The Situation in Burundi

Dear Sirs,

It is with grave concern that I note the situation in Burundi. The Central African nation is currently experiencing its worst period of unrest since the 2006 conclusion of a 13 year long civil war, following Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza electing to run for a third term in office- a move condemned as unconstitutional by critics. Protests which began in April 2015 in opposition to this have continued, while an attempted coup failed in May last year. Instability is rife, with the country’s opposition leader deriding Nkurunziza’s re-election as a ‘joke’. Meanwhile, armed groups opposed to the Burundian government have staged attacks against military installations and the security services.

The Burundian government has responded with a crackdown against protesters opposing President Nkurunziza, with reports of systematic killings and the torture of civilians emerging. At least 439 have been killed, 3500 arrested, and 250,000 displaced since the start of the unrest. United Nations (UN) officials have been vocal in emphasising the severity of the crisis- High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein has described Burundi as on the ‘very cusp’ of civil war. Perhaps most disturbing of all, Amnesty International has released satellite images said to show five possible ‘mass graves’.

Of particular concern are the parallels that exist between the current situation and the events leading up to the 1994 Rwandan Genocide. Both Burundi and Rwanda share the same Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, and racial tension has previously plagued both nations. Indeed, Burundi’s own former President Cyprien Ntaryamira was also killed in the assassination of Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana which triggered the genocide. Recent accusations of foreign support for Burundian rebel groups leveled at Rwanda undoubtedly complicate matters further, and point to a serious risk that the unrest could degenerate into regional strife.

Despite these worrying signs, I am encouraged by the UN taking action in sending a team to the country last week to investigate alleged human rights violations. With its report to the UN Human Rights Council due on March 21, this is an important step towards ensuring accountability on all sides, bringing those who have committed crimes one step closer to justice. Nevertheless, rhetoric and fact-finding can only go so far. Although Burundi has previously opposed the notion of a foreign peacekeeping force, the international community must be ready to act to avert humanitarian disaster. The African Union (AU), which abandoned plans for the deployment of 5000 peacekeepers in the face of this opposition, must not rule out the use of Article 4 (h) of its charter, permitting intervention in a member state ‘in grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity’, in the event of a major deterioration in Burundi. Should the AU be unable to effectively discharge its duties in such circumstances, substantive measures from the UN Security Council would become necessary.

Whether they occur in a faraway nation, or in our own backyards, affronts to human rights are stains on our collective humanity. We cannot turn a blind eye.

Yours Sincerely,

Jefferi HS

(First published 11 March 2016 in print)