Elect to Act, Why the Unrest in Burundi Cannot Be Ignored

The following is an entry in ICRtoP’s ongoing ‘RtoP at 10′ blog series. The series invites civil society and academic experts to examine critical country cases, international/regional perspectives, and thematic issues that have been influential in the development of the norm over the past 10 years, and that will have a lasting impact going forth into the next decade. Below is a piece by Sean Murphy, Research Intern with the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect. Applying the Framework of Analysis produced by the United Nations Office for the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect, Mr. Murphy reflects on the risks present in Burundi as the country prepares for a contested upcoming election.  

Mothers line up to register their children in Rwanda after fleeing their native Burundi. Photo credit: UNHCR/S. Masengesho

Mothers line up to register their children in Rwanda after fleeing their native Burundi. Photo credit: UNHCR/S. Masengesho

In under eight weeks’ time, the people of Burundi will come forward to vote in what is becoming an increasingly contested and volatile presidential election. As the vote nears, violence has erupted between protestors and police, with twelve civilians reported dead so far and thousands having fled to neighboring Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, citing threats and intimidation by the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure. There has also been mass detainment of those voicing disapproval with the government, and steps to silence the media seeking to report on the deteriorating situation. The recent decision by Burundi’s current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, to seek a third presidential term, which violates the country’s constitution, and run in the June elections has been the spark that has led to Burundi experiencing the most serious unrest since the end of its civil war in 2005. While atrocity crimes – genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing – are not presently being perpetrated in Burundi, many civil, regional, and international actors are concerned about the risk because of the highly contested nature of the elections combined with the underlying and unresolved issues that the country faces. Early reporting and the identifying of warning signs, such as those present in Burundi, is crucial to spur swift and preventive action to protect populations. Given that atrocity crimes are not spontaneous acts that erupt without warning but rather are the result of a process of planning at the hands of those most responsible, there are often windows of time to take preventive action.

The Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes, published by the United Nations Off ice on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (OGPRtoP) in 2014, is a new tool to help identify the risk for atrocity crimes and lead to early warning and reporting. It contains 14 risk factors for atrocity crimes and within each risk factor are additional indicators relating to that specific risk factor. The risk factor helps to identify the probability of atrocity crimes overall, while the indicators assist in determining the degree to which an individual risk factor is present. These risk factors and indicators are meant to help monitors and analysts in guiding their collection and assessment of information where suspected atrocity crimes are taking place. This blog will show the use of the Framework of Analysis as a practical tool in helping with the prevention of atrocity crimes and violations by identifying some of the risks that are currently present in Burundi.

Please note that this blog does not seek to identify all current risk factors and indicators present in the country.

Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes. Published by the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.

Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes. Published by the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect.

Burundi Through the Framework

Risk Factor 2: Record of serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law

Indicator 2.2: Past acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes or their incitement

Burundi is a country that has suffered tremendous violence throughout its history, whether it be the 1972 genocide in which around 200,000 were killed at the hands of then-President Michel Micombero, who deployed his Tutsi military commanders to kill Hutus across Burundi, or the twelve-year civil war that saw about 300,000 Hutus and Tutsis killed due to violent inter-ethnic hostilities. Despite the atrocities carried out, adequate steps have not been taken to hold perpetrators accountable and assist victims.

On 4 December 2014, Burundi’s Parliament elected eleven members to a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to look into the decades of killings it has faced since independence in 1962. The Burundian TRC has been long overdue and has faced continuous setbacks and delays. Furthermore, its establishment was boycotted by opposition politicians from the Tutsi minority who feel the TRC protects the President’s ruling party and, “ignores the element of justice contained in the Arusha Peace Accord.” While the establishment of a TRC is a positive step towards bringing justice to those responsible for the killings, there are many challenges it will have to overcome. TRCs are often criticized for their slow movement and their ability to secure pragmatic resolutions that will satisfy victims has been questioned. The TRC will have four years to establish the truth about ethnic killings from 1962-2008, identify and map mass graves, propose a reparations program, and promote reconciliation and forgiveness. This will be an extremely difficult undertaking, and with the presidential elections not far away, the threat of renewed ethnic clashes remains.

Risk Factor 1: Situations of armed conflict or other forms of instability

Indicator 1.7: Economic instability caused by scarcity of resources or disputes over their use or exploitation

The issue of limited land and resources in Burundi is a serious cause of contention. With around 10 million people packed into just 10,475 square miles and the return of refugees previously driven out by violence and conflict, the amount of land one possesses is vital to survival. Burundi also contains a very high internally displaced persons (IDPs) population, further exacerbating complex ownership issues. Most of the population relies on subsistence farming and many barely have enough to sustain themselves and their families. If the ineffective and inconsistent policy decrees from both the government and the Commission National Terres et Autres Biens (CNTB), the agency tasked with resolving land disputes, continue, it could possibly serve as another triggering factor that could lead to the outbreak of violent ethnic conflict.

