Senior United Nations officials today warned the UN Security Council that Burundi is at a critical juncture, experiencing a deep political crisis and rapidly escalating violence with serious implications for the country's stability and ethnic harmony, as bodies are regularly dumped in the streets of the capital, Bujumbura, and thousands of people flee the bloodshed.
Noting that in Bujumbura the situation is very tense, the UN Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, Jeffrey Feltman, told the Council that several neighbourhoods, especially those perceived to have opposed the President's re-election for a third term in July, experience nightly exchanges of gunshots and grenade explosions.
“Traumatized residents frequently discover mutilated bodies, victims of executions,” he stated, briefing the Council along with UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, and Special Adviser to the UN Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, who echoed concerns that Burundi is at a dangerous “tipping point” and that the Council could intervene to prevent a replay “of past horrors.”
Civil unrest erupted in April in Bujumbura after the ruling party elected President Pierre Nkurunziza as its candidate. While elections were considered relatively peaceful and conducted adequately, the UN reported that the overall environment was “not conducive” to an inclusive, free and credible process.
“The May 22 killing of Zedi Feruzi, a key opposition figure, marked the beginning of a troubling pattern of politically-motivated assassinations and attacks,” Mr. Feltman noted. “Neither the conclusion of Burundi's legislative and presidential electoral cycle this summer nor the inclusion of some key opposition figures in the governing coalition calmed the situation, which has instead grown more troubling.”
Just this morning, at least two people were killed by a grenade attack in the Musaga neighbourhood in Bujumbura. On Saturday, at least nine people, including a UN staff member, were killed when unknown gunmen opened fire inside a bar in Bujumbura's Kanyosha neighbourhood. The bar was alleged to have been a previous meeting venue of anti-third mandate demonstrators.
“The crisis in Burundi is political at its core and cannot be resolved by a security clampdown,” the senior official stressed. “It is not credible to claim that a small group of criminals or traitors are behind the current violence. The problem is much deeper and thus more worrying.”
For the deteriorating situation to improve, he said Burundian leaders will need to address the political deadlock that preceded and transcended the summer elections. “In this regard, the [Government] has established a commission for inter-Burundian dialogue, said to be open to all except those implicated in the failed coup d'état on 14 May,” he informed the Council.
“While the UN in general supports national dialogue efforts, this commission will not be able to make much progress in the tense security context where members of political parties and civil society are frequently found dead on the streets,” he insisted. “With many media outlets closed down since spring and opposition leaders abroad afraid to return home, the Government has not established the conditions for credible and inclusive political dialogue. We encourage the Burundian authorities to do so as quickly as possible.”
Meanwhile, he recalled that in October, the African Union Peace and Security Council agreed on a multi-pronged approach to address the situation, including the expansion of its human rights observers and military experts and the initiation of contingency planning for the possible deployment of an African-led Mission in the country.
In addition, the UN Secretary-General is expected in the coming days to announce the appointment of a Special Adviser who will lead and coordinate UN efforts in support of Burundi.
These events, he highlighted to the Council, are happening at a time when the mandate of the UN Electoral Observation Mission in Burundi is ending. Meanwhile, the UN Office in Burundi (BNUB) closed at the end of last year, at the request of the Government.
For his part, the UN human rights chief underscored his deepening concern regarding the “increasingly grave human rights crisis” in the country.
“At least 240 people have been killed since protests began in April, with bodies dumped on the streets on an almost nightly basis,” Mr. Zeid declared.
“There have been hundreds of cases of arbitrary arrest and detention in the past month alone, targeting members of the opposition, journalists, human rights defenders and their families, people attending the funerals of those who have been killed, and inhabitants of neighbourhoods perceived to be supportive of the opposition,” he continued.
“Fear of this violence, and the spectre of more bloodshed, are driving ordinary Burundians out of their homes. There are now well over 280,000 internally displaced people and refugees across the Great Lakes region. To make matters worse, it is reported that armed groups are recruiting in some refugee camps in neighbouring countries, and that agents of the Burundi Government are also present to identify opponents,” he added.
Meanwhile, he said that President Nkurunziza set an ultimatum last week for Burundians to hand in all weapons, warning that those who would not do so would be dealt with as “enemies of the nation." He noted that recent inflammatory remarks by members of the Government have suggested that this crisis, which has involved targeting people for their perceived political affiliations, could increasingly take on an ethnic dimension.
“The President of the Senate recently ordered local authorities to identify 'elements which are not in order' and to report them to the police for them to be dealt with,” Mr. Zeid warned. “He also called on the authorities to rally people to get ready to 'pulverize.' Phrases such as these recall language that this region has heard before, and should not be hearing again. They could signal the imminence of much worse, and more widespread, violence.”
He said he believes that the strong interventions of many officials and States in recent days “may have great influence,” and urged neighbouring countries in the Great Lakes to step up their attempts to promote a credible and inclusive political dialogue in Burundi.
“I also believe it is the responsibility of this Council to address a situation of profound concern, well-known for many months, and which could lead to even greater carnage,” Mr. Zeid added, appealing to its members to keep Burundi at the top of the Security Council agenda.
He further stressed the essence of having an inclusive dialogue take place among all stakeholders in Burundi, in accordance with the Arusha Agreement which put an end to 12 years of massacres and warfare in 2005.
In his remarks, Mr. Dieng emphasized that in light of all that is clearly happening on the ground, the United Nations could not fail to take appropriate action now. Otherwise Burundi would slide back into an “all too familiar chaos.”
Further, he said that “if there was ever a time for [the President] and his Government to display courageous leadership, it is now.” Indeed, the Government must work to restore peace through dialogue and to de-escalate the crisis. Yet, this is not the Government's responsibility alone, continued Mr. Dieng, stressing that the international community, the African Union, the East African Community and the UN have an indispensable role to play.
The United Nations Security Council should take urgent measures, including support for African Peace and Security Council decisions. Holding those who had incited and committed violence accountable would also help. It is important in that regard to remind Burundi, as a State party to the International Criminal Court, that those engaging in atrocity crimes would face prosecution.
“No one should underestimate what is at stake, he said, recalling that the country's own history and that of its neighbour, Rwanda, has shown the tragic consequences of failing to act when leaders incite violence.
Meanwhile, earlier today in a statement, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also reiterated his appeal to all national stakeholders, in particular the Government of Burundi, “to keep the interests of the people of Burundi uppermost and resolve all outstanding issues through an inclusive dialogue.”