What Canada Can Do to Help Resolve the Burundi Crisis

Since the end of April 2015, Burundi has plunged into a violent political crisis. The trigger: the candidacy of President Pierre Nkurunziza for a third term in office. The candidacy was contrary to both the spirit and provisions of one of Nelson Mandela’s legacies to Africa, the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, and to Burundi’s constitution. Hundreds of Burundians have been killed—as well as abducted, tortured, raped, and arbitrarily imprisoned—since April 26, 2015, and more than 300,000 Burundians have become refugees, according to various reports of the U.N. High Commissioner of Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. If the international community, and Canada in particular, doesn’t take action, then the worst is yet to come. Given the questions from some of Canada’s members of parliament during recent human rights meetings on how Canada would help to resolve the current Burundi crisis, what can concretely be done?

Several reports have shown mass violations of human rights in Burundi. Last month, the U.N.’s final report of its independent investigation of Burundi exposed “abundant evidence of gross human rights violations,” possibly amounting to crimes against humanity, by Burundi’s government. In light of the findings that suggest “widespread and systemic patterns of violations,” along with the country’s history of inter-ethnic violence and impunity, the report strongly recommended to the African Union, U.N. Human Rights Council, and U.N. Security Council that they take “a series of robust actions to preserve the achievements made in the Arusha Accord and in the 2005 Constitution,” which led to the longest period of peace Burundi has known.

Worryingly, speeches made by the government are becoming increasingly provocative. Adama Dieng, the U.N. Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, expressed his concern about “inflammatory statements by public officials that could constitute incitement to violence including, most recently, by a senior official of the ruling CNDD-FDD political party.” The U.N. Committee Against Torture has questioned the use of “genocidal rhetoric” by senior officials. During a U.N. Security Council meeting in November 2015, the Secretary-General for Political Affairs denounced the “inflammatory” statements made by certain authorities, including the president of the senate and President Nkurunziza. Dieng added, “no one should underestimate what was at stake, as history in the region had shown the consequences of failing to act when leaders incited violence.”

Meanwhile, money from member states, like Canada, has been indirectly financing Burundi’s massive human rights violations through the U.N. support account for peacekeeping operations, which covers Burundian troops’ participation in the U.N. mission in the Central African Republic. In other words, Burundi’s security forces, while committing crimes against humanity by targeting the country’s civilian population, are paid to participate in peacekeeping missions elsewhere. With 2.92 percent, Canada is among the top 10 funders of U.N. peacekeeping operations in 2016, thereby contributing to the same institutions that implement the ongoing repression in Burundi. U.N. officials decided in June to end Burundi’s police mission in the Central African Republic in response to the current status of human rights in Burundi, but more than 800 Burundian troops are still there.

Canada took a step in the right direction by contributing to a one-year commission of inquiry that will thoroughly investigate human rights violations and abuses in Burundi since April 2015 and identify alleged perpetrators. But further action is needed.

In light of the mass violations of human rights by Burundi’s government, the rise of inflammatory speeches, and the need to avoid other mass atrocities in the region, the time for addressing the Burundi crisis only through meetings and statements is over. There are concrete steps the international community, including Canada, must take immediately.

First, under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter and in the spirit of the Responsibility to Protect in U.N. Security Council Resolution 1674, Canada can push the U.N. Security Council to deploy forces to protect the civilian population. The Burundian government has already proven itself unwilling to prevent or stop the massacres and violations of humanitarian law against its citizens. Second, Canada can lobby to halt any new deployment of Burundian security forces to U.N. peacekeeping missions, and gradually withdraw the troops still deployed. Third, in cooperation with its allies on the Security Council, Canada can initiate a resolution under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter to impose economic sanctions against Burundi such as trade and military embargo to force them to participate in an inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders (armed and non-armed) without any conditions, and impose targeted sanctions—such as travel bans and asset freezes—against all Burundian leaders whose actions and words contribute to the persistence of violence and hinder the search for a solution. Lastly, any action from Canada that does not privilege a return to institutions reflecting the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, or take into account Nkurunziza’s illegal and illegitimate third term and repression campaign as the source of the current political crisis, would be a disservice to both Burundi and regional peace and security.



Amilcar Ryumeko worked as political adviser to the parliamentary assistant to the premier of Quebec in charge of economic issues. He graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Sherbrooke.

[Image courtesy of US Army Africa]

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