Burundi: Where is the responsibility to protect?

Burundi is smouldering, but few seem to care, even its leaders. Dozens of dead bodies on Bujumbura’s streets are now a daily sight. Those in the provinces go uncounted and unreported.

Burundi is smouldering, but few seem to care, even its leaders. Dozens of dead bodies on Bujumbura’s streets are now a daily sight. Those in the provinces go uncounted and unreported.

Hundreds of people relocate every night to escape the killers prowling their neighbourhoods. Many more flee the country. Insecurity reigns.

Beyond expressing alarm, the world watches as these terrible things happen. True, the African Union has been voicing concern about the political and security situation in Burundi, but has done nothing more than that, except saying that it supports an East African Community initiative to help restore order to a partner state.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is supposed to be leading efforts to resolve the conflict. But not much progress has been seen and probably won’t be until after Uganda’s elections next February.

Which means that by then Burundi could have burst into flames and the fire will be difficult to put out.

If we are lucky, we may not get there.

The United Nations Security Council convened in New York yesterday to discuss the situation in Burundi. But don’t pin too much hope on the outcome of the meeting, if history is any indication of what to expect. Several things are likely to happen.

First, these diplomatic things take a long time to arrive at anything. There will be debates about whether the situation is really grave, and if they agree that it is, what to do about it, who to do it and when.

If and when this is settled, there will be further discussions on who will fund what, what materials are needed and how they will be procured, and so on.

A resolution will, of course, be passed. An ultimatum or simply a call for good behaviour to people to whom that sort of thing is an alien concept, will probably be issued.

In the meantime the fire will continue to burn. The death count will rise and the number of people fleeing the country will grow.

Second, we can expect a certain European country to be assigned the role of bringing order to Burundi because it is supposed to have better knowledge of the region.

That is how the diplomatic language will put it. But what they will be saying is that Burundi lies in that country’s sphere of influence. Yes, those spheres still exist, even with the assumed equality of nations and our supposed independence.

Third, that country might even go further and ask the other members of the Security Council to “request” it to intervene because it has the means, the interest and the ability to mobilise very quickly.

The other members, feeling a huge burden lifted off their shoulders and to ease their collective conscience, will likely acquiesce.

We have seen this before – in Rwanda – where French intervention followed this pattern and led to disastrous consequences.

One hopes that after what happened in Rwanda, members of the UN Security Council are now wiser and will resist the pressure of one of them to be “invited” to get involved in Burundi. In any case, it would only complicate matters.

France is not neutral and has unfinished business in the region to be an honest broker.

But perhaps we precede ourselves and something might after all come out of the Security Council debate. We will wait and see. Still, there is a question that needs to be answered.

Why is it taking so long to arrest the situation in Burundi before the country burns itself to a failed state and the fire engulf the whole region?

In Libya, when Muammar Gaddafi threatened to kill the Libyans opposed to him like rats, the West was horrified at the prospect of a massacre (that’s how it appeared in public) and acted quickly to prevent it. They invoked a new principle in international relations - the responsibility to protect - quickly mobilised forces and attacked Gaddafi, and sent him to his maker earlier than he would have wished.

In Burundi, similar threats have been issued by the country’s leadership and have actually been carried out. The Speaker of the Senate, Reverien Ndikuriye, recently called on people to get to work (code for mass killing) and they would be rewarded with land (obviously from the people they would have killed).

Is that any different from Gaddafi’s threats to exterminate opponents like rats?

President Pierre Nkurunziza has not condemned the utterances of the Speaker of the Senate. That can only be interpreted as endorsement of the Speaker’s call to mass murder.

In spite of these obvious calls to massacre, we have not seen the invocation of the responsibility to protect principle. Why? Is it perhaps because there is no oil or other precious resources, and therefore the country is of no compelling strategic value?

But the principle to protect applies to people. Burundians are human beings, which is a compelling enough reason to protect them.

And so, as the international community dithers, the fire continues to burn in Burundi. Diplomatic and other niceties are clearly not helpful. Action is. Somebody needs to speak out, as President Kagame has done, and remind Burundi’s leaders of their role as the primary defenders of their citizens.

If they abdicate their moral and political responsibility, or breach it, the international community has the duty to protect the people of Burundi, even against their own government.



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