FPI Bulletin: Preventing Ethnic Violence in Burundi

February 26, 2016

The words “never again” have often characterized the international response to the Hutu-Tutsi genocide of the 1990s, from President Clinton in 1998 to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2014. That commitment is now being put to the test in Burundi, where the government is perpetrating a campaign of violence against its own people while denying access to international peacekeeping forces. The U.S. envoy to the United Nations is leading an international effort to mediate the crisis, but the situation appears likely to spiral out of control in the absence of strong international action.

A History of Ethnic Violence

In 1993, a crisis spurred by the assassination of Burundi’s president launched a decade of ethnic civil war between the country’s Hutu majority and Tutsi minority populations in which 300,000 lives were lost. The international community was criticized for failing to take preventive action in Burundi and in its better-known northern neighbor, Rwanda, which was also devastated by a Hutu-Tutsi conflict that escalated into genocide.

At the conclusion of Burundi’s civil war in 2005, Pierre Nkurunziza was “overwhelmingly elected” by parliament as the country’s president. In 2010, Nkurunziza’s reelection campaign was marked by politically-motivated attacks, the arrest of opposition activists, and a boycott of elections by the opposition. This enabled the incumbent to run unopposed and remain Burundi’s president.

Burundi’s constitution mandates a two-term limit for the office of the presidency, meaning that Nkurunziza was expected to abstain from Burundi’s 2015 elections. He instead pressured the judges on Burundi’s constitutional court to ratify his wish for a third term. In July 2015, Nkurunziza’s third “election” – following another boycott by his main rivals – dashed remaining hopes for a peaceful transfer of power in a country that desperately needs such a precedent.

Atrocities Begin

In response to Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would run again, members of the Burundian army staged a failed coup to remove him from power. This provided pretext for Nkurunziza to launch a violent crackdown targeting both emergent rebel groups and Burundi’s citizens. Last November, a White House spokesman said the U.S. government had “received multiple, credible, and ongoing reports of targeted killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, and political repression by security forces, as well as violence and abuses by youth militia affiliated with the ruling party.” The official death toll for the conflict in Burundi now stands at 500, and the unofficial count is nearly twice that number. Approximately 250,000 individuals have fled a situation which worsens daily.

December 11, 2015 marked a turning point in Burundi. Gunmen attacked three military installations, where the government claims 79 of the attackers were killed in defensive action. The discovery of corpses, with their hands tied behind their backs and with gunshot wounds to the head, instead implies unlawful executions. Mass graves were soon discovered amidst a retaliatory campaign by the Nkurunziza government marked by police brutality, sexual violence (including gang rape by government forces), and enforced disappearances.

Samantha Power, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. and author of the book on how American leaders have repeatedly failed to prevent genocide (A Problem from Hell), remarked following the attack that “those who fail to act in the midst of a deteriorating situation are also at fault.” She added, “the situation on the ground compels us to focus squarely on how the international community can protect civilians from mass violence.”

Ambassador Power has been a champion of the people of Burundi, calling out the United Nations for failing to plan appropriately for the escalation of violence in the country. She has visited Burundi with and on behalf of the Security Council to facilitate dialogue between the government and the opposition, even as she warns that the situation could spiral out of control.

Preventing a Disaster

Foreign powers have already taken some important steps to pressure President Nkurunziza: the U.S. disqualified Burundi in October from receiving trade preferences in accordance with the African Growth and Opportunity Act. The E.U. has suspended direct aid to Burundi’s government. The U.N. has threatened sanctions against Burundi, ostensibly pending a March report by U.N. monitors.

Despite reports prior to the July elections that ethnicity “appears to correlate with the geography of the crisis,” the international community has been slow to characterize the violence as more than just an election crisis. NSC spokesperson Ned Price, in announcing individual sanctions against four perpetrators of violence in Burundi, condemned “dangerous rhetoric by government officials,” yet stopped short of directly addressing concerns surrounding the ethnic dimensions of the crisis.

With violence in Burundi escalating since December, this has changed somewhat. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights stated in no uncertain terms that “all the alarm signals, including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis, are flashing red.” Russia’s Ambassador to the United Nations has conceded the “potential for genocide.” The French ambassador to the U.N. similarly characterized the risk of the situation spiraling out of control as “very high.” Burundi’s government is primarily Hutu; the New York Times reports that “Many of the recent victims, who even include cadets at the government military academy, have been Tutsis.”

The African Union stated that it would “not allow another genocide to take place on its soil” when its Peace and Security Council initially announced that it would deploy a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force to Burundi. This key line of defense against egregious human rights violations has failed, however, as a result of opposition from Burundi’s president. Nkurunziza has declared such an operation tantamount to an invasion, obstructing the deployment of security forces free from polarizing ties to the Hutu and Tutsi populations.

By settling on dialogue to resolve the human rights crisis facing Burundi, which Nkurunziza is impeding, the international community returns to the past year’s status quo. This goes directly against the advice of two former presidents of Burundi, who believe that peacekeeping forces could provide much-needed stability to the country.

Burundi’s reliance on foreign aid for half of its annual budget suggests that its government should be vulnerable to concerted pressure from the United Nations. If this lifeline is severed until Nkurunziza allows security forces – whether from the African Union or the United Nations – to begin peacekeeping operations in Burundi, then the violence in Burundi may come to an end before the conflict spirals out of control. Should the international community wait for genocide to occur before taking decisive action, then we will have failed to live up to our promise of “Never Again.”

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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