Burundi: International and Regional Bodies Urge Dialogue, Fear Mass Violence

The UN Security Council considers the situation in Burundi.
The UN Security Council considers the situation in Burundi.
Credit: UN Photo

Amid an ongoing human rights and political crisis in which hundreds have lost their lives, civil society and human rights bodies are calling on Burundian authorities to avoid inciting violence, put a stop to attacks against advocates and journalists, and cooperate with monitoring efforts. On November 12, 2015, the UN Security Council unanimously voted to adopt a resolution condemning the killings and human rights abuses in Burundi and threatening possible sanctions against responsible parties. [The Guardian] The resolution came at the same time as the United Nations (UN) and African Union (AU) met to discuss moving peacekeepers from the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo to Burundi. [The Guardian] The international and regional actions seek to end a spate of violence and repression that began in April 2015 surrounding the re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza in a vote boycotted by the opposition. [VOA News] The political unrest, which has led to over 240 killings and an estimated 200,000 displaced, now threatens to devolve into civil war and mass atrocities that some are warning could resemble the 1994 Rwandan genocide. [VOA News]

Background to Escalating Violence

The violence between supporters of the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), and the opposition, Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) began in April 2015 when President Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term, a move which the opposition called unconstitutional. [VOA News] Although the Burundian constitution imposes a two-term limit on presidential candidates, the country’s Constitutional Court determined in April 2015 – reportedly under pressure – that President Nkurunziza’s first term did not count towards this limit because he had been appointed by the legislature, rather than publicly elected, as part of the 2005 peace agreement. [BBC: Burundi Court] In July’s boycotted election, he was re-elected.

Since April, more than 240 people have been killed in the related violence, including two of the deadliest attacks which affected the neighborhoods of Cibotke, Mutakura, and Ngara in early October; the killings were apparently carried out in retaliation for attacks on police by armed men assumed to support the opposition. [Human Rights Watch] Uniformed police and CNDD-FDD’s youth league were involved in these and other attacks. [Human Rights Watch]

Most recently, the government has ordered civilians to turn over illegal weapons. In a November 2, 2015 speech, Nkuruziza warned that anyone who failed to hand in their weapons would be punished under the anti-terrorist law and fought as “enemies of the nation.” On November 8, the government initiated efforts to search for unlawful weapons, with the President authorizing security forces to use “all means at [their] disposal.” [Human Rights Watch] The use of the phrase “enemies of the nation” and directions to deal with “elements which are not in order” mirror language that was used in the Rwandan genocide and the resultant 12-year Burundian civil war between Hutus and Tutsis, which ended in 2005. [The Guardian] The Burundi Senate President’s repeated use of the word “gukora,” which means “to work,” in an October speech has also been seen as troubling to the international community because it was a word used to incite mass violence before and during the Rwandan genocide. [Human Rights Watch; Amnesty International]

Burundi’s rapidly growing population and limited available land are additional factors contributing to unrest, particularly in light of the society’s dependence on subsistence agriculture and the national courts’ limited role in resolving disputes over land temporarily abandoned by those fleeing the violence of the civil war. [Foreign Policy]

Regional Impact and Historic Context

The Great Lakes region of Africa, primarily Uganda, Rwanda, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burundi have struggled with cross-border reformations of Hutu and Tutsi rebel groups that reignite the fragile democratic systems since the 1994 genocide. [BBC: Rwanda] Displacement of refugees between the affected countries led to repetition of ethnic violence and allowed defeated rebel groups to regroup in other countries. [Reuters] Accordingly, neighboring African States are worried that a full-scale civil war or genocide in Burundi could destroy the relative security the region has managed to maintain in the past decade. The ruling political party, CNDD-FDD, was established during Burundi’s civil war as the primary Hutu rebel group, and its legal and political personality is linked to its militant history. [Center for Security Policy]

International and Regional Responses

In addition to the UN Security Council’s November 12 resolution and the UN-AU talks of relocating peacekeepers in Burundi, regional governmental entities have also condemned the political and ethnic violence in Burundi. The European Union (EU) imposed sanctions, including travel restrictions and an asset freeze, against four Burundian leaders the European Council found to have undermined democracy and impeded resolution in the country: Deputy Director-General of the National Police, Godefroid Bizimana; Head of Cabinet of the Presidential Administration, Gervais Ndirakobuca; Officer of the National Intelligence Service, Mathias-Joseph Niyonzima, and Former Chargé de Missions de la Présidence, Léonard Ngendakumana. [RFI]

The mandate of the UN Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in Burundi, established in 1995, expired in 2011. Since then, however, other special procedures of the UN Human Rights Council have visited and reported on the status of various human rights in Burundi. See OHCHR, Burundi. Although the UN Office in Burundi completed its mandate at the end of 2014, the UN Electoral Observation Mission in Burundi (MENUB) began its work in 2015, including monitoring the May and September 2015 elections. [BNUB]

At the regional level, the African Union has taken various steps to promote solutions to the situation. Beginning in May 2015, the AU dispatched a delegation to monitor and investigate the situation in Burundi. [African Union Press Release] The Peace and Security Council of the AU has issued a number of statements, including on November 9 in which it,summarily condemned violence by the Burundian government and militias, encouraged peaceful dialogue, and reiterated its support of the mediation efforts led by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni on behalf of the East African Community (EAC). [AU Peace and Security Press Release] The AU has begun preparing to impose sanctions on the people and entities responsible for violence, human rights violations, incitement, or impeding negotiations in Burundi. It is also authorized the deployment of 100 human rights observers and military experts, which the Peace and Security Council requested to be on the ground by December 15. See Peace and Security Council of the African Union, Communiqué of the 557th Meeting of the Peace and Security Council, PSC/PR/Comm.(DLCII) (Nov. 13, 2015), para. 9(iii).

Neither the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) nor the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights has issued any recent statement regarding the situation in Burundi, although the Peace and Security Council directed the ACHPR to carry out an investigation and to submit a report on its findings and recommendations by the end of November 2015. See id.; Peace and Security Council of the African Union, Communiqué of the 551st Meeting of the Peace and Security Council, PSC/PR/Comm.(DLI) (Oct. 17, 2015), para. 12(iv). In May 2015, two members of the ACHPR, in their capacities as the Special Rapporteurs on Human Rights Defenders and on Freedom of Expression and Access to Information, issued a joint statement highlighting their concerns regarding harassment of journalists, disruption of news dissemination, and harassment and arrests of human rights defenders, and calling on regional and international actors “to lend their support to the peaceful outcome of the current electoral process in Burundi.”

During the Security Council briefing, Adama Dieng, Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, warned that Burundi appears on the verge of descent into violence that could escalate to crimes of atrocity. [Ghana Broadcasting Corporation] This pronouncement, along with the inferences some officials have made regarding the repetition of language used to incite ethnic violence during the Rwandan government, have implications for the international community’s obligations to address the situation. Unlike other principles of international law that require a State to act only with regard to violations that occur within their territory or by actors under their control, under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide States may have a duty to prevent the occurrence of genocide even outside their borders. See, e.g., Luke Glanville, The Responsibility to Protect Beyond Borders, Human Rights Law Review (2012).

Additional Information

For additional information on the United Nations Security Council, International Criminal Law, or human rights conditions in Burundi and throughout the region, visit IJRC’s Online Resource Hub.

For background information on the conflicts that have impacted millions in the Great Lakes region in recent decades, see Jason K. Stearn’s Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa (2012).