What's In Blue

Council to Hold Urgent Meeting on Burundi

This afternoon (9 November), the Council is expected to hold a briefing, followed by consultations, on the situation in Burundi. The meeting was called for by France, the penholder on Burundi, in light of the rapidly deteriorating security environment, which has been marked by heightened violence and a rise in inflammatory speech. Expected briefers are Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs Jeffrey Feltman; High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein (via video teleconference from Geneva); Ambassador Jurg Lauber, the Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the UN and chair of the Peacebuilding Commission’s Burundi Configuration (via video teleconference from Bujumbura); the Secretary-General’s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide Adama Dieng (via video teleconference) and a representative of the AU. It seems there was also an effort by the UK to include a women’s civil society briefer, but there was not sufficient support among Council members.

There is heightened concern among a number of Council members—and the wider international community—that the situation in Burundi has the potential to descend into large-scale violence. Hate speech in recent days has been particularly alarming.

On 29 October, Burundi Senate President Révérien Ndikuriyo, an ally of President Pierre Nkurunziza, made a speech to government officials in Bujumbura that called for acts of violence against protesters from the opposition.

On 2 November, Nkurunziza threatened that those who are illegally armed should relinquish their weapons within five days or face punishment as “enemies of the nation.” Burundi’s Security Minister, Alain Bunyoni, announced the launch of new disarmament operations on 7 November, which he said will be conducted with respect for human rights.

Welly Nzitonda, the son of prominent human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, was assassinated on 6 November in Bujumbura, after being arrested by the police. (Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, who himself survived an assassination attempt in August, was among the civil society representatives who met with Council members during the Council’s visiting mission to Burundi in March. In addition to the assassination of his son, his son-in-law was killed in early October.)

In the meantime, in a speech made on 6 November, neighbouring Rwandan President Paul Kagame accused Burundi of allowing its own people to be killed. Burundi has labeled these remarks as “inappropriate”. Relations between Rwanda and Burundi have been tense, with Burundi accusing Rwanda of backing the opposition.

Recent events in Burundi have elicited widespread condemnation and alarm, with concerns raised that that the incendiary language being used is reminiscent of the hate speech leading up to the 1994 Rwanda genocide. On 5 November, US Permanent Representative to the UN Samantha Power issued a statement expressing alarm at the “dangerous, irresponsible rhetoric …of the government, loyalist militias, violent anti-government groups and criminal elements,” noting that Ndikuriyo had “reportedly invoked the language of horrors the region hasn’t witnessed in 20 years.” James Duddridge, the UK’s Foreign Office Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, wrote an open letter to Burundi’s Foreign Minister, Alain Aime Nyamitwe, on 6 November, similarly arguing that the hate speech being employed by Burundi’s leaders was similar to language “used twenty-one years ago to which the world did not pay sufficient attention.” The International Crisis Group warned in a 5 November Conflict Alert that the language in Ndikuriyo’s speech, which was recorded and has been disseminated in social media, “is unambiguous to Burundians and chillingly similar to that used in Rwanda in the 1990s before the genocide.” In recent days, the violence and inflammatory language has also been condemned in statements by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid condemned the killing of Welly Nzitonda in a 6 November statement, as did the UN Secretary-General in his statement. ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda warned on 6 November that anyone inciting or engaging in mass violence “or contributing in any other manner to the commission of crimes falling within the jurisdiction of the…ICC…is liable to prosecution before this Court.”

Today’s Burundi briefing and consultations take place only eight days before the signature event of the UK’s Council presidency, an open debate focusing on peaceful societies and conflict prevention. In many ways, the situation in Burundi could be viewed as a test case for the conflict prevention efforts of the Council and the broader international community.

Council members have closely followed the situation in Burundi throughout 2015, and during their 13 March 2015 visit to the country, several Council members stressed to Nkurunziza that if he were to seek a third term, it would be very divisive and a risk to Burundi’s stability. However, the Council has in many ways deferred to regional and subregional actors to take the lead in addressing the situation over the past several months. The UN Office in Burundi (BNUB) was terminated at the end of 2014 at the request of Burundi, but against the wishes of UN officials, civil society groups and some Council members. The UN presence was reduced to an electoral mission and a limited UN Country Team, albeit with a continuing presence of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Council members last discussed Burundi on 21 October, when Feltman briefed in consultations. During the meeting, Feltman expressed alarm at retaliatory killings, impunity, inflammatory language, and repression of free speech. A number of members believed that that the crisis had increased in severity and required a more proactive approach. However, China had a more restrained perspective, apparently due its position regarding the sovereignty of Burundi.

The substance and tenor of Feltman’s remarks echoed the stern language of the 17 October AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) communiqué [(PSC/PR/COMM.(DLI)]. The PSC expressed deep concern about the continuing political impasse in Burundi, growing insecurity and rising violence. The PSC adopted several measures in an effort to address the situation—including, among other things, increasing the number of human rights observers and military experts in Burundi, requesting the AU Commission to finalise contingency planning for deployment of an African-led mission if needed, and imposing targeted sanctions against Burundian stakeholders who have perpetuated violence. The communiqué also requested the Council to endorse the AU position.

The Council’s most recent outcome on Burundi was a presidential statement (S/PRST/2015/18) adopted on 28 October. It expressed concern about insecurity and violence in Burundi, condemned human rights abuses, and called for all stakeholders to engage in dialogue. However, the statement merely “takes note of”, rather than “welcoming”, the PSC’s 17 October meeting and communiqué on Burundi. This reflected an accommodation to Russia, which opposed stronger language.

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