spending and will roll back efforts made during the Obama administration to combat climate change.

    But many in the humanitarian sector have been adopting a glass half full attitude, publicly at least, by pointing out that foreign aid has bipartisan support and Republicans in Congress will oppose any major cuts to foreign assistance. Others are predicting that even if the Trump administration doesn’t significantly cut overall aid spending, it will favour channelling aid through partnerships with the private sector and results-oriented initiatives like the Millennium Challenge Corporation, rather than through traditional recipients like the UN and international NGOs.

    A Trump administration seems likely to allocate less aid to reproductive health and family planning programmes, and funding for initiatives relating to climate change will almost certainly be on the chopping block too. Trump has appointed a number of climate change sceptics to his cabinet, including Rick Perry, who will head the Department of Energy and Scott Pruitt, who will lead the Environmental Protection Agency.

    Venezuela undone

    The oil-rich nation has been unravelling in almost every conceivable way in 2016 – from runaway inflation and empty supermarket shelves to the virtual collapse of the public health sector with the resurgence of previously eradicated diseases like malaria and diphtheria. The government closely guards data on what appear to be steep rises in maternal and infant mortality rates, poverty and malnutrition, but doctors and civil society groups have been monitoring the worrying trajectory.

    With the government of President Nicolas Maduro still in complete denial about the growing humanitarian crisis (let alone accepting some responsibility for it), the downward spiral will only continue in 2017. Vatican-mediated talks between the government and the opposition that started in October have so far failed to yield an agreement to lift the country’s ban on international aid, a change that could alleviate critical medicine shortages.

    Maduro successfully stalled a recall vote that would likely have unseated him in October 2016. Under Venezuela’s constitutional rules, should Maduro lose a referendum in 2017, he will still be able to hand over power to his vice president and keep the United Socialist Party in power. With a political solution virtually off the table, more social unrest seems inevitable in 2017. Increasingly, Venezuelans will be forced to cross borders in search of livelihoods, healthcare and affordable food. Look to Brazil and Colombia, who will likely bear the brunt of this growing forced migration.

    Yemen’s downward spiral

    A small sliver of the world is finally paying attention to Yemen. That’s in part due to activist campaigns pushing the United States and Britain to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, not to mention the Saudis’ grudging admission they had used British cluster bombs in the war (followed by Britain’s statement of the same).

    But the war and humanitarian catastrophe marches on. Despite assurances by the Saudi-led coalition that they take great care to avoid collateral damage – to IRIN no less – there have been attacks on markets and funerals, and now more than 4,300 civilian deaths since the war began last March. And that’s only what the decimated health system can count.

    family and tent
    Mohammed Yaseen Ahmed Ibrahim/IRIN
    3.3 million people are displaced in Yemen

    Peace talks don’t offer much hope. The UN-backed peace process – already a set of negotiations between elites that didn’t take into account the reality on the ground – is going nowhere, and Houthi rebels have set up their own government.

    And now, Yemen is at serious risk of sliding into famine. Before the war, the country relied on imports for 90 percent of its food. With the economy in tatters, importers are finding it hard to bring in what the country needs, and families simply don’t have the cash to buy food.

    The post-Aleppo future of Syria

    The final fall of the last pocket of resistance in east Aleppo, with fighters and civilians evacuated outside the city, was major victory for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. But it does not signal the end of the war or the suffering. Rebels still control the province of Idlib and much of Deraa, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have Afrin in the north, while Turkey appears to have territorial ambitions. Plus there’s so-called Islamic State, resurgent in Palmyra and still in control of Raqqa.

    Aleppo also marks yet another failure for diplomacy. The last round of Geneva talks seems a distant memory, and while a new ceasefire brokered by Russia and Turkey appears to be holding in some parts of the country, the truce doesn’t include all rebel groups. If this deal doesn’t pave the way for planned peace talks in Kazakhstan and full-scale violence begins again, it’s not clear where al-Assad will take the fight next. But it seems likely that the siege tactics that have typified the war will lead to more local truces and evacuations.

    Once again, this year looks bleak for Syria’s civilians – those bussed from Aleppo are headed into warzones in the middle of winter, joining the 6.3 million civilians already displaced into their own country.

    Myanmar’s Rohingya – a long-running crisis and a new insurgency

    There are few groups as persecuted as the Rohingya. During decades of military rule, Myanmar’s generals gradually stripped away most of their rights, including citizenship, and imposed the apartheid system they live under today.

    About half a million Rohingya have fled across the border during attacks on their communities over the past decades, but Bangladesh doesn’t want them either and refuses to even register them as refugees. The last few months of 2016 saw a new wave of migration over the border as Myanmar’s military allegedly carried out widespread abuses of civilians in the wake of attacks by a new insurgent group.

    Myanmar’s heavy-handed approach is unlikely to crush the group, known as Harakah al-Yakin [“Faith Movement” in Arabic]. In fact, there is a good chance that by targeting the civilian population, the military will drive more youth to join the insurgency. So far, the insurgents have targeted only Myanmar security forces and their motivation seems purely local – to push the government to grant the Rohingya citizenship. But there is a danger that international Islamist groups, including IS, could capitalise on the movement, which could threaten regional stability.

    Genocide and famine warnings in South Sudan

    South Sudan’s descent continues, and it’s likely to only get worse in 2017. The civil war drove 400,000 people across the border into Uganda since a peace deal broke down in July, and there are now more than 1.8 million people internally displaced.

    Ongoing fighting has disrupted farming and made it impossible to provide humanitarian relief in many areas. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization warns: “All available indicators point to an unprecedented deterioration of the food security situation across South Sudan in 2017. The risk of famine is real for thousands of people.”

    The war and competition for scarce resources have also led to the “extreme polarization of some ethnic groups,” warned Adama Dieng, the UN’s special advisor on the prevention of genocide, in November. If that process continues, he said, “there is a strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide.”

    Unfortunately, efforts to pressure the government and rebels to return to peace talks have failed. South Sudan enters 2017 under the shadow of looming famine and possible genocide, and the international community seems unable or unwilling to force leaders to stop fighting before they drive their country into an even deeper crisis.

    Iraq’s displacement crisis

    All eyes are on Mosul – the battle that could finally finish off IS in Iraq. Aid groups warn that as many as one million civilians are trapped inside, and more than 110,000 people have already fled the surrounding areas. But there’s another, related problem, brewing in Iraq. Overall 3 million people are displaced across the country, many from areas controlled or already liberated from IS.

    For Sunnis from Anbar province – from cities like Fallujah and Ramadi – going home is far from a sure thing. Those thought to have ties to IS can’t go home, and are stuck in camps, makeshift shelters, or elsewhere. Ignoring this problem risks radicalisation of a population that already feels scapegoated and has in the past been controlled by both al-Qaeda and IS.

    It’s not just Sunnis at risk here. Some Christians say they are too afraid to go home to liberated villages near Mosul. The Iraqi government can hardly keep the lights on and has focused its limited resources on the fighting. But this shortsightedness comes at the country’s future peril.

    In Afghanistan, more than a million people “on the move”

    It’s been a while since Afghanistan had a good year, but the last one has been especially tough – and it’s set the scene for a disastrous 2017.

    After a decade and a half of “boots on the ground” style warfare, the United States withdrew almost all of its troops. This triggered a surprisingly unexpected economic collapse that the country is still struggling to bounce back from. The past year also saw the emergence a migration crisis that will further complicate any economic recovery.

