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Skepticism Greets Decision to Send Human Rights and Military Observers Into Burundi

President Pierre Nkurunziza has finally agreed to let the international community intervene in Burundi's crisis, but regional experts and members of the political opposition have expressed their doubts.
March 1, 2016, 10:55am
Imagen por Evrard Ngendakumana/Reuters

More than 10 months after protests in Burundi devolved into violent clashes against President Pierre Nkurunziza's controversial decision to seek a third term in office, and more than 400 deaths later, the landlocked African country has finally agreed to let the international community get involved.

But as details of the initiative emerge, regional experts and members of the political opposition alike have expressed doubt that the effort will fix the current crisis.

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Following a series of high-profile visits to Burundi last week from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and a delegation of African leaders, Nkurunziza reversed course and agreed to allow the African Union to send human rights and military monitors to the country. The UN also revealed that it plans to send a team of investigators from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to examine alleged human rights violations and abuses in the country and to assess how the situation can be stabilized.

"Our aim is to help the state fulfill its human rights obligations, [and] ensure accountability for human rights violations and abuses, including by identifying alleged perpetrators," said Christof Heyns, the UN's special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions, who is also a member of the investigative team.

Burundi has been engulfed in violence since Nkurunziza's third-term announcement in April, which sparked protests that quickly escalated into clashes with police and the president's supporters. Much of the public believed that the 52-year-old former rebel leader's move violated the country's constitution, passed following its 12-year civil war, which stipulated a limit of two terms for the president. But Nkurunziza and his supporters maintained that he was eligible to run again because he was technically appointed to his first term in 2005 by parliament rather than democratically elected.

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Burundi's constitutional court ultimately sided with Nkurunziza, and he won a disputed election in July. But the unrest intensified, driving more than 240,000 people from the country to neighboring nations like Rwanda and Tanzania.

The crisis has raised concerns in the international community about the risk of civil war breaking out again, destabilizing Burundi after years of progress that followed the 2005 peace accord that installed Nkurunziza as president.

Related: Cautious Optimism Follows Meeting Between Burundi's President and UN Secretary General

A timeline for the African Union intervention has not been set, but the plan will see 100 human rights observers and 100 military observers deployed to Burundi, according to an announcement over the weekend from South African President Jacob Zuma, who headed up talks that included leaders from countries like Senegal, Ethiopia, and Mauritania.

"We believe strongly that the solution to Burundi's political problems can be attained only through inclusive and peaceful dialogue," Zuma said in a statement after the decision was made.

The initiative scaled-down version of options floated over the last several months, which included the possibility of sending in an AU-backed peacekeeping mission of 5,000 troops, with or without Burundi's consent. As violence spiked at the end of 2015, the AU publicly debated using this option for the first time in its history, but Nkurunziza's government said it would not consent to a plan that allowed foreign troops on its soil, winning support among some nations who said it would amount to an invasion. The idea was ultimately nixed at the regional body's annual meeting earlier this year.

'This is an intervention with very little teeth, if you want to call it that at all'

Though Nkurunziza's acceptance of the latest modest intervention signals a change of tone, Burundi's political opposition has criticized the new plan for not being strong enough.

"They have to increase the number so they can cover the large part of the [country's] territory," Thacien Sibomana, spokesman for the opposition UPRONA party, told Reuters. "They unfortunately remained silent on the peacekeepers deployment while people are continuously dying."

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Considering Burundi has failed over the last year to follow through on agreements to allow human rights observers access, the latest initiative is unlikely to be strong enough to address the severity of the situation, according to Cara Jones, an assistant professor of political science at Mary Baldwin College and an expert on Burundi.

"There's a lot of sound, but very little fury," she said. "This is an intervention with very little teeth, if you want to call it that at all."

Open violence has abated somewhat in recent weeks, but the conflict has largely moved from the capital to rural areas, and remains ongoing. While Jones doesn't think the situation will worsen with international observers on the ground, she's not convinced it will get any better.

Related: UN Panel Says Rwanda Is Training Rebels to Depose Burundi's President

A recent Human Rights Watch report found that government forces are targeting members of opposition, noting an "alarming rate" of murders, abductions, arbitrary arrests, and torture. Though dead bodies littered the nation's streets late last year, HRW noted that many abuses are now taking place behind the scenes in the form of secret arrests.

"The Burundian police, military, intelligence services, and members of the ruling party's youth league are using increasingly brutal methods to punish and terrorize perceived opponents," Daniel Bekele, Africa director at HRW, remarked in the report. "Government forces and the ruling party are treating suspected opponents with extreme cruelty and viciousness, which could further escalate the violence."

Violence perpetrated by opposition forces has also increased. HRW documented instances in which Burundian refugees who fled across the border to Rwanda were being recruited to join armed rebel groups. The UN has previously documented the recruitment of Burundian refugees in Rwanda.

"Attacks by opposition groups have become increasingly targeted, aimed at members or sympathizers of the ruling party and the security forces," Bekele said. "Contrary to their leaders' statements that they want to defend the population, their tactics are putting ordinary Burundians at risk of further abuses."

If the AU action plan fails to improve the situation as government abuses persist and rebel groups become a growing threat, the simmering rebellion could potentially evolve into a full return civil war.

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB