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Is the United Nations Failing to Prevent Atrocity Crimes in Burundi?

By Amilcar Ryumeko

As I have argued since February 2016, crimes against humanity are underway in Burundi. The country’s violent poitical crisis began in April 2015, sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement of his candidacy for an unconstitutional third term in office. The current situation in Burundi matches many of the U.N.’s risk factors for atrocity crimes, from severe political repression and limited acknowledgment of international and regional human rights mechanisms to inflammatory rhetoric, propaganda campaigns, and hate speech.  

In a June 15 briefing to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council, Fatsah Ouguergouz, president of the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, discussed “human rights violations … reinforced by hate speech, sometimes with an ethnic dimension, delivered by certain state officials and members of the ruling party.”

Then, on July 26, Michel Kafando, special envoy of the U.N. secretary-general for Burundi, emphasized to the Security Council the need for inclusive dialogue between the government and the opposition. On Aug. 2, the Security Council issued a statement in which it expressed “deep concern over the political situation in Burundi—including increasing numbers of refugees and reports of torture, forced disappearances and extrajudicial killings—and strongly urged the Government and all parties to immediately cease and reject such violence.”

As the crisis continues, more and more people are fleeing Burundi. U.N. statistics indicate that between May and July, the number of Burundians refugees continued to rise, from 404,735 to 418,758. At this rate, Burundi could become the continent’s third-largest refugee crisis by the end of the year.

But despite all the talks, meetings, and statements, nothing has been done that could help end the suffering of those whose lives are gravely affected by the continuing violence. After the tragedies in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, we would have thought that the principle of Responsibility to Protect would be invoked to prevent atrocity crimes in Burundi. The Burundian government has failed to take steps to end the crisis, so the international community must be prepared to take appropriate collective action, in a timely and decisive manner and in accordance with the U.N. Charter.

Although the Security Council authorized 228 U.N. police to monitor the security and human rights situation in Burundi on July 29, 2016, the body remains divided over a course of action. More than one year later, this resolution has not been implemented. In other words, in case of Burundi, no practical steps have been taken that could help deescalate the conflict. Despite acknowledging the high risk of atrocity crimes in Burundi, the international community is failing to meaningfully respond to the conflict and prevent this devastating outcome.

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Amilcar Ryumeko has been writing for World Policy about the ongoing violence in Burundi for nearly a year and a half, and during that time the crisis has only deepened. Below, read an exceprt of his May 2017 piece about the promotion of sexual violence by the youth wing of the country's ruling party, and find the full article here

Amid this crisis, dangerous scare tactics have emerged that have serious implications and require international attention. One of the most alarming is the use of rhetoric promoting sexual violence by members of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD, as a tool to control and intimidate political opponents. The CNDD-FDD—Burundi’s ruling party—does not seem to be taking serious interest in curtailing these crimes. In a rally that took place in Kirundo province, in the northeast of the country, members of the Imbonerakure were recorded singingImpregnate the opposition so they give birth to Imbonerakure. There are lots of girls. Impregnate them, Imbonerakure!” After the release of the video, CNDD-FDD issued a statement condemning this chanting, but no further action has been taken. This statement can thus be interpreted as a move to simply maintain public relations and international opinion. In fact, according to a statement from Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, “recent reports indicate that similar, larger rallies have been organized across the country by officials from the Government and the President’s party.”

In a very tense environment, like the one currently in Burundi, this type of rhetoric, especially when it comes from a government-affiliated group like the Imbonerakure, can lead the country into the abyss. In another statement in response to the rape chants, Al Hussein said: “The Government needs to stop pretending that the Imbonerakure are nothing but a community development group. Such blatant and brazen hate speech and incitement to violence must not be tolerated, nor encouraged. In a region which has suffered so many massive outbreaks of violence and atrocities, this type of organized incitement rings very loud alarm bells.”

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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. In 2017 he became a member of the Human Rights committee of The Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center.

[Photo courtesy of MONUSCO]

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