    Two of Afghanistan’s neighbours, Pakistan and Iran, have been pushing Afghan refugees back over the border in massive numbers, while the European Union signed a deal that made aid contingent upon the Afghan government’s agreement to accept rejected asylum seekers. The first plane carrying Afghans deported from Germany arrived in mid-December. In addition, record numbers of people were internally displaced by conflict in 2016.                  

    Going into the new year, Afghanistan is struggling to support 583,174 people displaced by conflict over the past year, as well as 616,620 people who returned from other countries.

    Andrew Quilty/IRIN
    Outside the UN’s intake centre between the Pakistan border and the city of Jalalabad, in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province

    There’s no sign that the Taliban insurgency will ease up, and efforts at convincing them to talk peace with the government have so far been spectacularly unsuccessful. Afghanistan’s military is also battling other insurgent groups, notably IS, which has emerged as a brutal force to be reckoned with in the eastern province of Nangarhar. Meanwhile, Iran continues to push Afghans back home, Europe is likely to return more, and Pakistan says it will begin forced deportations of all Afghans who have not left the country by March.

    Kabila stays on in Congo

    The political false dawn of 2016, Hillary Clinton apart, was the electoral concession that wasn’t by the autocrat running Gambia. The announcement turned out to be just a ploy by President Yahya Jammeh to buy himself more time to work out how he might extend his 22-and-a-half years in power. But we're also shifting our attention from Africa’s smallest mainland country to its second largest – the Democratic Republic of Congo, where President Joseph Kabila appears to be engaged in similar manoeuvring that has already cost dozens of lives and led to hundreds of arrests.

    Although violent unrest in the Gambia shouldn’t be discounted, the consequences of Kabila clinging to power could be even more disastrous. At the moment, an uneasy truce of sorts seems to be holding. Opposition parties have agreed, in principle at least, to allow Kabila to remain as president until the end of next year, but discussions ahead on a transitional government and delayed elections could quickly unravel. Kabila might also try to amend the constitution again to delay elections into 2018 and beyond. With neighbouring Burundi already in extended turmoil over term limits and memories still fresh of the 1998-2003 Second Congo War that dragged in nine African nations and led to an estimated six million deaths, events in Kinshasa are worth keeping a close eye on in 2017.

    The opposition is weak and, in Kinshasa at least, unarmed, so with little international pressure being brought to bear and the media spotlight elsewhere, the received wisdom is that Kabila will quietly cement his hold on power. But if 2016 taught us anything, it’s to be ready for the unexpected.

    Famine in the Lake Chad Basin region

    In terms of sheer numbers and need, one humanitarian crisis that could overshadow all of the above next year lies in the vast Lake Chad Basin. It has had little coverage by journalists; perhaps more under-reported than any other humanitarian emergency of a similar scale. Despite military progress against Boko Haram extremists, 2016 saw conditions deteriorate fast in this troubled region, where Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria meet.

    Mausi Segun, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, told IRIN that such appalling scenes, including the faces of thousands of starving children, haven’t been seen here since the 1967-70 war with secessionist Biafra. Early warning network FEWS NET says 4.7 million people need emergency food assistance in northeastern Nigeria alone and warned on 13 December that a famine is already likely to have occurred and to be ongoing in remote pockets of the region. Across the border in Chad, conditions are little better – more than 130,000 people displaced by the Boko Haram conflict are scattered around camps, competing for slender resources with vulnerable host communities.

    And it’s not just Boko Haram that is the problem: a combination of human water use and climate change has shrunk the lake itself to a 20th of its original size since the 1960s. The crisis is already enormous and only likely to deepen in 2017.

    People at a food distribution site on Lake Chad
    Ashley Hamer/IRIN
    The majority of people at this food distribution site on Lake Chad hail from the Buduma ethnic group

    (TOP PHOTO: Approaching the militarised “red zone” towards the border with Niger, displaced families in the Lake Chad Basin gather for another distribution of cash handouts. Ashley Hamer/IRIN)

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    Ten humanitarian stories to look out for in 2017
  • The Grinch’s not-so-festive guide to food ration cuts

    Across much of the world, the festive season is a time of indulgence. But what if you’re too busy fleeing violence and upheaval, or stuck in a refugee camp on reduced rations?

    It’s been a hard year for the most vulnerable among us. This is partly due to tightening aid budgets, but it’s also the result of there simply being so many more people in crisis who need help.

    “It's not just a question of falling donor funding; most donors have continued to be generous, providing funds at relatively consistent levels for years,” World Food Programme spokeswoman Challiss McDonough told IRIN.  “But the number of [those in need] is much larger.”

    A prime example is Uganda, where 602,000 South Sudanese refugees are sheltering. As a result of the conflict in neighbouring South Sudan, “we are now supporting nearly twice as many refugees as we were just six months ago”, explained McDonough.

    WFP, as the global emergency food responder, is feeling the strain. “I'd say there are probably very few countries where we have not had to make some kind of adjustment to our assistance plans because of a lack of funding,” said McDonough.

    The following is a not-so-festive guide to where WFP has been forced to make cuts to already minimal food rations in Africa. It includes some non-refugee national programmes, which have also been impacted by funding shortfalls.

    Burkina Faso

    Rations have been reduced and cash assistance suspended for the 31,000 Malian refugees in Burkina Faso. As a result, about a quarter of refugees do not have enough food to meet their basic nutritional needs.

    “Most refugees in the camps depend solely on humanitarian assistance to survive,” said WFP country director Jean-Charles Dei. “When assistance is interrupted or insufficient, the food security and nutrition situation dramatically deteriorate, especially for women, children, and elderly people.”

    Burundi

    Lack of funding has impacted a range of activities targeting vulnerable communities. Food-for-training for Congolese refugees and Burundian migrants expelled from Tanzania and Rwanda has been suspended. The number of children reached through an anti-stunting campaign has been reduced by 70 percent, with the programme halted entirely in Ruramvya and Rutana provinces.

    Cameroon

    Monthly food rations for Central African Republic refugees in Cameroon was cut by 50 percent in November and December. The 150,000 refugees are entirely dependent on international aid.

    In May, WFP also halted its meals programme to 16 primary schools in northern Cameroon due to a lack of funding.

    Central African Republic

    WFP has been unable to assist more than 500,000 people in urgent need of aid and has been forced to halve the amount of food it has provided to those it can reach. Emergency school meals have been suspended in the capital, Bangui, and rations to displaced people in the violence-hit central town of Kaga Bandoro have been slashed by 75 percent. “WFP needs to urgently mobilise flexible contributions to cover for distributions from January onwards,” the agency has warned.

    Chad

    For the past two years, refugees in Chad have survived on monthly rations well below the minimum requirement. For some, the cuts have been by as much as 60 percent. A joint assessment released in November by WFP and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, found more than 40 percent of the 400,000 refugees in Chad are malnourished and the majority of children are anaemic.

    Ethiopia

    Since November 2015, ration cuts have affected more than 760,000 refugees, the bulk of them from South Sudan and Somalia. Although there was an improvement in general food rations from June this year, UNHCR has warned that households still face difficulties. The cuts have, in particular, affected children aged under the age of five, with global acute malnutrition above the 15 percent emergency threshold in 10 out of 22 assessed refugee camps.

    Gambia

    All nutrition and livelihood related activities have been suspended due to a lack of funding.