Indicator 1.5: Political instability caused by disputes over power or growing nationalist, armed or radical opposition movements

Enter the Imbonerakure. The Imbonerakure is the youth wing of Nkurunziza’s current ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy—Forces for Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). They have been flagged by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International for their previous violent actions against civilians and, according to recent reports, its members have been responsible for the disappearance of family members and carried out other intimidation tactics against those associated with the political opposition.

Furthermore, Tutsis are also being targeted because of their ethnicity in what are increasing signs that tensions between Hutus and Tutsis could once again produce devastating consequences. To gain an actual account of the torment, Pelagie Nduwimana, a Burundian refugee now in Rwanda, describes her experience stating: “One day, in a bar, one of them told me that if the president gave him the signal, he will clean his rifle with the blood of Tutsi…There is a lack of food and shelter here [Rwanda], but I will never go back to Burundi. Even if we are forced to go, I prefer to struggle and to die here.”

Risk Factor 4: Motives or Incentives Indicator 4.1: Political motives, particularly those aimed at the attainment or consolidation of power.

Throughout its text, the Framework brings continued attention to the importance of early warning. Specifically under Risk Factor 4 it notes that, “From an early warning perspective, it is extremely important to be able to identify motivations, aims or drivers that could influence certain individuals or groups to resort to massive violence as a way to achieve goals, feed an ideology, or respond to real or perceived threats.” With regards to Burundi, President Nkurunziza’s political motivations to seek a third term have the potential to eradicate the decade of peace in a very short amount of time.

Electoral workers conducting voter registration for the upcoming 2015 elections in Burundi. Photo credit: MENUB

Electoral workers conducting voter registration for the upcoming 2015 elections in Burundi. Photo credit: MENUB

The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, from which the current constitution is based upon, stipulates a two-term limit for the presidency, meaning that seeking a third term is a violation of both the agreement and the constitution. Nkurunziza and his supporters claim he is eligible to run as he was elected by Parliament and not “by universal direct suffrage” as indicated in the Agreement. On 5 May 2015 the Burundian Constitutional Court decreed that Nkurunziza’s decision to run did not violate the constitution, which further enraged protestors. Reports claim that the judges were under heavy pressure and in some instances even received death threats from senior government officials to rule in favor of Nkurunziza. If President Nkurunziza does not step aside and allow for a free and fair election process to be carried out, Burundi could fall right back into another civil war. The Arusha Peace Agreement should be abided by so as to establish important precedents that would prevent situations like this from occurring in the future.

Risk Factor 8: Triggering Factors

Indicator 8.8: Census, elections, pivotal activities related to those processes, or measures that destabilize them.

Triggering Factors are “Events or circumstances that, even if seemingly unrelated to atrocity crimes, may seriously exacerbate existing conditions or may spark their onset.” As evidenced throughout this piece, the presidential election, set to be held on 26 June 2015, is a pivotal triggering factor that is responsible for the current volatility in Burundi. The 2015 presidential election has also produced another alarming development: the censorship of media outlets, such as radio stations and the internet. The decision by the government to shut down independent radio stations and block access to social media, according to Risk Factor 7 in the Framework, is described as an, “enabling circumstance or preparatory action.” It specifically corresponds to Indicator 7.6: “Imposition of strict control on the use of communication channels, or banning access to them.” Christian Mihr, the director of Reporters Without Borders Germany said, “President Nkurunziza is openly trying to silence media coverage of disagreeable events.” Aside from silencing political opposition and the protests, by limiting access to the internet and independent news outlets it becomes increasingly difficult for agencies monitoring the situation to report the risk or commission of atrocity crimes and easier for those carrying them out to do so. The Framework states, “Such events, actions or changes can also serve to create an environment that favors or even encourages the commission of such crimes.”

Looking Ahead

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, in his recent trip to Burundi on 15 April 2015, stated: In short, Burundi cannot afford another outbreak of violence. It cannot afford it economically, politically, socially or culturally. It cannot afford it domestically or internationally…I urge the President and the ruling party, as well as opposition leaders, police and military to place the future well-being of the country as a whole before their own personal political desires. The Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes is a useful tool that helps signal the warning signs but it must be put to good use behind a conscientious effort to protect civilians. Jean Claude Nkundwa, a peace activist in Bujumbura and Jonathan W. Rosen, a journalist based in Rwanda, warns the international community that it cannot afford to repeat its previous stance of negligence from two decades ago saying: Twenty-one years after the Rwandan genocide, as the United States, the United Nations and other international actors still try to come to terms with their failure to act in the face of horrific violence, they must not underestimate the severity of the crisis that once again is brewing in the region.

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