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On the Verge: Burundi in Human Rights Crisis

The African state of Burundi has been thrown into crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza re-elected himself for a third term in June 2015. The opposition has been silenced, and around 250,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries. The UN is now warning that a new genocide could be the consequence of this political crisis.

Burundi is a small state in east Africa, bordering the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, Tanzania to the east and south and Rwanda to the north. Following its independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi has been plagued by ethnic tensions. It has a similar ethnic composition to neighboring Rwanda, with a majority of Hutus (85%) and a minority of Tutsis (15%). The latter were favored by the Belgian colonial power, which laid the foundation for ongoing conflicts.

During the Burundian civil war between 1993 and 2005, it is estimated that approximately 300,000 people were killed, often with ethnic overtones. Moreover, the war has paralyzed the country’s economy and allowed world powers to enter the territory  who have not acted in the best interests of Burundi. Indeed, Burundi holds geo-strategic importance: it’s positioned centrally in Africa, with close proximity to the resource rich Congo. Additionally, the two states share Lake Tanganyika, a huge expanse of water estimated to hold valuable oil reserves.

When President Nkurunziza announced that he would hold a third term, the negative reaction that followed was immediate. Burundi’s civil society and the political opposition felt this was a crime against both the Constitution and the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement (2005), which had ended twelve years of bloody civil war. In the first democratic elections since the end of the war it was the parliament, and not the people, that elected the former Hutu rebel leader Nkurunziza. In Nkurunziza’s opinion, this is a reason to overlook his first time; an opinion not shared by either the opposition or the international community.

The conflict exploded in April and May 2015 when the capital, Bujumburas, experienced violent demonstrations. The situation was clearly unstable, and on the 13th of May a coup d’état broke out under the guidance of the Hutu army general Godefroid Niyombare. This occurred while President Nkurunziza was attending an emergency meeting of the East African leaders in Tanzania, to discuss the current situation in Burundi. Factions within the army held a press conference and announced that the president had been deposed, while the airport was closed in an attempt to prevent Nkurunziza from returning. Protesters filled the streets of Bujumbura to celebrate, but they were too optimistic: within less than a day the forces loyal to the President calmed the rebellion.

That moment represents a deep change for Burundian freedom. On that day, dead soldiers were lying on the streets and private radio channels’ offices were burned. The loyalists’ reaction has been brutal; witnesses report cases of torture and beatings. Today the violence still continues, but it happens in silence. In january this year, Burundian authorities were suspected of secretly having buried dozens of victims in mass graves and satellite images show five possible mass graves outside Bujumbura. According to a UN independent investigation on Burundi published 20 September 2016, the experts could not exclude that “some instances of these gross human rights violations amount to crimes against humanity.

Today there is no more open opposition in Burundi, and the majority of those who fled the country now live in refugee camps in neighboring countries. In addition, Burundi’s  instability has not only ethnic but also increasingly political nature. Godefroid Niyombare, who lead the coup of 2015, was a Hutu like Nkurunziza. Moreover, the Arusha Agreement in 2005 was intended to create an ethnic balance across the military and government. However, it has instead resulted in deepening divisions; especially within the army, where there are both dissident and loyalist soldiers.

The East African Community, the African Union (AU) and the United Nations have failed to bring together Burundian stakeholders for a dialogue. Furthermore, the decision by the AU Peace and Security Council to send a prevention and protection mission of 5000 people was rejected by the government. This past year, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, has warned on several occasions that a new genocide in Burundi is looming. Representatives from the Hutu-dominated government have increasingly fallen into  worrying language against Tutsis. The United Nations Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, has expressed concern at inflammatory statements that were made by the senior official of the ruling party, Pascal Nyabenda, concerning the genocide in Rwanda. Nyabenda stated that this genocide was a “fabrication of the international community”, and alleging it was used to remove the Hutu government that was in power at the time. This statement is concerning as it could be interpreted as genocide denial,  creating a worrying atmosphere given the similar ethnic and political tensions within Burundi.

Although similarities exist between the countries, there are clear differences in dynamics between the Rwanda of 1994 and present-day Burundi. The ethnic situation is very tense, but at least more fair after the Arusha Agreement. However, divisions are sharp, even within the Hutu majority, because of different opinions regarding Nkurunziza’s third term. At this stage, it’s crucial to bring Burundian stakeholders together once again, for a dialogue to restore peace. This doesn’t have to mean that The International Community is excluded – I hope we’ve learned the lessons of history on the tragedy in Rwanda. Indeed, it still has to monitor the situation, to avoid underestimating it; since we know that violence escalates frighteningly quickly, and there are already numerous reasons to worry.

Johanna Caminati Engström

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