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Burundi: Chronicle of a Foretold Disaster

By Amilcar Ryumeko

After a period of relative stability, in April 2015 Burundi plunged into a violent crisis. The trigger: the candidacy of President Pierre Nkurunziza for a third term in office. The candidacy was contrary to both the spirit and provisions of one of Nelson Mandela’s legacies to Africa, the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, and to the constitution of Burundi. The Arusha agreement ended Burundi’s 12-year civil war and established peace and stability for almost 10 years. The text also limits the president to two terms. In March 2014, in order to run for a third term, Nkurunziza tried unsuccessfully to change the constitution. Months before Nkurunziza’s candidacy, there were warnings both from within the country and from the international community that running for another term could cause further problems in a country still dealing with its bloody past. In order to avoid violence, the international community is actively working to find peaceful solutions.

An active diplomatic shuttle has been in and out of Burundi in what seems to be the last effort to preserve peace in the country and the region. Because of its far-reaching effects, such as the continuing political stalemate, insecurity and increasing violence in the country, and humanitarian consequences, including internal displacement and refugee flows to neighboring countries, the Burundi crisis has been on the agendas of most regional, continental, and global meetings for the past few months. For instance, a high-level delegation of the African Union visited Burundi on Feb. 25-26 to consult with the Burundian government and other stakeholders. Before them, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and diplomats from the U.N. Security Council visited to meet with government officials, party leaders, and civil society groups. However, those efforts have all failed to tackle the real source of the problem, and the international community’s indifference to the well-known root causes of the crisis is troubling.

Yet, the international community has grounds to take concrete measures that would alleviate the suffering of Burundians. As I have previously argued, based on various reports of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, it is clear that crimes against humanity are underway in Burundi. According to documentation from U.N. agencies, there are more than 230,000 Burundian refugees and nearly 439 people have been killed, not to mention numerous cases of torture, rape, and arbitrary imprisonment. These horrors qualify as crimes against humanity. And what concrete actions have been taken by the international community in response? So far, no practical steps have been proposed that could help deescalate the conflict. There have been a lot of talks, meetings, and statements, but nothing has been done that would really help end the suffering of ordinary civilians whose lives are gravely affected by continuing violence and a lack of accountability.

But this is not news. This is neither the first nor the last conflict in the world. It’s not even the worst (so far) by death toll, number of refugees, or impact on global security. The Burundi crisis is also not the only conflict that was predictable and avoidable. Now that it is underway, by not tackling the source of the problem—namely, Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional third term and the campaign of repression against those opposed to it—the same international community is failing to prevent the escalation of the conflict. But again, this won’t be the first time. We are in a familiar scenario with a lot of good will, but very little action.

Today, the international community is not only failing to prevent another conflict, but by its inaction, it’s also making the situation worse. It seems that, for these countries and organizations, the lives of the natives don’t matter very much. And history seems to constantly repeat itself. Nearly 20 years ago, U.S. President Bill Clinton said this in his apology address to the people of Rwanda: We owe to those who died and to those who survived who loved them, our every effort to increase our vigilance and strengthen our stand against those who would commit such atrocities in the future here or elsewhere.” Unfortunately, this stand has not been very strong. As current U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power observed in her book examining the U.S. response to genocides in the 20th century, A Problem From Hell, national interests prevailed in foreign policy. This analysis applies again today to the international community’s response to the crisis in Burundi. Simple realpolitik.

Even if their efforts are not enough to deescalate the conflict, some countries have made steps in the right direction by taking coercive measures. For example, the European Union and the United States have withdrawn some of their financial assistance and have set targeted sanctions.

On the other hand, there is a paradox that makes today’s Burundi crisis unique. Money from EU member states’ citizens is—indirectly—financing the government of Burundi’s massive human rights violations through the EU-funded African Peace Facility, which supports Burundian troops’ involvement in the African Union Mission in Somalia, and the U.N. support account for peacekeeping operations, including Burundian troops’ participation in the U.N. mission in the Central African Republic. In other words, Burundi, whose security forces are committing crimes against humanity against the country’s civilian population, participates in peacekeeping missions elsewhere—and worse yet, Burundi’s treasury benefits from direct payments from the United Nations and the African Union for this participation. Connecting the dots, it becomes clear that the international community is funding the ongoing massive repression in Burundi. What a precedent!

Does this mean that nothing can be done to prevent the explosion of the conflict? What is needed is a bold policy, a coherent approach by all international community actors, and a demonstration that all the statements about the Burundi crisis were not just pitiful words. Today, the international community has the opportunity to take practical actions that can help deescalate the conflict and prevent another “never again.” The time for addressing the Burundi crisis only through meetings and statements is over, and the international community must now transition to practical and concrete action.

First, in the spirit of the Responsibility to Protect in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1674 on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, the international community should deploy forces to protect the civilian population. The Burundian government has already proven itself unwilling to prevent or stop the massacres and serious violations of humanitarian law against its citizens. Second, the international community should halt any new deployment of Burundian security forces to African Union or U.N. peacekeeping missions, and gradually withdraw the troops currently deployed in the Central African Republic and Somalia. Third, the international community, especially the European Union and the East African Community, should impose economic sanctions on the Burundi government to force the leaders to participate in dialogue with all stakeholders aimed at finding a peaceful solution. Fourth, the international community should impose targeted sanctions, such as travel bans and asset freezes, against all Burundian leaders whose actions and words contribute to the persistence of violence and hinder the search for a solution. Any action from the international community that does not take into account Nkurunziza’s third term and repression campaign as the source of the crisis would be a disservice to Burundi’s peace and security.

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Amilcar Ryumeko worked as political adviser to the parliamentary assistant to the premier of Quebec in charge of economic issues. He graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Sherbrooke.

[Image courtesy of Adam Jones, PhD]

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