    Kenya

    In December, WFP cut monthly rations by half for the 400,000 refugees in Kenya’s Dadaab and Kakuma camps. It warned that unless urgent new funding is received, it will completely run out of food by February. Most refugees in Dadaab have already had their rations cut down to 70 percent of June 2015 levels, and UNHCR has warned of a likely increase in malnutrition as a result of the new squeeze.

    Human Rights Watch said in a statement: “Given Kenya’s threat to deport Somalis has already triggered illegal forced refugee return, the UN ([World] Food Programme’s decision to further reduce refugee food rations could not have come at a worse time.”

    Malawi

    Ration cuts to 27,000 refugees meant that at the beginning of 2016 they were only receiving 40 percent of the recommended minimum number of daily kilocalories. Those shortages began six months earlier. By March, only three out of seven food items – maize, beans, and cooking oil – were being supplied. The Dzaleka camp hosts people mainly from the Great Lakes and Horn of Africa regions, with new arrivals escaping unrest across the border in Mozambique.

    Mauritania

    In November, WFP halved food rations to 42,500 Malian refugees. Without fresh funding, it says it will be forced to suspend general food distributions, including cash transfers, from next month. A school meals programme for vulnerable Mauritanian children has also been put on hold and will only partially resume in January.

    Rwanda

    A nationwide prevention of stunting programme for children aged six-23 months, pregnant women, and breastfeeding mothers has been discontinued due to limited funding.

    Somalia

    WFP will “significantly scale down” its livelihoods programmes in December 2016. If no additional resources are confirmed, it will only be able to continue with minimal programmes (mainly nutrition) from February 2017. WFP is targeting 1.4 million vulnerable Somalis in food-insecure areas.

    Uganda

    Rations have been cut by 50 percent for some 200,000 refugees who arrived in Uganda prior to July 2015. Low levels of funding, together with the large numbers of new arrivals fleeing fighting in South Sudan has left WFP workers “with no choice but to re-prioritise their focus on those refugees in greatest need.” The humanitarian response to South Sudanese refugees in Uganda was already severely underfunded even before the latest outbreak of violence in Juba in July.

    (TOP PHOTO: Residents of an IDP camp in North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo receive food rations distributed by WFP. WFP)

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    The Grinch’s not-so-festive guide to food ration cuts
  • Burundi mental scars deepen as fear rules

    She’s watching the road just outside her house, sitting on a tree trunk used as a barricade during anti-government protests last year against President Pierre Nkurunziza. And she’s talking to herself.

    “This person walks like Benny. Even his shirt looks like Benny’s,” she says, her grief heavy, as a man walks past the house.

    Janet Bizimana’s* son disappeared on 19 January, 2016. Her neighbour says that on the 19th of each month she stays up crying through the night.

    Burundi has been through many dark days of brutal violence: its two civil wars and repeated bouts of ethnic cleansing have all left scars in this small, densely populated country.

    And the violence is far from over. For almost two years now, Burundi has been torn by renewed political conflict in which hundreds of people have been killed, and thousands detained and tortured – all creating fresh layers of trauma.

    Opposition to Nkurunziza flared over his decision to run for a third presidential term, which many viewed as unconstitutional. He won the controversial elections in July last year after surviving an attempted coup, and Burundi has teetered on the brink of civil war ever since.

    The conflict, which is in danger of re-opening the ethnic-based fault lines of the past, has forced 327,400 Burundians to flee into neighbouring countries. Burundi has a total population of just 10 million.

    Two narratives

    While Burundian human rights activists say 1,000 people have been killed and more than 9,000 detained since April 2015, the government insists the situation is improving, and was backed recently by the president of the National Independent Human Rights Commission, Jean-Baptiste Baribonekeza.

    "The country is calm; we no longer hear gun shots in the capital,” Baribonekeza was quoted as saying by IWACU English News. “If we visit places of detention, we notice that the number of arrested people has significantly decreased from more than 9,000 in 2015 to about 6,000 today. In general, there has been an improvement compared to last year.”

    President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi. For generic use

    President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi. For generic use
    World Economic Forum/Eric Miller
    President Pierre Nkurunziza won elections in July after an attempted coup

    Mutakura is a low-income district of junior civil servants and small-scale company workers outside the capital, Bujumbura.

    It’s also the home of Bizimana*, the 70-year-old mother of Benny Runyaga*, who was a well-known member of the opposition Movement for Solidarity and Democracy**, a party linked to the rebel RED-Tabara group.

    Related: Who's who in Burundi's armed opposition

    “When the phone rings at home, she’s the first to run to pick it up. She thinks her son will be on the line,” explains a family friend. “It’s the same thing when someone knocks on the door. She tries to be the first to open the door, believing her son will come home.”

    Benny Runyaga was the father of two children. The youngest was born only a month before he disappeared, presumably picked up by the police.

    “The oldest child takes his father’s clothes, lays them out, and calls his mother and says, ‘mum, here is dad’,” explains a neighbour.

    Not knowing whether Runyaga is alive or dead is torturing the family, especially Janet. The neighbour is worried she might need institutional care.

    “Feeding on blood”

    Jane* is also a victim. Her husband, an army officer, died in an attack on their home in Bujumbura. Their four children still ask when he will come back to them.

    “Only the oldest child, who is almost nine, seems to understand what happened to us. Every day, he asks why the world is so mean to refuse him the right to hold his father’s hand,” Jane tells IRIN.

    “Every time we visit his grave he tells me that he’s scared that those who killed my husband can see us.

    “He tells me: ‘They are here, mum; they are following us; they don’t want us to come here. They are animals, mum: beasts feeding on blood.” Her voice is shaking.

    Apart from the emotional impact, the loss of Jane’s husband has had a devastating economic effect on the family.

    “I’ve had to leave the house we lived in before the attack for another, cheaper one. I am not paying the rent because I don’t have a job. Friends, acquaintances, and some old colleagues of my husband are paying for me and the children,” she explains.

    “They are doing it secretly because they are afraid too. We never got the results from the investigation [into her husband’s death].

    “Even old friends of my husband, although members of the security forces, or in defence, are asking about the investigation into his death, like I am.”

    Jane doesn’t want to talk about whether he had any political affiliations.

    Disorders

    Jean-Pierre Ntamatungiro* is a psychologist with a private office in Bujumbura’s city centre.

    “Before the crisis, I was seeing at least three patients with signs of trauma,” he tells IRIN. “Today, I receive nine or 10 every day. Do the maths and you’ll see the number of people we receive every month. It’s a big number for a small country like Burundi.”

    The people who come for counselling are only those who can afford it. Others are left on the streets, and many young people are taking to drugs, the psychologist says.

    “[This crisis] affects young people from all political parties in Burundi: opposition and pro-government alike,” says Ntamatungiro*. “Some of them have developed suicidal tendencies, following what they have seen. There are others who have lost the ability to speak, following what they went through or witnessed.”

    The future

    Last month, IRIN watched three boys playing on the streets of Bujumbura’s southern Musaga district. It’s an area known for opposition to the government, and therefore also for crackdowns by the security forces.

    One of the boys was imitating a policeman. “Get out of your house or I’ll shoot the door,” he commanded.

    Protestors raise their hands in front of police in the Musaga neighbourhood of Bujumbura, Burundi, on May 4, 2015.

