A U.N. special session is under way to discuss the escalating violence in Burundi. The country has been on edge since April when police crackdowns on protests turned deadly and a coup failed in May. In the months since, many warn – from experts, civil society, international bodies and the United Nations – that the country is teetering on the brink of mass violence. Despite all the talk, there is little action.
“The situation of violence is of great concern … we received reports of ongoing human rights violations and other abuses including arbitrary killings and targeted assassinations, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture, arbitrary suspension and closure of some civil society organizations and the media,” according to a report from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, an African Union-back organization that undertook a fact-finding mission in Burundi.
At least 87 people were reportedly killed in attacks on Dec. 11 – while the fact-finding mission was in the country. Burundian government officials continue to insist that there is no reason for concern and that the killings were necessary after an attack on military bases.
Information about the Dec. 11 killings indicate that Burundian forces tracked down opponents and carried out extrajudicial executions. Today, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, issued a strongly worded statement warning that Burundi nears civil war and the international community must take immediate action.
“Burundi is at bursting point, on the very cusp of a civil war. The carnage of last week confirmed the extent to which violence and intimidation are catapulting the country back to the past … and has only served to move the much-needed political solution further from reach, ” he said. “The time for piecemeal responses and fiddling around the edges is over. The situation in Burundi demands a robust, decisive response from the international community.”
But these are not new concerns. Various watchers of the situation have raised the specter of genocide, mass violence and/or civil war for months. In each case, they say that time is running out, and then the international community continues to watch and wait. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said at the end of November that he is prepared to send peacekeepers, but only if they are needed. Ban mentioned various diplomatic options to end the turmoil, none of which has been put into place.
Pressure is building to motivate the international community to take action. The lack of organization was cited in an email obtained by VICE from U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power to fellow ambassadors from France and the U.K. She described the weekend meeting with the U.N.special envoy for Burundi as “pretty pathetic.” And criticized the fact that there is no real plan in place to do much of anything to stem the violence in Burundi.
She told her fellow diplomats that the U.S. was pulling out of the country because “it is going to hell.” The following day, Power ordered the U.S. State Department to remove all nonemergency government personnel in Burundi. A new resolution led by Power at the U.N. calls for an international investigation into the violence in Burundi. More than 200,000 people have fled the fighting that has killed at least 400, according to the U.N.
Burundi had experienced a decade of peace after a 12-year civil war left more than 300,000 dead. The concerns that such widespread violence could return to the central African country are well documented. What remains to be seen are tangible actions to prevent it from happening.