Dear International Community,
I understand your concerns about the specter of a new Rwandan genocide. But this is not the time to prevent atrocities in Burundi, it is time to address the present political crisis. The direct policy differences between the two approaches at this point in time may be subtle, but the implications are significant.
1) It’s time to coordinate response to Burundi, by lining up all the key regional and international actors behind a single process of mediation (rather than the sliding scale of increasingly coercive response measures, let alone Rwanda’s veiled threat of military action).
In my opinion, this would include issuing a firm position on abiding by the constitutional limits on Presidential terms, but opening negotiations on the key issues driving violence would be step one. (And, yes, a principled position on respecting constitutions would have implications for Rwanda and DRC).
2) The framework of preventing atrocities empowers Burundian and regional actors who are seeking for more radical responses to today’s violence. The more reasoned responses are advocating for mediation: as examples, both the AU and notably Kenya (which has its own recent history of electoral violence resolved through external mediation) are making this argument. But there seems to be a crowded landscape of possible modes of engagement. Below are some of the policies at play:
- From the US: Marines were sent to guard the embassy and assist in evacuations of foreigners, while threatening economic sanctions and travel bans;
- From Rwanda—now temporary home to an estimated 112,000 recent Burundian refugees—a statement emphasizing the need for civilian protection, with undertones of a veiled threat of military intervention if violence escalates and appears to involve groups that Rwanda feels directly threatens its security;
- From Kenya, a call for political mediation;
- From Uganda, not much, as there is little grounds to be critical of alterations to the Constitution to allow a president to stay in power—in fact precisely what Museveni did in 2005. Uganda provided a site of refuge for Nkurunziza during the coup attempt.
- From the AU: It condemned the coup attempt and “emphasizes the inevitability for all Burundian political forces to respect the principles of the Arusha Agreements to ensure lasting peace, unity and democratic governance.” Essentially, a call to abide by the term limits as established in the agreement that ended the civil war;
- From Tanzania–where some 80,000 Burundians have fled as violence increased, and which is now facing a cholera outbreak—the president issued a statement for the East African Community calling for a delay in elections but not beyond the mandate of the current government.
- From Europe– The European Commission provided €1.5 million for assistance and protection of Burundian refugees. However, the traditional donors of Burundi, notably Belgium, France and Germany, show no diplomatic smarts to maneuver President Nkurunziza into shying from authoritarian practices.
3) The potential for electoral violence in Burundi has been known for months, and the U.S., among others, has made efforts to mitigate this possibility. For instance, Burundi received visits from high level US diplomats—with visits in March from the UN Security Council, including Amb. Power; in April, Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor went to Bujumbura; and Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, attended an emergency ministerial meet of the East African Community in May. Former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold, who was United States special envoy for the Great Lakes region of Africa (until February) also warned of impending challenges and the country’s fate has been the subject of multiple prevention-related interventions.
These actions are: A. admirable; and B. should be converted into critical analysis of the structural relations that the US has with the country. See below.
4) As Arthur Assimwe writes on AllAfrica.com, the core problem isn’t necessarily presidential term limits. It is what those limits are supposed to enable—peaceful change in power so citizens can hold their leaders accountable to things like, for instance: high levels of corruption, a slow moving economy, food insecurity (more than 60% households are food insecure), and across-the-board poor basic health indicators. In short, Burundi’s problems crystallized at the point of the electoral challenge, but the symptoms are slow-moving with devastating impact on the population.
The government has survived through the largesse of international donors, including the World Bank, EU, Belgium, African Development Fund and the US. In 2014, just under half of Burundi’s budget came from foreign donors. Its time for them to speak up loudly and coordinate efforts to calm the situation and set Burundi back on the path towards peaceful political transition.
Implicit is another challenge for an agenda aimed at prevention, whether framed as conflict, violence or atrocities prevention: it is structurally too late and avoids grappling with the challenges that are immediate, including how existing policies aggravate tensions or build on the unique forces of resilience already existing within a country.
I remain unconvinced that the lens of “atrocity prevention” is the right one use for this longer-term work, which ideally would do a lot more than “prevent atrocities”—its aim has much more positive impact than merely avoiding the worst-case scenario. And, as research has demonstrated, there are no necessary or direct roads from long-term development challenges to perpetration of mass violence against civilians.
Nonetheless, some of the most interesting current research on mass atrocities and genocide is beginning to probe this very issue.Two new books explore negative cases, that is, places where the conditions appeared to be ripe for atrocities, but mass killing did not occur. The scholars thereby illuminate sources of restraint or resilience to violence: Scott Straus’ Making and Unmaking Nations: War, Leadership, and Genocide in Modern Africa and Stephen McLoughlin’s The Structural Prevention of Mass Atrocities: Understanding Risk and Resilience.
For Burundi today, however, the question is, how to engage to defuse the violence and help Burundians forge a stronger path out of crisis than the one that led them into it. Without doubt, this will require a unified and resolute international mediation, and subsequent commitment to evaluating how longer-term commitments can participate in Burundian efforts to build resilience.
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