    Musaga is known for opposition against the government
    Phil Moore/IRIN
    Musaga district is known for opposition to the government

    Another had a small round stone, which he pretended was a grenade; the third was singing a popular song from last year against the re-election of Nkurunziza.

    They were scattered back to their families by an older man – made uncomfortable by what he was witnessing and the presence of a journalist.

    “They are only repeating what they saw here,” explained a passer-by. “But I have doubts for the future of these children in such a country.”

    * Names have been changed to protect identities for security reasons

    ** An earlier version of this story incorrectly labelled the opposition party the Movement for Solidarity and Justice

    (TOP PHOTO:  Relatives of a student killed in the Jabe neighbourhood of Bujumbura mourn at home in the Burundian capital on June 28, 2015. Phil Moore/IRIN)

    Burundi mental scars deepen as fear rules
  • Top Picks: Nauru, Lebanon, Haiti, the Hague and Geneva

    Every week, IRIN's editors offer a selection of the most important and interesting resources that came on their radar. Here's this week's humanitarian reading list.

    ICC – “a bunch of useless people”?

    Burundi merely threatened, but South Africa has actually delivered the blow against the ICC. On Thursday it lodged an “instrument of withdrawal” at the UN, formally triggering a process that, one year from now, means it will no longer be a party to the Rome Statute.

    The move is significant. Whereas few African states have seemed willing to back Burundi (the government’s self-interest was just far too evident), South Africa is different – it’s a big hitter in the African Union. There may be domestic politics behind South Africa’s decision, clothed in a mantle of higher purpose. And it comes at a time of improving relations between the court and African countries. But before we get ahead of ourselves in condemning of Pretoria, it’s worth re-reading Oumar Ba’s take on the politics of the ICC, and ponder once more how the court’s reputation can be rescued.

    Is Australia torturing refugees?

    If you need more evidence that Australia’s offshore refugee system is, um, problematic, read this new report from Amnesty International. The rights group says conditions in the Australian-run detention centre on the Pacific island nation of Nauru “fit the definition of torture under international law.” Amnesty accuses the government of holding more than 1,000 people “behind a fortress of secrecy” where they face a torrent of harassment and violence. Australia’s Immigration Department quickly released a response accusing Amnesty of using “unsubstantiated claims made by individuals or advocacy groups as fact in the absence of evidence.” However, Amnesty’s researcher is one of the few people that’s been able to visit Nauru to verify such claims. Nauru has refused to grant media visas to organizations willing to pay the exorbitant price of $8,000, which suits Australia just fine. If Australia really believes Amnesty is lying about conditions in Nauru, maybe it should arrange for some journalists to visit and see for themselves.

    Reaching refugee survivors

    Most Syrian refugees in Lebanon don’t live in camps, so reaching them can be tough. Even more so for Syrian women and girls in the somewhat isolated border community of Wadi Khaled, the focus of this study from the International Center for Research on Women. The research zooms in on an International Rescue Committee project that aimed to support survivors of gender-based violence, a problem surrounded by stigma. Staff provided psychosocial support and referrals, but they started slow with coffee, tea and conversation. The study examines what worked and what didn’t – it was a challenge to find spaces where women and girls felt safe and get local communities on board, and sometimes they ended up in tents. And there are limits to referrals for those who will have difficulty accessing them. But the participants interviewed overwhelmingly gave the experience a thumbs up, and there’s clearly something to be said for bringing help straight to those who need it in a sensitive, smart manner.   

    Migration managers

    Migration is high on the agenda again as European leaders met in Brussels today and yesterday. Satisfied that a controversial agreement reached with Turkey and the border closures in the Balkans have brought boat crossings to Greece down to manageable levels, the EU has turned its attention to achieving similar results on the Central Mediterranean migration route. Agreements similar to the one with Turkey - using aid as leverage to secure countries’ compliance in controlling migration - are in the works with at least five major countries of origin and transit in Africa, including Ethiopia, Nigeria and Mali. But a recent analysis by strategic forecasting company, Stratfor, warns that such deals will only be effective if the North African countries have sufficient incentives and capacity to act. Egypt, for example, will need to curb corruption among its police who accept bribes from smugglers and Algeria will have to find alternatives for its nationals involved in lucrative smuggling operations. Libya represents the greatest challenge due to the lack of a fully functioning government for the EU to strike a deal with, or an environment that could be deemed “safe” for returns.

    One (or two) from IRIN

    The blame game on Haiti will swing into action soon. We asked Jonathan Katz, author of "The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster”, how he viewed the preparedness for, and response to, Hurricane Matthew. He's blunt: "no number of emergency aid deliveries or one-off development projects are going to leave Haitians in a position to weather future disasters of any kind." We also looked at how the hurricane response mightrepeat or repair the dysfuncational patterns of foreign aid in Haiti. 

    Also from the Department of Blowing Our Own Trumpet: IRIN officially opened its office in Geneva. If you're in the neighbourhood, drop in. 

    (TOP PHOTO:  A school principal sits among the wreckage of a classroom. His school in Port Salut used to have 253 students, but was completely destroyed by the hurricaneBahare Khodabande/IRIN)

     
    Top Picks: Nauru, Lebanon, Haiti, the Hague and Geneva
  • Burundi walks away from the ICC

    Burundi has become the first country to begin the process of withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, retaliation for the ICC’s decision earlier this year to open a preliminary investigation into human rights abuses.

    President Pierre Nkurunziza signed legislation on Tuesday after lawmakers overwhelmingly voted for withdrawal from the ICC, which the government says backs a regime change agenda, masterminded by Western powers.

    The procedural steps for withdrawal are straightforward: Burundi only needs to write a letter of notification to the UN Secretary General, and then wait a year for the divorce to be formalised. But quitting does not stop pre-existing investigations.

    Burundi's signal of an intent to withdraw may actually act "as an incentive for the ICC to speed up its decision and open an official investigation in the violence in Burundi," noted transitional justice analyst Mark Kersten.

    Political unrest has roiled Burundi since Nkurunziza's controversial decision in April 2015 to pursue a third term. He foiled a coup the following month, and went on to win disputed elections last July.

    Body count

    By the end of last year, the UN estimated more than 400 people had been killed in politically-related violence. According to the conflict monitoring group ACLED, a further 168 people have died so far this year.

    Human rights groups have reported on a pattern of illegal detentions, torture and disappearances by the security forces, who appear to operate with impunity. As a result of the violence, more than 310,000 Burundians have fled the country.

    The ICC announced in April this year that it was opening a preliminary examination into the killings and disappearances, the first step towards a formal investigation.

    The preliminary examination is essentially a desk study. A formal inquiry would involve sending investigators to gather evidence. 

    The government is furious with the ICC, which it accuses of acting as an “instrument” to destabilise “poor countries”. It argued the court’s preliminary examination would encourage “potentially negative forces and their cronies” into acts of violence.

    “Consequently the government considers that maintaining Burundi as a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court cannot be justified,” it said in a statement.

    Governments, including the United States and Canada, have appealed to Nkurunziza not to trigger a formal withdrawal. Local civil society groups, however, have been more critical.

    "The move by the government is because it does not know where to turn,” said Armel Niyongere, who heads the NGO Action against Torture in Burundi. “Those who have committed crimes must answer.”

    No surrender

    But the government has so far resisted international pressure aimed at getting it to mend its ways, and now believes it has shown its resolve by facing down the ICC.

    Despite regional attempts at mediation, Bujumbura refuses to talk to the main opposition coalition, known by the French acronym CNARED, which it labels a “terrorist organisation”.

    It has also frustrated an agreed deployment of African Union military and human rights observers, slashed the number of UN police it says it will accept, and resisted calls to un-ban opposition radio stations.

    The European Union in particular has tried to prod the government into negotiations by withholding aid, on which the government has long been dependent.

    But Bujumbura’s position remains hardline. It points to limited attacks on the security forces by opposition armed groups as evidence it’s battling a violent insurrection, which it alleges is abetted by neighbouring Rwanda.

    If the ICC decides to move forward with a formal inquiry into alleged abuses, a truculent government may well try and block access to the country for the court’s investigators, said Tom Maliti of the New York-based International Justice Monitor, which tracks ICC cases.

    The court can investigate all alleged crimes committed up to one year from the day Burundi deposits its notice of withdrawal at the United Nations. Thereafter, as it would no longer be an ICC member, a case could only be launched if the Security Council refers the matter to the ICC's Office of the Prosecutor. "That's when the politics kicks in," said Maliti.

    “Burundi has been a challenge to the international community since April 2015 [when Nkurunziza launched his bid for a third term],” he told IRIN.

    “The international community has failed to speak with a clear voice. The African Union, Security Council and the EU have all failed to make headway.”

    Fatou Bensouda, new Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC)

    Fatou Bensouda, new Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC)
    UN Photo/Rick Bajornas
    Fatou Bensouda, ICC chief prosecutor

    Paying the price

    Meanwhile, the political crisis is strangling an economy that has never been particularly robust, further affecting people’s standards of living and the delivery of social services.

    Production of Burundi’s main revenue earner, coffee, has been hit by fuel shortages, and it has banned food exports to Rwanda, ostensibly to better meet domestic demand.

    There has also been a surge in cholera and malaria cases this year.

    Alfredo Frojo, director of the Tanganyika Lake Club, a major hotel, said he has had to lay off 90 workers out of a labour force of 240.

    “We rely on foreign tourists, but they don’t come anymore,” he told IRIN. The hotel’s revenue fell by 50 percent last year.

    Business is also being affected by foreign currency shortages. There is now a yawning gap between the black market rate for the dollar, at 2,600 Burundian francs, versus the official rate of 1,670.

    The government blames speculators for the currency shortage, which is helping drive up prices of basic commodities.

    The one step that could ease the economic slump, ending the political crisis, is for the moment defying the leverage of the international community.

    xx/oa/bp

    TOP PHOTO: Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza

    Burundi walks away from the ICC
    President signs law to begin withdrawal from the international court
  • Rwandans feel the pinch as Burundi fallout hits home

    Walking through Kimironko market in Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, you wouldn’t necessarily realise its traders were struggling. Business seems brisk and stalls are overflowing with fruit, vegetables, and huge mounds of dried fish in baskets. But life for some of Kimironko’s traders hasn’t been easy over the past two months.

     

    In late July, neighbouring Burundi banned food exports to Rwanda and restricted movement at border crossings. The step – the latest salvo in a diplomatic spat that began last year when political unrest erupted in Burundi – has left traders like 39-year-old Sabita Silas with produce that is both expensive to buy and hard to sell.

     

    “Nothing is coming from Burundi, and the things that are are very costly because they are smuggled,” he told IRIN. “The oranges we have are from Tanzania. The mangoes are from Uganda. But they are not as good as Burundian fruit. We are very worried about our business because so many things come from Burundi.”

     

    Political dispute turns economic

     

    Tensions between Rwanda and Burundi began to deteriorate when Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced last April that he would stand for a third term. Opponents said he was violating the two-term constitutional limit, while supporters claimed his first term didn’t count as he was elected by parliament and not directly by the people.

     " People from both sides are really suffering because of the political issues."

    The move triggered violent protests across the capital, Bujumbura, led to a failed coup attempt in May, and sparked fears of a return to civil war in a country where a 1993-2006 conflict claimed an estimated 300,000 lives. Nkurunziza was duly re-elected in July after the opposition boycotted the poll. The UN says at least 470 people have been killed in more than a year of unrest, while an estimated 300,000 refugees have fled to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Tanzania.

     

    Rwandan President Paul Kagame – himself standing for a third term – has criticised Nkurunziza, who in return has accused Rwanda of recruiting, training, and arming rebels to overthrow his government.

     

    Although Burundi cites concerns over domestic food security as a reason for the trade ban, according to Phil Clark, lecturer in comparative international politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, it is a sign “of just how strained relations are” between the two countries.

     

    “Up until now, most of the antagonism between the two states has been at a high level of politics,” he told IRIN. “It was either the presidents criticising one another, or it was the expulsion of diplomats. I think that the key shift with this trade ban is that it is the kind of thing that really affects everyday people. Communities on both sides of the border clearly relied on that trade enormously, as does a lot the economy in Kigali and Bujumbura.”

     

    Border business dries up

     

    On a Saturday afternoon in Akanyaru, a border crossing in southern Rwanda, restaurants are empty, traders are absent, and people stumble across the border with suitcases on their heads – the result of a ban on passenger buses, introduced by Burundi to prevent smuggling.

     

    “The last time I crossed this border, it was very busy,” said 39-year-old tourist guide Eric, originally from Bujumbura. “People used to cross the border freely to do small trade. Today, you can see, it looks empty. People from both sides are really suffering because of the political issues.”

     

    At a nearby restaurant, 18-year-old waiter Munyeshema Claude told IRIN that his clientele had vanished over the past few weeks. “Burundian businessmen used to come here after selling their products in Rwanda,” he said. “They would use the money they had made in the restaurant. But Burundians aren’t crossing [any more], so there is no money for them to spend.”

     

    Rwandan goods are allowed into Burundi, but trade had slumped even before the recent ban, with businesses citing increased insecurity. In Kamembe, a town in southwestern Rwanda, an hour’s drive from the border, 34-year-old taxi driver Emmanuel told IRIN he was no longer able to take passengers into Burundi.

    rwanda_border.jpg

    Rwanda/Burundi border
    Philip Kleinfeld/IRIN

    “Even the government of Rwanda advises people not to go there,” he said, referring to local media reports of violence at the border. “Sometimes, people go [to Burundi| and have problems. They get injuries and things like that.”

     

    Uneasy status quo

     

    The possibility of a wider diplomatic crisis will depend to a large extent on how involved Rwanda chooses to get in Burundi’s political affairs, experts say.

     

    As things stand, with Kagame’s bid for a third term and its own 2017 presidential election looming, “the last thing Rwanda wants is for the region to become even more unstable and for Rwanda to have to pour significant political and security resources into dealing with the Burundi situation”, said Clark.

     

    In the wake of the M23 rebellion in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo in 2012-2013 – which Rwanda was accused of supporting – Kigali’s appetite for regional intervention is limited, according to Clark. “If this had been 10 years ago, Rwanda would have been thinking of using proxy forces to deal with the situation,” he said. “In the post-M23 era, Rwanda is very reluctant to do that. It doesn't want to risk relations with donors at an already very vulnerable time.”

     

    Related stories:

     Who are the Imbonerakure and is Burundi unravelling?

