Bujumbura, Burundi (TFC) – After Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for an unconstitutional third term as president, civil strife began to brew in Burundi. This civil strife, which has killed hundreds, started when the government cracked down on the opposition, independent journalists, human rights activists, and civil society. Since then, Burundi has been wracked by an escalating conflict that many fear could spark ethnic conflict and genocide. This rapidly degenerating situation has led to calls for intervention to prevent further bloodshed. The African Union decided against deploying a peacekeeping mission, which left the UN as the only other entity that could intervene in Burundi. This, however, could become a possibility as the UN is now considering a proposal for a limited intervention.
Late last year, the African Union approved a proposal for deploying a 5000-strong peacekeeping force to Burundi. This proposal was met with opposition from President Nkurunziza who claimed that any peacekeeping force that attempted to deploy to Burundi would be attacked. However, following reports of mass graves in the country, the international community began to apply diplomatic pressure on the African Union to act. Despite this international pressure, Nkurunziza was able to use crafty political maneuvering and his clout within the African Union to defeat the proposal to deploy a peacekeeping force to his country. This left few options for intervention as the UN was reportedly in no position to deploy its own peacekeeping force.
Since the African Union declined to deploy a peacekeeping force to Burundi, the international community has tried to use diplomacy to end the conflict. However, diplomacy has been largely ineffective. This fact was highlighted when a spate of street battles and grenade attacks occurred when UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, arrived in Bujumbura to try to resolve the crisis. This diplomatic impasse has sparked calls for the UN to take a more assertive stance against the Burundian government.
These calls for a stronger UN stance against Burundi have been heard and there is now a potential plan for intervention. Russia, which has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, has floated a proposal that would deploy a UN police contingent, but not a military peacekeeping force, to Burundi to help stabilize the country and maintain the peace. This proposal has also been backed by France. Since this proposal has the backing of two permanent members of the UN Security Council, there is a decent chance that it could be debated by the Security Council.
The Burundian government has been much more open to this proposal. However, this support has been qualified as Burundi’s ambassador to the UN said that any UN police force deployed to the country would have to be small and unarmed. In addition, this police force would have to be devoted to monitoring the border with Rwanda, which is accused of backing the rebellion against Nkurunziza, and to help build the capacity of the Burundian police force.
These demands by the Burundian government are troubling. To a reasonable person, it would appear that the Burundian government is asking the UN to train, support, and possibly advise the Burundian police force – the same police force that has been accused of numerous human rights violations including extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, disappearances, and torture. This is even more disturbing in light of a Human Rights Watch report that claims that the police have been colluding with the Imbonerakure, which is the youth wing of Nkurunziza’s political party that has been accused of conducting a campaign of intimidation against the opposition. This collusion has apparently become institutionalized as Imbonerakure members have been spotted wearing police uniforms.
This revelation reveals potential problems with the deployment of a potential UN police contingent to Burundi. The UN will need cooperation from the Burundian government in order to deploy a police force. However, the current conditions that the Burundian government has proposed for deploying the force are entirely unacceptable. I expect that the UN and Burundi will be negotiating the terms of the UN police force in the coming days and weeks. However, the UN, regardless of what they decide to do, needs to ensure that any intervention does not inadvertently strengthen or legitimize Nkurunziza’s regime, which has brought the country to the brink of genocide. An intervention that does this would be worse than not intervening at all.