Could the UN have done more to prevent Burundi’s escalating violence?
As UN warnings of the risk of genocide in Burundi reach fever pitch, some observers wonder if the organisation, which had a fully fledged political mission in the small central African country until just months before the latest chaos erupted, could have done more to prevent the violence.
The UN’s political mission, known as BNUB, was closed in December 2014 after the government insisted it be replaced with an election observation mission for this year’s polls. If not, authorities said, the UN would have to leave altogether.
This was just a few months before Burundi slipped into its worst political crisis since a 12-year civil war, which ended with a 2006 peace deal.
Human rights groups have accused Burundi’s security forces of unjustified killings in a counter-insurgency crackdown following the attacks. Burundi’s government has insisted its troops acted professionally.
On 18 December, the African Union authorised sending 5,000 peacekeepers to Burundi, in a move that marked the first use of its powers to deploy troops to a member country against its will.
The roots of Burundi’s current crisis run deep, but despite clear evidence that the civil war divisions outlived the 2006 peace deal, the UN agreed to pull out its political mission and replace it with an election observation mission, known as Menub.
The government of Burundi asked the UN to close BNUB because “[the government] felt there had been enough progress”, said Issaka Souna of Niger, deputy head of Menub. “It seemed to them that they had made enough effort, both politically and in terms of security,” he added.
At the time, however, there was little concrete evidence of this progress: instead, rights groups documented mounting abuses and a dangerously narrowing political space marked by assassinations, arbitrary arrests, attacks by unidentified armed groups, and violent repression of the opposition.
The UN long suspected Burundi could backslide into ethnic killings: in 2006 the former Belgian colony was the first country, along with Sierra Leone, to be put on the agenda of the UN Peacebuilding Commission, to ensure countries torn apart by war do not regress into violence.
The crisis of 2015 surprised almost no one in Burundi – for years, the country had neglected to address issues “that in another context would call for immediate action”, activist Landry Ninteretse says. “The protests were ‘la goutte qui fait déborder le vase’ or ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’.”
The African Union’s peace and security council said in its statement last Friday that it had asked the UN security council for the final clearance it needed to get boots on the ground. Burundi’s authorities dismissed the announcement, saying no foreign force would get in without permission.
This is not the first time Burundi has faced international intervention. It has taken an isolationist position in the past, and shown itself capable of ignoring international and regional pleas. In 1996, Burundi would not grant permission for Organisation of African Unity troops to enter the country to stop ethnic killings. A regional military force was eventually dispatched in 2003, just before a final peace deal was agreed.
On Saturday, the UN said regional mediation efforts should be urgently accelerated, and that all the parties in Burundi should cooperate with the proposed AU peacekeeping mission.