    What now for Burundi? Five key risks

     

    Thierry Vircoulon, senior Central Africa consultant at the International Crisis Group, told IRIN that Kagame would be forced to intervene in Burundi in the event of a “large-scale massacre”, but added that the potential for a wider military conflict is currently limited. “Rebel groups in Burundi only have the capacity for local violence… and while there are defections and desertions in the army, it’s not a split,” he said. “At the moment, they are not choosing to stay and fight.”

     

    Whether that status quo holds, remains to be seen. But with the possibility of a resolution to the Burundi crisis looking slim – “the past 12 months of shuttle diplomacy haven’t brought about any significant changes”, said Clarke – relations between the two countries seem unlikely to improve any time soon.

     

    All Claude and his colleagues at the Akanyaru border crossing can do is wait and hope.

     

    “We are praying for the political situation to become stable, so our business can get back to normal,” he said.

     

    (TOP PHOTO: At Akanyaru border crossing people carry suitcases over their heads. Credit: Philip Kleinfield/IRIN)

     

    pk/oa/ag

    Rwandans feel the pinch as Burundi fallout hits home
  • Briefing – who’s who in Burundi’s armed opposition

    A year after President Pierre Nkurunziza controversially decided to stand for a third term in office in Burundi, more than 1,150 people have died in political violence, according to conflict tracking NGO ACLED.

    Burundi is becoming increasingly polarised – with a growing armed opposition, the disappearances of government opponents, torture, summary detentions, and controls on the media. Hardliners in the government appear determined to abandon the Arusha accord – a power-sharing agreement between Hutu and Tutsi elites that ended a 13-year civil war.

    “By using ethnically-charged rhetoric and demonstrating an obvious desire to bring the democratic consensus of the Arusha accord to an end, the regime has ruptured its relations with part of the population,” the International Crisis Group said in its latest report. Already 250,000 people have fled the country.

    Burundian society has shown fortitude, resisting the pressure to fracture along ethnic lines. Opposition to Nkurunziza is broad-based. But longstanding ethnic cleavages exist in the opposition, and “the regime’s current strategy of repression (alleging a Tutsi conspiracy, breaking up the security services and creating units loyal to the regime) has revived fears of genocidal violence,” said ICG.

    Nkurinziza refuses to talk to the opposition alliance known as CNARED, although it is recognised by the African Union and regional governments as the government’s dialogue partner. CNARED includes armed groups under its umbrella.

    The worst violence so far was in December 2015 in the capital, when gunmen carried out coordinated attacks on military bases in Ngagara, Musaga, and Mujejuru. At least 87 people were reportedly killed. Police retaliated with raids throughout Bujumbura. Dozens of civilian bodies were discovered in mass graves in the days and weeks afterwards. But the violence is not one-sided: at least one mass grave has been discovered in opposition areas.

    In the absence of constructive talks, armed violence and the threat of full-blown civil war increases. As different opposition outfits proliferate, here’s a snapshot of the main insurgent groups:

    The National Liberation Front: FNL

    FNL, the military wing of the pro-Hutu PALIPEHUTU, has been operating in the lawless southern Uvira area in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo for well over two decades. In 2013, leader Agathon Rwasa lost out in a power struggle, quit the bush, and returned to the political scene in Burundi. The FNL is under the command of Aloys Nzabampema; its political leader is Isidore Nibizi.

    President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi. For generic use

    President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi. For generic use
    World Economic Forum/Eric Miller
    President Pierre Nkurunziza

    The FNL escalated its infiltration into Burundi in 2014 through the Rukoko Reserve, bordering both countries. It accuses Nzurunziza of treating it like “second-class citizens”, and is committed to his removal. Rwasa, on the other hand, has chosen to work with the government – much to the disgust of many FNL supporters inside Burundi.

    The FNL came under attack from the Congolese army and the UN peacekeeping mission in 2014 and again in 2015. The group is, however, recruiting fighters. Refugee International reported refugees in Rwanda’s Mahama camp as saying they had been approached by FNL representatives (and the Burundi opposition Movement for Solidarity and Democracy – MSD). A leaked UN report in January 2016 gave details of an interview with 18 Burundian refugees captured in the Uvira region. They said they’d been given military training by the Rwandan authorities and fake papers.

    The FNL is active in Bujumbura-Rurale Province, which surrounds the capital. In March, the Burundian and Congolese armies launched a joint operation on the border aimed at the FNL. In April, the group released a Burundian officer it had captured in the area.

    Resistance for the Rule of Law in Burundi: RED-Tabara

    This group emerged last year, and is believed to be composed of former soldiers, police and demobilised ex-rebels. Its “chief-of-staff”, Melchiade Biremba, says its goal is “to hunt Nkurunziza and his clique”. With his departure, a transitional government will be formed, leading to free and credible elections. RED-Tabara shares the “same goals” as the CNARED opposition alliance – but says, “the ways and means we take are different”.

    RED-Tabara has been referred to as the military wing of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (see above) led by Alex Sinduhije – an allegation denied by Biremba. The group is especially active in Bujumbura. It claims to only target the security forces, but civilians have also been victims of grenade attacks. Biremba says RED-Tabara is united with other anti-Nkurunziza insurgent groups, but “each has its own military strategy”.

    Republican Forces of Burundi: FOREBU

    Led by General Godefroid Niyombare, who headed a failed coup against Nkurunziza in May last year, it supports the Arusha framework and the reform of a post-Nkurunziza military. It boasts senior security establishment figures in its ranks, including: Philbert Habarugura, a former general in charge of its armed forces; Colonel Gilles Ndihokubwayo as “chief of staff”; and a former police commissioner, Edward Nibigira, who is the group’s spokesman.

    Niyombare became the first Hutu chief of general staff in 2009 after having fought as a commander in Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD rebel group. Significantly, perhaps, he was also involved in peace talks with the FNL before the current round of fighting. Niyombare was a former intelligence chief before being dismissed in 2015 for opposing Nkurunziza’s plans to run for a third term.

    FOREBU was reportedly involved in an attack on a police station in Musaga, Bujumbura, in February 2016 that killed four members of the pro-government Imbonerakure militia; and it jointly carried out grenade attacks with RED-Tabara in the city’s Cibitoke and Kinanira neighbourhoods, which allegedly targeted civilians. Its most dramatic strike was the assassination of senior army officer Darius Ikurakura inside a Bujumbura military base in March. Regarded as a regime enforcer, Ikurakura was responsible for security operations in the opposition strongholds of Bujumbura.

    FOREBU says dialogue can be the only way out of the crisis, but until the government agrees to inclusive talks, it will continue its armed struggle.

    Union of Patriots for the Revolution: UPR

    Emerged in the eastern town of Karuzi in February. In its initial statement, the group said it was made up of “civil and military officers” determined to “establish a democratic regime”.

    According to Burundi News: “The UPR is led by Antoine Sinzumunsi, former general counsel of the Bujumbura appeal court. Between January 2010 and May 2012, he was a justice inspector. It claims to number several dozen fighters”.

    Movement for Popular Resistance: MPR

    Emerged with a press release in December 2015, signed by self-styled military leader Didier Nyambariza, a former police officer who fled the country after the controversial 2010 elections – boycotted by the opposition. It’s believed the group has trained in Congo’s southern Kivu mountains. It has not claimed any attacks.

    Burundi Democracy Liberation Force: BDLF

    This group announced itself on social media in May 2016. Its military chief is Célestin Manirakiza, a former rebel in Nkurunziza’s FDD. He worked in senior positions in the police, including the Rapid Mobile Intervention Group – a special unit accused of illegal detentions and torture.

