Ten years after the end of a devastating civil war and just months after a bitterly disputed presidential election and attempted coup, Burundi again finds itself at the crossroads. Recent developments indicate that there is an imminent threat of widespread violence and mass atrocity crimes. Increasing political violence in Burundi, including an alarming surge in targeted assassinations and deadly clashes between the security forces and armed opposition elements, has created a potentially catastrophic situation. Immediate and decisive preventive action is required by both the government and the international community.
The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect is particularly concerned about the five-day ultimatum issued by President Pierre Nkurunziza on 2 November for all citizens to disarm or face severe action as “enemies of the nation.” There is a clear danger that Burundian security forces will use excessive force against perceived opposition supporters following the expiration of the deadline on Saturday. The increasing militarization of the opposition also enhances the risk that potential armed clashes could spark a wider conflict throughout Burundi.
There are also reports of inflammatory language being used by government officials, including incitement to violence. On 29 October the President of the Burundian Senate, Révérien Ndikuriyo, in a speech delivered in Kirundi, allegedly urged local officials and civilians to help identify armed opposition members and encouraged Burundian police to conduct “the work” and “complete the task” against them. Mr. Ndikuriyo told local leaders that: “If you hear the directive that it must come to an end, emotions and tears will be useless!… tell those who carry out the mission: ‘you should exterminate, these people deserve to die!'”
Immediate steps must be taken by the Burundian government to de-escalate tensions and avoid any further militarization of the current political conflict. Security forces must exercise maximum restraint. All political leaders, including those opposed to the rule of President Nkurunziza, must refrain from using inflammatory language or inciting violence. The use of such language should be publicly condemned and subjected to appropriate legal sanction.
There is also an urgent need for the international community to actively assist in resolving the current conflict. The UN Secretary-General should immediately appoint a high-level envoy, who should be given the full support of both the Burundian government and opposition. Furthermore, the African Union Peace and Security Council and UN Security Council should consider immediately establishing a joint AU-UN Mediation and Monitoring Mission, with a strong human rights component. Unobstructed access must also be immediately granted to the small number of AU military observers and human rights monitors whose freedom of movement has been restricted by the Burundian authorities.
The AU, UN and individual states should immediately impose sanctions on any individuals deemed responsible for inciting violence, participating in targeted killings, and/or undermining the Arusha Peace Agreement.
Burundi has previously experienced a long civil war and bloody ethnic conflict. The government has a responsibility to protect all Burundians from mass atrocities and prevent the current political conflict from degenerating further. The international community must move quickly to ensure that the government faithfully upholds that responsibility.