The Burundian government carries the primary responsibility for protecting its citizens from crimes against humanity, but instead it’s the main abuser.
A UN Commission of Inquiry reported last month that the security forces, the intelligence service, and the ruling party militia bare the greatest guilt for two years of killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, disappearances, and sexual violence in Burundi.
With the government unwilling to protect its population, it falls to the international community to provide that shield.
But although Burundi remains on the agenda of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva and the Security Council in New York, the reaction by the world body has so far been insufficient.
During the most recent session of the Human Rights Council last month, two resolutions on Burundi were adopted.
The first, led by the European Union, extended the mandate of the commission of inquiry – set up to investigate human rights abuses – for a further year. It received support from two African member states, Botswana and Rwanda.
The second resolution was a last-minute bid by the African Group, which sought to discredit and dismantle the panel of inquiry launched by the Human Rights Council in 2016.
It called for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to send three separate experts “to engage with the Burundian authorities and all other stakeholders”.
Burundi has promised to cooperate with those experts. But the likelihood they will have any real impact is in doubt given Burundi’s past refusal to cooperate with UN initiatives that seek an end to the crisis in the country, which pits President Pierre Nkurunziza against an opposition that claims his rule is illegal, and demands his ousting.
For example, in July 2016, the UN Security Council authorised 228 police officers to monitor the security situation. The resolution was an attempt to salvage the reputation of the Council, which needed to be seen as doing something. However, due to government opposition, the police officers were never able to deploy.
Following the outcome of the Human Rights Council meeting last month, it is unlikely that the Security Council will take strong action – such as targeted sanctions – despite Burundi rejecting its legally-binding resolutions.
In New York as in Geneva, Burundi remains one of the most divisive issues. Some Security Council members – primarily China, Russia, and Egypt – see the situation as an internal human rights affair rather than a peace and security issue.
The position of those who want the Security Council to be more engaged on human rights issues, led by the United States, is sharply opposed by those who want the Council to remain focused on more traditional security matters.
All members of the Security Council are waiting to take their cues from African states – primarily Burundi’s neighbours – Tanzania and Uganda.
Given the relatively strong African consensus in Geneva opposing what is characterised as outside interference, and the ongoing – although stalled – mediation efforts led by the East African Community, those members of the Security Council interested in stronger action are unlikely to push for that in the current climate.
Despite the new UN secretary-general’s focus on crisis prevention, the case of Burundi shows how difficult it is to implement prevention measures in specific cases.
The Human Rights Council has no way of enforcing decisions and relies on the cooperation of UN member states, including Burundi. The Security Council is unlikely to act until a situation has already spiralled out of control and threatens international peace and security.
On the ground, three scenarios could jolt the Security Council into action.
The first could be an escalation of attacks from outside Burundi, such as by the Democratic Republic of Congo-based rebel group, the Popular Forces of Burundi. The FPB’s leadership recently vowed to increase attacks. This would likely intensify the violence and could even lead to civil war in the long term.
The second scenario could centre around the more than 400,000 refugees in neighboring countries. Tanzania, which hosts almost 60 percent of fleeing Burundese, has already reached a deal with Burundi and the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, which will see the repatriation of almost 12,000 refugees, many of whom want to leave ill-equipped camps.
If the refugee flow does not stop, Tanzania may change course and ask the Security Council to do something.
A third scenario could see an intensification of internal division within the ruling party, which would likely see a deterioration of the security situation, especially if an attempt is made to prevent Nkurunziza from running for a fourth term.
All three of these scenarios would pose an even greater risk of mass atrocities. If the UN is serious about prevention, it must take credible action on Burundi now before it is too late.
TOP PHOTO: Burundi police on patrol