    Christian Patriot Movement: MPC

    Little is known about this movement, which only announced itself in May 2016. It is led by the mysteriously anonymous figure of Jean-Paul Ndendakumana, unknown in either political or military circles.

    oa/ag

    Briefing – who’s who in Burundi’s armed opposition
    With no peace talks on the cards, the threat of civil war grows
  • Burundi’s peace talks going nowhere

    The purpose of peace talks is to engage your opponent across the negotiating table. But the Burundi government sees things differently and by picking and choosing who it talks to, on Tuesday sank the latest mediation effort to resolve the country’s political crisis.

    Four days of an “inter-Burundi dialogue”, mediated by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, has been labeled a “monologue” by the opposition. They are furious over the government’s decision to reject talking to key members of the umbrella National Council for the Restoration of Arusha Agreement and Rule of Law – known by the French acronym “CNARED”.

    The government of President Pierre Nkurunziza has been steadfast in its refusal to talk with opponents implicated in a coup attempt last year aimed at stopping his bid for a third-term in office. Instead the 21 to 24 May “dialogue” in Arusha, Tanzania, featured only government officials, two former heads of state, and a selection of like-minded individuals.

    In a limp statement on Sunday, Mkapa’s office regretted the absence of key opposition figures, and said Mkapa would “meet all the stakeholders who were invited to attend the Arusha dialogue and were not able to come due to various reasons … in due course.”

    Some members of the CNARED alliance had been invited to Arusha. But it was in their private capacity, not as representatives of the body, which is recognized by the African Union and the East African Community as the legitimate voice of the opposition.

    “The negotiations that exclude the real stakeholders in the crisis, including CNARED, civil society, armed movements, religious representatives, media, women and youth are a waste of time,” said a CNARED statement. “Those who have gone to Arusha know themselves, they have no atom of [a] solution to the crisis that [has] rocked Burundi.”

    The humanitarian fallout

    The UN estimates that at least 474 people have died as a result of political violence since April last year. More than 79,000 people have been internally displaced and 250,000 have fled the country. The crisis has crippled Burundi’s economy, worsening already poor development indicators.

    CNARED insists it will not accept any post-crisis arrangement that allows Nkurunziza to stay in office. They argue that his third-term bid was prohibited by the constitution and also violated the 2000 Arusha peace accord that ended Burundi’s decade-long civil war. But in a controversial ruling the courts allowed Nkurunziza to stand, and he went on to easily win elections in July 2015.

    “For the government, allowing CNARED to participate in the dialogue without changing its position on the future of Nkurunziza is seen as an early capitulation that could have serious consequences on the future of the ruling party,” said Reverien Mfizi, a doctoral candidate in political science at the State University of New York.

    “As long as the opposition maintains that position, we are not likely to see the government changing its position on the inclusion [in talks] of coup plotters and opposition armed groups,” he told IRIN.

    Read more

    The road ahead for the ICC in Burundi

    Burundi power struggle outlasts diplomatic flurry

    How Burundi’s political crisis has crippled its economy

    But without the participation of all parties to the negotiations, including armed groups involved in attacks on the security forces and government officials, a political solution to end the 13-month conflict is unlikely, analysts warn.

    “Tensions on the ground are escalating. Government raids on opposition neighborhoods and abductions (often of relatives of members of civil society or opposition groups) continue,” said Joseph Siegel of the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington DC.

    “Given these actions and the perceived futility of negotiations, a growing number of Burundians are of the mind that change will only come through armed opposition,” he told IRIN.

    “The situation in Burundi demands a more urgent response,” said Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Burundi and Rwanda. “The most urgent thing is for parties to put pressure on the Burundian government to take concrete measures to stop the killings and other abuses – immediately.”

    The International Criminal Court has opened a preliminary investigation into the allegations of gross human rights, including torture, rape and disappearances.

    CNARED's participation has been a longstanding sticking point for the East African Community-mediated talks, both back when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was facilitator and now under the direction of Mkapa. But given the implacability of the Burundi government, the former Tanzanian leader may have had no option at the moment but to meet CNARED separately in the search for common ground.

    No leverage?

    “The problem is that the [African Union] and international community more broadly, has little leverage over Nkurunziza in pressuring his government to include CNARED absent the credible threat of sanctions or intervention,” said Alex Fielding, senior analyst at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm.

    “Nkurunziza called the AU's bluff back in December when the regional bloc resolved to intervene militarily with or without consent, correctly predicting that neither the AU leaders nor the UN Security Council had the political will to intervene militarily against a hostile Burundi,” he told IRIN.

    “One has to remember how difficult it was for the region to bring the CNDDFDD [Nkurunziza’s party], then a rebel group, to the negotiating table in the nineties to understand that the situation requires a whole new level of intervention,” Carine Kaneza, spokesperson for the Women and Girls Movement for Peace and Security in Burundi, told IRIN.

    “If CNDDFDD was resilient and defiant [then] … what will it take today when they control all national instruments of state power?”

    The Arusha Accords, a power-sharing arrangement that merged the army with rebel forces, remains the reference point for a political solution today.

    “Nkurunziza must consider political concessions - such as increasing the power of opposition parties over key decision-making areas - that will appease the protesters,” said Phil Clark, a Great Lakes expert at the School of Oriental and African Affairs, University of London.

    “Given that Nkurunziza will continue refusing to step down, he must find other ways to respond to protesters' demands, including on ceasing daily violations against citizens, tackling state corruption and delivering development in the Burundian countryside,” he told IRIN.

    To bring that about, how willing is the international community to consider more robust measures?

    The deployment of a UN police force to protect civilians has been among the options the UN Security Council has been considering since April. So far, Burundi has opposed anything beyond 20 unarmed police advisers.

    “The only feasible solution involves the government agreeing to an external observer mission that ensures an end to the government's violations - including killings - against opposition leaders and supporters. That must be the first process put in place,” Clark told IRIN.

    For now, the likelihood of Bujumbura voluntarily agreeing to that remains remote.

    so/oa/ks

    Burundi’s peace talks going nowhere
  • The road ahead for the ICC in Burundi

    The announcement by the International Criminal Court that it has opened a preliminary examination into human rights abuses in Burundi could be the first step towards a formal investigation into the killings and disappearances in the central African country.

     

    Amnesty International said in a statement today that the ICC’s decision “underlines the gravity of the situation.”

     

    The ICC’s Office of the Prosecutor will be exploring publically available evidence to determine whether a formal investigation is warranted into the violence that has killed more than 430 people and forced over 230,000 to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.

     

    Investigators are not typically sent out to gather evidence at this stage, but the OTP is in touch with people and organisations that are investigating violations in Burundi that began a year ago, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced plans to run for a controversial third term in office. He went on to win disputed elections.

     

    “My Office has reviewed a number of communications and reports detailing acts of killing, imprisonment, torture, rape and other forms of sexual violence, as well as cases of enforced disappearances,” ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said in a statement on Monday.

     

    The international community has tried to intervene diplomatically in Burundi, concerned that the situation could degenerate into civil war. 

     

    In a positive move, former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, who recently replaced ineffectual Ugandan leader Yoweri Museveni as mediator in the crisis, announced on Sunday that stalled talks between the government and opposition will resume from 2-6 May in Arusha.

     

    A coalition of NGOs has additionally called on the UN Security Council to authorise a “robust UN police deployment to protect the Burundian population” and augment African Union human rights and military observers.

