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Exclusive: Leaked UN Memo Shows There's No Plan to Prevent Genocide in Burundi

VICE News obtained a confidential memo written by the UN’s peacekeeping office that shows the organization is woefully unprepared to prevent worsening bloodshed in Burundi.
Des Casques bleus sud-africains à Goma, en RDC en 2012. (Photo par Dai Kurokawa/EPA)

The UN is woefully unprepared to tackle the possibility of worsening bloodshed in Burundi, according to a confidential memo written by the organization's peacekeeping office and obtained by VICE News.

The document is part of contingency planning underway at both the United Nations and the African Union (AU) for future operations in Burundi, and was sent to Security Council members earlier this week. Signed by Herve Ladsous, head of the UN's Department of Peacekeeping (DPKO), the memo envisions various scenarios in Burundi, ranging from continued sporadic violence to genocide-type situations, as well as possible UN deployments in the country.


None of deployment options appear capable of protecting most Burundians in the event of open war or more widespread killings. "Most importantly," DPKO wrote, "United Nation's peacekeeping is limited in its ability to address significant violence against civilians, even violence amounting to genocide, where it lacks a political framework and the strategic consent of the host nation and/or the main parties to the conflict."

Just a decade removed from civil war, fears of such violence in Burundi have increased in the past year, reaching a bloody crescendo last month when more than 80 people — and possibly many more — were killed in the span of several days. On the morning of December 11, gunmen attacked three military bases in and around the capital Bujumbura. In the aftermath, security forces stormed neighborhoods associated with the opposition. According to investigators at the International Federation for Human Rights, more than 150 civilians were killed, and almost as many disappeared.

The following day, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power wrote a grim email to British and French diplomats, saying that the country was "going to hell." In the short note, obtained by VICE News, Power expressed frustration with an emergency Security Council session the day before. "No contingency planning, no UN presence, no dialogue…" she wrote. As the DPKO assessment makes clear, a month later, the UN's contingency planning remains hamstrung by a lack of resources and, even if deployed, peacekeepers that are largely untested in preventing mass atrocities.


Related: Burundi Is 'Going to Hell,' Says US Ambassador to United Nations

On December 17, the AU approved its own peacekeeping force of up to 5,000 personnel for Burundi. Citing a clause in its charter that had never been used before, the organization's Peace and Security Council said it was willing to send the force — dubbed MAPROBU — with or without the consent of Burundi's government. Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi's embattled president, brushed aside a four-day deadline to accept MAPROBU, and said any intervention would be met with force.

It was Nkurunziza's decision last April to run for a contentious third term that set off the current turmoil. Opposition politicians and activists, citing Burundi's constitution, declared that the president was limited to two terms, and took to the streets. Nkrunziza, formerly the leader of the country's largest Hutu rebel force during the civil war that ended in 2005, said his first term, which began that year, didn't count against the term limit because he was technically appointed. Amid great controversy, the country's courts agreed, and he was re-elected in July.

Watch the VICE News dispatch Election Results and Post-Poll Violence: Burundi on the Brink:

Since April, the UN estimates that at least 400 people have been killed — nearly half of them in just the last two months. In its assessment, DPKO said the members of the ruling CNDD-FDD party's notorious youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure, "continue to target actual or perceived members of the political opposition and civil society." Meanwhile, at least two formal rebel groups have emerged. On December 23, former army Colonel Edward Nshirimirana told media that a new group, the Republican Forces of Burundi, had been established with the explicit intent of overthrowing Nkurunziza. The second rebel force, according to DPKO, is know as Resistance pour l'Etat de droit, or, Resistance for the Rule of Law.


In a region beset in the past half century by ethnic-based killings — both Burundi and neighboring Rwanda experienced genocides in the 1990s — analysts have taken pains to characterize the current turmoil as primarily political. Indeed, many of Nkurunziza's most ardent opponents, both politicians and members of civil society, are part of the country's Hutu majority.

However, in the past month, several UN officials have publicly stated their concern over increasing ethnic divisions. On December 17, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein warned that "a frightened, uninformed population, fed a diet of hate speech and paranoia, is one that may be recruited to the path of violence by either side." The consequences of such a mobilization, he said, "would be catastrophic — especially given the ethnic elements already being stoked — given the country's terrible history in this regard." Burundi, he added, was "on the very cusp of a civil war."

Nkurunziza's repeated accusations that Rwanda is playing a role in the arming and training of rebels have added to the tensions. A report released in December by Refugees International documented recruitment efforts involving Rwandan officials, among refugee camps inside Rwanda, where some 75,000 Burundians have fled. The report also cited witnesses who said recruits were brought to the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo en route back to Burundi.


Related: UN Rights Chief Says Burundi Is on the 'Cusp of a Civil War,' Calls for Intervention

Several diplomats and sources close to the UN confirmed to VICE News that UN investigators have documented such activity, but have not yet made the finding public. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who came to power after leading a predominantly Tutsi rebel force in the 1990s, has denied any role in fomenting an insurgency in Burundi.

The political framework that DPKO says would be necessary to keep the peace, or to accommodate a UN or AU deployment, remains absent in Burundi. This week, the government said it would not take part in proposed negotiations in Tanzania, claiming that the individuals involved in the talks were responsible for arming rebels.

In light of the uncertainty in the country, the UN continues to support planning efforts for the deployment of MAPROBU, the African Union's peacekeeping force. In the letter obtained by VICE News, DPKO said the AU envisioned the mission as a "phased deployment," starting with the arrival of more military and civilian observers, along with a "small force protection presence." Only later, again with the consent of Burundi's government, would infantry and police units arrive. A third phase would begins "once political dialogue reaches an agreement, at which point the force would be configured to support implementation of the agreement."

'A truly worst-case scenario will result in a scale of violence beyond the United Nations' capacity to protect against without significant additional capabilities.'


But in its contingency planning, DPKO also envisions scenarios that far surpass the instability that MAPROBU or a UN force could withstand, and ones that appear increasingly possible. The first scenario described in the memo is more or less the current state of affairs, "a continuation of relatively low-intensity, sporadic violence." The second is much worse: "an escalation of organized violence, bringing the country into a situation of civil war." The third and worst-case possibility is described as an environment of "widespread and systematic human rights violations, potentially amounting to genocide."

In the second two scenarios, the UN predicts a spread of fighting throughout Burundi, and spillover into Rwanda and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), affecting millions. The third predicts ethnic tensions also spilling over. In both scenarios, peacekeepers "would need to be deployed urgently to protect civilians, prevent widespread and systematic human rights violations, secure key roads," guard Bujumbura's airport, and safeguard humanitarian assistance.

In the first scenario, DPKO envisions the deployment of MAPROBU as still being viable, saying the UN could potentially offer a "support package" with Security Council authorization. If the Security Council were to vote for a full-fledged UN force in the country, DPKO would consider "re-hatting" members the AU force, meaning they would become UN peacekeepers, which are known as Blue Helmets. But any UN mission, as the memo notes, would require three elements: a Security Council mandate under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, a supply of sufficiently vetted and willing troops, and the consent of Burundi's government. None of those things are guaranteed.


Related: Burundi's President Vows to Fight Back if African Union Troops Enter His Country

According to the letter, DPKO has formed two plans for UN intervention in Burundi. The first would involve a brigade of up to 4,000 troops drawn from MONUSCO, the UN's mission in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mission would consist of "up to four infantry battalions, Special Forces, attack and utility helicopters, an engineering unit, and up to two formed police units and 50 individual officers along with a small civilian capacity, including a civilian Head of Mission." DPKO estimates it would need 28 days to have its troops and assets readied for deployment across the border for a stay of up to 120 days.

Among the possible complications of such a maneuver are cajoling troop contributing countries with Blue Helmets in the Congo to agree to their possible redeployment in Burundi. According to the note, the UN has reached out to countries with troops in the Congo, and two, it said, "had responded positively."

But even if that goes well, DPKO is concerned that drawing troops away from the Congo could lead to dangerous gaps in security there, especially as the country approaches contentious elections in November. As the temporary mission in Burundi would be linked to MONUSCO for supply purposes, it would also require consent of the Congolese government in Kinshasa.

"Combined with the continued threat of armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, removing a brigade and two formed police units from the Mission [MONUSCO] during this period will threaten the Mission's ability to protect civilians and provide security and stability in the country," DPKO cautioned in its assessment.


In all three scenarios, DPKO only envisions a UN force as "a measure of last resort where political dialogue and preventative deployments have failed to avert widespread conflict and where no first-responder-nation or coalition-of-the-willing has stepped forward."

DPKO's second option foresees as many as 10,000 troops being sent to Burundi, which would require four to six months of preparations. "Even with advanced planning, the timeline for such a deployment is unlikely to meet the rapid deployment needs in an evolving situation such as Burundi," wrote DPKO.

After outlining the scenarios in Burundi and possible UN responses, DPKO worryingly cautioned that all the peacekeeping possibilities it presented to the Security Council "offer limited scope" to prevent atrocities because of logistical complications. In any scenario, "these options also highlight strategic gaps that the United Nations in unsuited to fill," said the document, adding that despite being charged with civilian protection, the UN would be unprepared to handle a genocide-type environment.

Related: Armed Men Wage Attacks on Military in Burundi as the World Warns of Civil War Risk

Such a development would be deeply embarrassing for the Security Council, whose darkest hour is widely viewed as its effective abandonment of the peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the country's 1994 genocide. But, as DPKO's assessment makes clear, there is currently no sufficient plan should such violence — or even a lesser form — emerge in Burundi.

"The last-resort deployment outlined here will seek to save as many lives as possible, but a truly worst-case scenario will result in a scale of violence beyond the United Nations' capacity to protect against without significant additional capabilities," said DPKO.

In concluding the note, DPKO said that the Security Council should go ahead with a tentatively planned trip to Burundi as part of a larger effort to reach a political solution to the crisis.

"The growing number of targeted human rights violations and increasing protection concerns in Burundi, coupled with its history of violence and instability, require further and comprehensive planning leading to effective protection of civilians as a core priority for the for the deployment of uniformed United Nations personnel," wrote DPKO.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford