By Jonathan Power
The United Nations Security Council has unanimously adopted a resolution strongly condemning the escalating violence in Burundi. It paves the way for the U.N. to send in thousands of blue-helmeted peacekeepers. The resolution, which was passed unanimously, condemns the wave of killings, arrests, and human rights violations. The resolution requests that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon report within 15 days—a time period that will end this Friday—on options for increasing the U.N. presence in Burundi.
There are fears of a Rwandan-style genocide in Burundi, which like Rwanda has a long history of tribal distrust and, on occasion, hatred, despite many intermarriages. At least 240 people have been killed there since protests began in April. Since independence from Belgium in 1962 it has been plagued by tension between the dominant Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority.
The ethnic violence sparked in 1994 made Burundi the scene of one of Africa’s most intractable conflicts. However, this was overshadowed by the genocide of Tutsis by Hutus in its neighbor, Rwanda, when around 800,000 people were massacred in just a few weeks. President Bill Clinton’s government (with the support of the U.K.) stymied all attempts to get the U.N. Security Council to mandate the deployment of a significant peacekeeping force.
Now many fear it is the turn of Burundi to be the site of large-scale pogroms. Diplomatic and media reports agree that the country has become a tinderbox.
The cycle of violence began with demonstrations against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term. He argued that his first term as president did not count toward the constitutional two-term limit as he was chosen by MPs the first time round. Despite the criticism, in July Nkurunziza was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote.
The ethnic division runs deep today. There is a real fear, expressed openly on social media (the press is censored), of what could happen if the spiral of violence is not stopped. Ethnic hate speech is starting to emerge from the shadows, the language of “us” and “them.” It is reminiscent of what happened in Rwanda.
Terror is widespread. Politicians have been assassinated. The president’s most powerful security figure was killed and the country’s best-known human rights campaigner barely survived after being shot in the face.
In 2015 the political climate in the U.S. is pro-U.N. peacekeeping, the opposite of what it was in Clinton’s time. Clinton falsely accused the U.N. of badly failing in its operation in Somalia. In fact it was U.S. panic when three of its soldiers were murdered that precipitated first a U.S. (it was part of the U.N. force) and then a full U.N. withdrawal.
The atmosphere in the White House is totally different today. During the presidency of Barack Obama the Security Council has authorized more peacekeeping ventures around the globe than ever before. Russia and China have voted for them alongside the Western nations. U.N. troops are the largest deployed military force in the world. The U.N. has 100,000 personnel in 16 missions.
In recent years China has joined Britain and France, fellow members of the Security Council, in deploying significant numbers of its soldiers as blue-helmets. The U.S., which rarely supplies troops, pays for the biggest share—28 percent—of the U.N.’s peacekeeping costs. The U.K., France, Germany, and Japan provide a large part of the rest of the budget.
Last year, Obama announced the so-called African Peacekeeping Rapid Response Partnership, which commits $110 million per year for three years to build the capability of six leading African militaries to deploy peacekeepers rapidly in response to emerging conflict. In September Obama hosted a summit on U.N. peace operations. He said in his speech, “We know that peace operations are not the solution to every problem but they do remain one of the world’s most important tools to address armed conflict.” He promised that his administration would build up its capacity to support U.N. peacekeeping operations. How different is Obama’s attitude from that of his two immediate predecessors! Polls show that U.S. public support for U.N. peacekeeping is a reasonably satisfactory 60 percent—six times the rating for the U.S. Congress.
In this time of Middle Eastern and Ukrainian conflict we should note the success of the international community is this collective endeavor. The Congo now is almost quiet after two generations of murderous conflict. (Unfortunately a cloud hangs over the operation because of the many reports of rape by U.N. soldiers.) And the U.N. has many other successes under its belt.
The decision at the Security Council on whether or not to send a large numbers of troops into Burundi will be an important one—a question of going into a country not because large-scale violence is happening but because it is anticipated.
Remembering Rwanda and Somalia, the decision has to be for it.
Jonathan Power is a former long-time foreign affairs columnist for The International Herald Tribune and author of Conundrums Of Humanity: The Big Foreign Policy Questions Of Our Day.
[Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]