     

    Bensouda’s team will be poring over the material from the preliminary examination to determine three things.

     

    As Burundi is a signatory to the Rome Statute, the ICC’s founding law, the international court has jurisdiction. So the first question Bensouda has to consider is whether the violations committed in Burundi fall within the category of crimes that the ICC handles, namely genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

     

     

    The second issue the OTP will weigh is whether the Burundi case should be handled by the ICC.

     

    This is the question of admissibility. The ICC is structured as a court of last resort to take on cases that national authorities are unable or reluctant to prosecute. The OTP will be looking to see whether Burundi’s criminal justice system is handling any abuse-related cases and what stage they have reached.

     

    The final issue the OTP will be seeking to address in its preliminary examination is whether the interests of justice will be served by the ICC intervening in the Burundi case.

     

    There is no set deadline for a preliminary examination. For instance, in the case of post-election violence in Kenya, the OTP formally began a preliminary examination in February 2008 but it was not until November 2009 that it applied to ICC judges to be allowed to open a formal investigation.

     

    After concluding a preliminary examination, the OTP may decide that the matter should not go any further. This was the case in Honduras, when it found that crimes were committed between 2010 and 2014, but the available information did not satisfy the standard of “reasonable basis” a pre-trial chamber would use to authorise a formal investigation.

     

    In the Burundi case, there are three ways the OTP may start a formal investigation if the preliminary examination leads Bensouda to determine this is necessary.

     

    One route is for Burundi itself to refer the case to the ICC – currently highly unlikely.

     

    Alternatively, the case would have to be referred to Bensouda’s office by another signatory to the Rome Statute. For instance, any of Burundi’s neighbours sheltering Burundian refugees.

     

    This is also unlikely. African countries have referred matters within their territory to the ICC but to date no African country has referred another African country to the court.

     

    At the African Union level, opposition to the ICC has grown among African leaders. This is in addition to the fact that the African Union seems divided on how to handle the Burundi crisis.

     

    In such a situation, this leaves the third option: Bensouda applies to a pre-trial chamber to authorise her to conduct a formal investigation. This has happened twice – in the cases of Kenya and Côte d'Ivoire, where the court went on to prosecute former president Laurent Gbagbo.

     

     

    The Worldwide Human Rights Movement said in a statement today that, “considering the seriousness of the crimes committed and the absence of a national judiciary,” it hoped the ICC would, “without delay, open an investigation into the very grave crimes committed in Burundi.”

     

    Currently, the ICC is conducting preliminary examinations in seven other countries or situations. These are: Colombia (since June 2004); Afghanistan (since 2007); Guinea (since October 2009); Nigeria (since November 2010); Ukraine (since April 2014); Iraq (re-opened in May 2014); and Palestine (since January 2015).

     

    tm/oa/ag

     

    Photo: Fatou Bensouda, ICC Prosecutor

    The road ahead for the ICC in Burundi
    Tom Maliti is a trial monitor with the International Justice Monitor, a web portal that publishes reports on cases at the International Criminal Court
  • Burundi power struggle outlasts diplomatic flurry

    There’s been a flurry of high-profile visits to Burundi designed to find a settlement to the political crisis but little evidence yet that anything has been achieved.

     

    First came UN Security Council members, followed by US President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the Great Lakes Region. Then, last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dropped in; and finally there was a visit from five African heads of state.

     

    Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza welcomed Ban with a promise to free 1,200 political prisoners (later extended to 2,000), and to re-open two independent radio stations.

     

    The African Union delegation, led by South African President Jacob Zuma, won a commitment for the deployment of 100 military monitors and 100 human rights observers to help reduce the political violence that has claimed more than 400 lives since April, when Nkurunziza sought to extend his term in office.

    But in reality, critics argue, the government is stalling.

     

    On the critical issue of negotiating with the opposition coalition known as CNARED, which the government describes as “terrorists” and “coup-plotters”, Nkurunziza didn’t budge.

     

    Instead, the authorities have unilaterally set up a National Commission for inter-Burundian Dialogue, known as the CNDI, to negotiate with people it finds more palatable.

     

    This effectively involves “engaging factions that broke away from mainstream parties to join what was left of Nkurunziza’s governing coalition” before last year’s election, said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University, Washington.

    The opposition and key sections of civil society argue that negotiations can only be meaningful if they bridge the divide between the government and an armed opposition, a growing chasm that threatens all-out civil war.

     

    “One can’t be a political party and judge,” said Leonce Ngendakumana, president of opposition platform ADC Ikibiri. “The negotiations must include those who are armed, including exiled coup-plotters.”

     

    CNARED, many of whom are in exile, is recognised as the main opposition umbrella by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, appointed by the East African Community to mediate in the dispute.

    Alex Fielding, senior analyst at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm, is also unimpressed with the government’s commitment on political prisoners. He regards it as a sop, to avoid the real issue of all-inclusive talks.

    “When you read the presidential decree about the prisoner release, it excludes all those accused of treason as well as those who committed crimes ‘in organised groups’,” he told IRIN.

    The opposition held out little hope of a robust position from Zuma and the AU visitors after a January summit chose not to back an earlier commitment by its Peace and Security Council to send 5,000 peacekeepers to Burundi.

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    The government’s acceptance of military observers needs to be seen in the context of the AU’s failure to fully deploy since July last year. Only 32 observers have been allowed into the country, and only after much haggling over memorandums of understanding.

    “Given this history, it's important to note that the observers will not be able to do their job properly unless the Burundi government grants them the legal freedom of movement to travel and the political freedom to write independent reports,” said Paul Williams, associate professor at George Washington University.

    “My questions would be: what use are observers if they are not deployed in the full authorised numbers and they are not granted the legal mandate and political freedom to travel as they wish and do their jobs independently?”

    What then is next for Burundi?

    “In my view, the best prospects for peace in Burundi will require sustained regional and international engagement. At this point, the Nkurunziza government does not feel the need politically to engage the genuine opposition,” said Siegle.

    “While most regional and international diplomacy up to this point has been aimed at accommodating the Nkurunziza government, there is insufficient appreciation of the growing resignation among many Burundian citizens that armed opposition is the only way to be heard,” Siegle added.

    “This means the time window for reaching a political resolution is limited and shrinking.”

    Fielding, at Max Security Solutions, called for “a more active presence and forceful response by the AU and UN, with a credible threat of sanctions and peacekeeper deployment if the regime fails to engage in genuinely inclusive dialogue talks, rein in the arbitrary arrests that have become commonplace, and reopen the political space for dissident groups and independent media organisations.

    “That said, I remain sceptical about the success of such talks as the main opposition and rebel demand remains that Nkurunziza steps down, something that he will refuse to consider as long as he retains support in rural areas and the security establishment,” Fielding added.

    Steve McDonald, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, did see a possible path out of the crisis.

    “For a breakthrough to occur, there needs to be a frank conversation between Nkurunziza and selected opposition members, facilitated by a trusted third party – which does not include Museveni – out of the public eye and with no press coverage,” McDonald told IRIN.

    “To date, the international community, including the AU, have been telling Nkurunziza who he needs to engage and what the outcome is to be, i.e. an abrogation of his third term as president.  That is a non-starter,” he said.

    “I do not think that Nkurunziza's goal is a return to mass, inter-communal violence. So he can be engaged. But how that is done is the critical element.”

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