A basic web search of Burundi today will return article titles such as, “Killings, Abduction and Torture Spread fear in Burundi”, “Disappearances Blamed on the Police”, and “Government Investigations Ignore State Abuses.” More than 400 people have been killed and over 220,000 have been forced to flee the country, and a UN Security Council resolution in November 2015 asked that the Burundian government refrain from any further violence. Shocking pictures can be found of people dead on the street with parts of their bodies severed and lying next to them. Taking all of this into account, why are we not hearing more about what is happening in Burundi?
On the 13 May, 2015, Burundian masses mobilised an attempted coup against outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza’s declaration of a third term in office. They were also against the party’s efforts to remove reference to the Arusha Peace Agreements. This mobilisation was organised by ex-Major General Godefroid Niyombare, but was not the root of the violence. There had already been disappearances and killings in Burundi’s capital beforehand. Within a week of the failed coup, the government cracked down on the population, arresting journalists and politicians and commencing the violence. In April, serious protests began against Nkurunziza’s re-election. By this time, already 90,000 Burundians had fled the country.
Yet, the legislative and municipal polls went ahead on the 5 June and the President was ‘re-elected’ in July. Despite popular opposition, the Constitutional Court, as well as Nkurunziza’s supporters, believe that his third term is in fact legitimate, taking into consideration that his 2005 election was not voted on by the electorate population but chosen by parliament.
This is not the first time Burundi has faced internal conflict. Since gaining independence in 1962, continuous tensions have resulted in the total death of over 300,000 civilians. The most prominent manifestations of conflicts, in 1972 and 1993, are considered acts of genocide by the International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi’s report, which was presented to the UN Security Council in 2002.
Since the conflict began in April of last year, over 400 people have been killed. More than 220,000 refugees have fled to the neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania or the DRC. Many have chosen to stay in the country because of their previous experience of being refugees. Instead of re-living those hardships, they have chosen to become internally displaced persons (IDPs) until the violence in the cities, especially Bujumbura, calms down.
Human rights organisations have used satellite imagery to confirm eyewitness accounts of the presence of mass graves. This confirmation implies that the death toll must be higher than what official statistics report. The violence, however, remains mostly public, with the perpetrators dumping tortured and dead bodies on the streets of Bujumbura. Shocking accounts and images of the atrocities can be found on sites such as these. Despite many radio stations being silenced in Burundi, Twitter accounts and Facebook groups have been established to try to continually bring to light the horrors happening every day.
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In November 2015, the United Nations claimed that it was “powerless to stop Rwandan-style genocide in Burundi.” In the same month, France presented a draft resolution to the UN Security Council, but it was put down because of claims by Burundi’s foreign minister that the country was still calm. Since then, there has been a back-and-forth debate on whether or not the African Union or UN peacekeepers should be sent in to intervene. In January 2016, the AU heads of state decided against ordering the 5000 peacekeeping troops to the small nation, and instead sent a high-level delegation to open the ‘Inter-Burundian Dialogue’.
Most recently, this April, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon proposed to send police to Burundi. The UN is under increasing pressure to prevent a Rwandan-style genocide from breaking out in the country, but the Burundian government is not quite seeing eye to eye with the international proposals. On the 13 April, the government did say in a letter that it would accept, “around 20 unarmed police experts to provide support to the Burundian national police and welcomed United Nations support in the form of logistics and, above all, capacity building.” The deputy spokesman has been saying that Burundi does not need any further assistance, as its national security defense forces are capable enough and that Burundi would benefit more from other forms of assistance than international protection.
For a full mindmap behind this article with articles, videos, and documents see #Burundi
Clearly, progress is lacking. To complicate things, Rwandan officials have been accused by NGOs of training Burundian rebels with the aim of overthrowing President Nkurunziza. The situation could be aggravated if the AU dispatches troops that include such Rwandan individuals.
A Burundian, who asked to remain anonymous, told Impakter:
By now, I feel like it’s too naïve to count on the international community to come and solve our problems. We, Burundians, are going to have to figure it out ourselves. I only speak for myself but I imagine that my hopelessness is a feeling echoed by many Burundians. If there is one thing I could ask of the rest of the world, it would be to try and keep more people from losing hope and that can be done by showing compassion through the media or otherwise. Not talking about this crisis is equivalent to acting like it doesn’t exist, which is exactly what the perpetrators of these atrocities want you to believe.
President Obama has already pleaded Burundians to “put aside the language of hate and division,” and has asked that the army to stay out of political conflict and protect civilians. Yet, any external interventions remain limited by questions of sovereignty (Article 2(4) of the UN Charter), the validity of self-defence (Article 51), and UNSC authorisation of interference (Article 53). All of these questions would be legally resolved if the Burundian government were to accept the deployment of AU peacekeeping troops – something that evidently has not yet been the case.
It is difficult to see the situation improving as of now. Currently, security officials can snatch individuals away from their homes without producing a warrant of arrest, and the government is refusing to let in international peace keepers (which is not an assurance that the situation will be resolved). UN rights investigators are being denied access to examine unofficial jails where detainees are allegedly tortured and killed. At least 2 rebel groups have recently launched attacks and Amnesty International is reporting the detection of mass graves.
There already exist several suggestions for the international community on how to react:
- Aid donors should follow Belgium’s example, changing the terms of their aid so that it is directed straight to Burundian civil society, while suspending any financial aid to the current government.
- The International Criminal Court should open an investigation into the violence and enforce accountability for the perpetrators of human rights violations.
- The AU and UN must develop a strategic plan that, in accordance with international law, protects the human rights and lives of Burundian citizens.
Let us not let happen to Burundi what happened to Rwanda. We are aware. The facts are available to us all. It is our responsibility to spread the knowledge and to do something for the lives of Burundians. One thing that you can do is to push for the Burundian crisis to be made an urgent diplomatic priority for the White House. One petition has already fallen through because it failed to get 100,000 signatures in 30 days. This latest petition was created on the 22 April. With 100,000 signatures, the Burundi crisis could be made an urgent diplomatic priority. Let us not turn a blind eye to this human rights crisis. Let us at least learn and talk about what is happening. Let us stand in solidarity and pay attention to the unheard voices of Burundi. Let us prevent history from repeating itself.
Recommended reading: “EX-RWANDA MINISTER JACQUES BIHOZAGARA DIES IN BURUNDI JAIL”