After decades of ethnic war in which hundreds of thousands of people died, Burundi has the chance to set a new standard with its upcoming elections for peace and democracy in the broader region despite significant challenges, the top United Nations envoy in the Central African country said today.
“This is a historic moment for Burundi and the region, marking the end of its transition,” Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Executive Representative Charles Petrie told the Security Council. “In 2005 Burundi held elections that led to the installation of a democratically-elected Government.
“Now, in 2010, Burundi is set to give an extraordinary example of political maturity. A country until recently embroiled in internal violence is now hopefully on the verge of demonstrating how one democratically-elected government cedes place to another,” he added, stressing the need for security and warning against violence and intimidation.
In a press statement issued following the meeting, the Council welcomed progress made so far and called on all sides “with the support of the international community, to remain vigilant in order to prevent any risk of violence, especially between youth groups.”
With all sides voicing cautious optimism for the polls, Mr. Petrie pledged continued and close UN engagement “to ensure that this cautious optimism is translated into reality,” noting that the budget is all but met for the four-month, five-stage elections – communal on 21 May, presidential on 28 June with a second round in July if necessary, legislative, senatorial, and sub-communal.
More than 3.5 millions voters have registered, well above expectations, he said. There are 17 presidential candidates, 15 with party affiliation and two independents. “Security during the electoral period is a key priority for the Government and its partners,” he stressed, noting that multiple international observers will be deployed.
“Despite all of these positive developments to date, I would not pretend that significant challenges do not remain,” he warned. “The challenges ahead relate particularly to the tightness of the electoral calendar and to management of tensions that may arise on the day of the elections, as results are announced or in the resolution of any subsequent disputes.”
A UN task force will closely monitor and react to any contingency needs for logistical or other support from the independent national electoral commission. While violence associated with the youth groups of the various parties has started to decrease, isolated incidents continue and “we must all watch vigilantly to ensure, with the formal electoral campaign now under way, that such violence does not re-emerge as a significant threat,” he stressed.
He cited the UN’s “long and important role” in helping to prepare the ground for the elections by coordinating international aid, conducting field monitoring, helping to narrow the electoral funding gap, assisting identity card delivery, and building capacity in security, human rights, media and gender-based aspects of the electoral process.
“The forthcoming elections will represent the culmination of almost two decades of hard work in the cause of peace by the people of Burundi, their political leaders, the leaders of the region and the African continent, and supported by us, Burundi’s friends and partners at the international level,” Mr. Petrie declared.
“I would like to reiterate that the elections in Burundi are not only significant for the country but also for the sub-region. In that region, many of its close and less close neighbours are also embarking on challenging electoral cycles. We believe that successful and peaceful elections in Burundi would raise the bar and set the true standards for remarkable progress in the rest of the broader region.”
He also looked ahead to the socio-economic, political and security challenges that will still need to be addressed. “Continued close engagement by the wider international community will remain crucial to ensure that the gains achieved are irreversible and that the country continues on its path of economic recovery and sustainable development,” he concluded, noting that the Government is already discussing with the UN what form the world body’s future engagement should take.
Deputy Ambassador Heidi Grau of Switzerland, speaking for the UN Peacebuilding Commission’s Burundi focus group, also cited the challenges posed by the elections despite the group’s positive assessment of the overall situation. “We do not close our eyes at the numerous pitfalls and challenges awaiting Burundi on its way to consolidated peace,” she said.
She cited organizational problems that have been overcome, as well as “widespread concern at political groups spreading fear and intimidation.” The Government has stressed its willingness to tackle the issue.
Burundi was torn by ethnic conflict between majority Hutus and minority Tutsi, much like its northern neighbour Rwanda, site of the 1994 genocide, for nearly five decades since it became independent from Belgium, and Ms. Grau stressed that the country, one of the world’s poorest, will need investment far beyond the more than $40 million used for the election.
Urgent needs include the social and economic integration of the hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs), returnees and demobilized fighters, as well as investment in infrastructure and agricultural projects to provide jobs for millions living in poverty.
“The Peacebuilding Commission should stand ready to help in building partnerships with international financial institutions, with regional entities and with representatives of the private sector,” Ms. Grau said.
Burundian Permanent Representative Zacharie Gahuti called for additional funds to plug the remaining gap for the elections, and stressed that help was needed for long-term development goals.
“We are also resolutely decided to ensure we have free, transparent and peaceful successful elections,” he said. We did this in 2005 and we promise the international community that we are going to repeat this task in Burundi and we are going to make Burundi a centre of peace and successful democracy for the African continent, and particularly in our sub-region.”