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Burundi on the Brink: A Year of Violence, and the World Isn't Sure What to Do

While Burundi wallows in political upheaval, the United Nations has watched its government repress protests as dissidents and members of the opposition are tortured, killed, or disappeared.

by Samuel Oakford
Apr 28 2016, 7:25pm

Photo by Dai Kurokawa/EPA

Last April, Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would seek a controversial and possibly unconstitutional third term in office. The declaration from the former rebel leader, who became president after a decade-long civil war ended in 2005, plunged his country into political upheaval that worsened following his reelection in July.

Over the past year, the United Nations Security Council has watched his government repress protests as dissidents and members of the opposition are tortured, killed, or disappeared. A panel of experts appointed by the council has meanwhile informed it of Rwanda's role in arming members of Burundi's opposition, escalating the violence.

Nkurunziza has dismissed deadlines set by the African Union as well as its failed attempt to impose an AU peacekeeping force on the country without the consent of the government. In December, US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power told colleagues that the country was "going to hell." But it was unclear what the Security Council would do about it.

Because the deployment of a UN peacekeeping mission is considered a political non-starter in New York and is opposed by the government in Bujumbura, the council is now attempting to send a lighter force made up of UN police to Burundi.

Last week, at the council's request, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon provided members with three UN policing choices, ranging from just 20 personnel to a large contingent of 3,000 with some capacity to protect civilians. In the middle is an option termed by the UN as a "police monitoring presence" that Ban's office envisioned as enlisting an initial force of 228. On Wednesday, diplomats met with several prominent Burundian human rights activists who pushed them to support the larger deployment, saying that anything less would be insufficient to stabilize the country and could even offer cover to the government as it continues to torture and kill.

But according to multiple council diplomats, opposition from several countries, including Russia, Egypt, and Senegal, all but ensure that the council will not choose the strongest option — or even anything close to it. The fight is now over what sort of mandate will be given to at most a few hundred police who may or may not be able to intervene in violence.

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

Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, founder and president of the Association for the Protection of Human Rights and Incarcerated Persons, was one of the Burundian rights advocates who met with diplomats from the US, UK, and France on Wednesday.

Earlier in the day, he spoke at a press conference arranged by the US mission. According to diplomats, the US is alone in advocating for the large-scale police deployment of 3,000. That plan, wrote Ban's office in its assessment "is the only option that could provide some degree of physical protection to the population."

"We have requested from the UN in collaboration with the AU to send security forces to protect the population, but right now the population remains in despair," Mbonimpa told reporters. He survived an attempt on his own life and has lost his son and son-in-law to assassins.

"I'm suffering personally," he added. "I've lost my child."

Agnes Kormera Muvira, a member of the Burundi Women and Girls' Movement for Peace and Security, spoke alongside Mbonimpa.

"We are urgently calling for the protection of civilians, as Burundi is still on the brink," she said. "We would want the UN Security Council to urgently send an independent police force to Burundi to protect the civilians and also deter both the government but also opposition forces from committing further human rights violations."

Like Rwanda, Burundi experienced genocide in the 1990s. Though the dispute between Nkurunziza and his opposition centered on an interpretation of the country's constitution, which limits the number of consecutive presidential terms to two, the specter of ethnic bloodshed always loomed large. After the country's constitutional court agreed that the president had been appointed to his first term by parliament rather than directly elected — a decision that an exiled judge from the court later said was coerced — the country broke out in politically motivated violence.

Amid the unrest, some 250,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries. The UN says that more than 400 people have been killed since last April, though Mbonimpa claimed that number could be more than double, with an additional 800 people missing.

UN figures show that in just the last month 31 people were killed in string of assassinations, a sharp rise from the nine deaths recorded in March. Over the weekend, a top general, Athanase Kararuza and his wife were assassinated, and the country's minister of human rights was targeted.

"The great majority of these attacks were carried out by unidentified armed men," said UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein. "I fear that the increasing number of targeted assassinations will inevitably exacerbate the already extremely dangerous spiral of violence and unrest."

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

Last December, after a spasm of violence and attacks on military barracks left dozens dead in the capital, Zeid reported that bodies were "dumped on the streets on an almost nightly basis." The UN and human rights group later reported the presence of mass graves in the vicinity of Bujumbura. Even as the numbers confirmed killed waned slightly this year, diplomats said that UN investigators had documented an uptick in disappearances.

"There are reports that even though it's not as visible, there is increased torture and forced disappearances from both sides," said one western Security Council diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the ongoing negotiations. "This is a clear deterioration so we are very concerned."

For his part, Nkurunziza insists the violence is the work of a handful marginal elements — a view that few would merit.

"This language Nkurunziza spews out, claiming it's just a few bad apples," said another council diplomat. "I don't think anyone in the council buys that."

Adding to the country's incendiary mix are longstanding accusations that Rwanda has had a hand in arming and training members of the opposition. Earlier this year, a panel of experts monitoring sanctions on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) reported to the Security Council that such activities were taking place. While the extent of Rwanda's involvement remains unclear, the experts told the council that they had spoken with 18 Burundians in the eastern DRC who said they were recruited in a refugee camp in Rwanda in May and June of last year and received weapons training. According to those combatants that the panel spoke with, several hundred others had undergone similar trainings.

Nkurunziza's government has spoken darkly of Rwanda's alleged "meddling."

Given the lack of progress on Burundi over the last year, any UN deployment would be noteworthy. But the standards are low. The most likely choice, the middle option presented by Ban, would not, by his office's own admission, "provide any physical protection to the population."

"It carries considerable risk for the United Nations, including exposure to a higher threat level, and it would not respond to possible public expectations of protection," warned the assessment sent to the council. Last year, UN peacekeeping officials determined that an official deployment of blue helmet peacekeepers could not happen quickly enough or on a sufficient scale to save many civilians in the event of widespread ethnic violence or genocide.

In the interim, the UN's human rights office continues to record abuses perpetrated by the government. Since last April, Zeid's staff has found at least 595 cases of ill-treatment or torture by state security forces. More than half of those incidents — at least 345 — have occurred in just in the first four months of this year.

"Many detainees visited by our team in the past few weeks had fresh wounds on their bodies," said Zeid. "Some were unable to walk without assistance after being beaten with belts, iron rods or sharp objects, or burned."

"Perpetrators of torture and ill-treatment have so far enjoyed total immunity," he added.

Follow Samuel Oakford on Twitter: @samueloakford