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

Stressing the severity of the situation in Burundi, High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein spoke less than a week after armed men waged early morning attacks on multiple military bases in and outside of the capital of Bujumbura.
December 17, 2015, 7:25pm
Photo by Jean Pierre Harerimana/Reuters

The violence and intimidation that has become a regular part of life in Burundi in recent months risks destabilizing the African Great Lakes country and requires a determined global response, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said on Thursday.

Adding to a chorus of international voices that have stressed the severity of the situation in Burundi, High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein spoke less than a week after armed men waged early morning attacks on several military bases in and outside of the capital of Bujumbura. The December 11 assaults spiraled into clashes with security forces that lasted throughout the day, with some 87 bodies found on the streets of the city the next morning.

"Burundi is at bursting point, on the very cusp of a civil war," Zeid said during a Human Rights Council Special Session on Burundi. "The carnage of last week confirmed the extent to which violence and intimidation are catapulting the country back to the past — to Burundi's deeply troubled, dark and horrendously violent past."

He said that the most recent violent flare-up has only served to put the "much needed" political solution further out of reach. Zeid noted that "piecemeal" international responses to the situation were no longer appropriate, and reiterated calls for the imposition of travel bans and asset freezes on individuals who incite or commit violence.

"The situation in Burundi demands a robust, decisive response from the international community," the commissioner said. "Diplomatic and political calculations must not eclipse the need for action."

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

Zeid's comments came a day after UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he would dispatch his special envoy Jamal Benomar to the country with the aim of holding talks between Burundi officials and representatives from the African Union.

"An inclusive political dialogue is needed urgently. We must do all we can to prevent mass violence and act decisively should it erupt," Ban said on Wednesday. "What we have seen over the past few days is chilling."

In addition to the dozens killed during Friday's violence — 79 alleged rebels, four police officers, and four members of the military, according to a government tally — security forces rounded up an estimated 300 young, unarmed men after the attacks, International Federation for Human Rights reported this week. The organization's figures show that at least 154 have turned up dead, while an estimated 150 additional people remain missing.

According to the latest numbers from the UN's Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (OHCHR), at least 400 people have died in Burundi since President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to seek a controversial and constitutionally questionable third term in office sparked unrest in April. Young protesters and opposition members took to the streets on the heels of the spring announcement to demonstrate against the president's effort, with the rallies quickly turning violent as police officers waged a brutal crackdown and opposition and government supporters clashed with each other.

Nkurunziza, a 51-year-old former rebel leader who became president after the country's decade-long civil war came to a close in 2005, was re-elected in a 2010 election that also saw outbreaks of political violence. The constitution, established in line with the Arusha peace agreement outlined after the war, sets out a strict two-term limit for president. Nkurunziza's supporters, however, argued that he was still eligible because he had been appointed to his first term by parliament rather than directly elected. The constitutional court ultimately sided with the president and he won re-election in July, with the situation subsequently shifting to politically motivated violence, disappearances, and assassinations on both sides.

Watch On The Line: Danny Gold discusses Burundi's controversial presidential election

More than 220,000 Burundians have fled to Rwanda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as other neighboring states. Assassins have meanwhile targeted supporters of Burundi's government, military officials, journalists, opposition members, and human rights workers and their families. Reports of dead bodies in the streets of the capital have regularly surfaced on social media, and security raids on alleged rebel groups have also occurred. OHCHR reports nearly 3,500 arrests in connection with the political unrest.

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

In an email exchange reported by VICE News on Monday, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power wrote British and French missions in New York that Burundi was "going to hell." She called a recent Security Council session on the situation "pretty pathetic" and decried the lack of contingency planning and UN presence in the country.

Many have expressed concern over the progress of regional mediations that have been put in the hands of Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni. Critics include US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who told US lawmakers during a senate hearing on the Burundi situation that Museveni was distracted by upcoming presidential elections — a view other critics have vocalized as well. The Ugandan leader's minister for foreign affairs, Henry Okello Oryem, refuted these assertions, however, saying Museveni was keeping an eye on Burundi and receiving regular intelligence updates.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB