The haunting clouds of genocide loom over the African nation of Burundi. Dark and ominous they sit over that country, ready to let loose their bloody drops at any moment. The eyes of the world have begun to focus upon this threatening front, issuing words of warning and calls for action. Yet, as more bodies appear on the streets of the capital, Bujumbura, and more innocent civilians flee their homes, no definitive course has been set by the international community. World leaders failed to act in Bosnia, they failed to act in Rwanda, and the continued carnage in Syria seems to indicate a failure there as well. Here, now, in the nation of Burundi is an opportunity for some redemption, an opportunity to do the right thing, an opportunity to act. The United States must encourage the African Union (AU) to increase pressure on Burundi and support the United Nations Security Council in preparing for the immediate deployment of peacekeeping troops.
Clouds of danger began to accumulate over Burundi in April when the current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, declared his intention to run for a constitutionally prohibited third term. The President declared that his first term does not count as he was appointed by MPs instead of by a popular vote while opponents do not recognize this distinction. Street protests broke out against the government prompting violent responses by police. Nkurunziza won a disputed and boycotted election in July and the killings and vitriolic rhetoric has continued since then. 252 people have died thus far and 200,000 are displaced.
Recent history plays a large and dangerous role in the present situation. Similar to Rwanda, the northern neighbor of the country, Burundi experienced a bloody 12-year civil war between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups that ended in 2005. As in Rwanda, the war was marked by egregious violations of human rights and the process of healing is still underway. Scott Campbell, head of Central and West Africa at the UN human rights office, asserts that while the recent violence has been primarily political in nature, the rhetoric is reminiscent of that used during the Rwandan Genocide. Belgium and the EU have advised non-essential staff to leave the country and “the US government is alarmed by the violent and incendiary language used by the Burundian government as well as violence committed by security forces and anti-government actors."
A resolution to the conflict in Burundi is vital to the US policies of protecting human rights and contributing to the economic and social success of the African continent. Burundi offers a clear opportunity to intervene politically in order to avoid bloodshed. The first step of such an intervention for the United States would be making it clear to African Union leaders that stability in Burundi is a US priority and that AU action is necessary. UN official Scott Campbell asserts that, "The president does still have some strong allies in the region and he's not feeling enough pressure to rein in the situation, to convene an inclusive dialogue."
AU officials must increase pressure on President Nkurunziza to seek a sincere dialogue. As the conflicts in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have illustrated, violence often spreads across borders and impacts entire regions, thus all African nations have a strong incentive to achieve a resolution.
If the words of condemnation and political pressure from African leaders do not abate the violence in Burundi, then a peacekeeping mission must deploy to the country. The situation is growing increasingly unstable and the people of Burundi can ill afford inaction on the part of the international community. US officials must support UN peacekeepers for Burundi in the Security Council and offer logistical assistance to transport the blue helmets as quickly as possible. The process of approving this mission must begin immediately in the event that the situation in Burundi deteriorates beyond the point where AU pressure will make a difference, and seeking approval now will send a clear message to President Nkurunziza that the world is not only watching but serious about action. President Obama made a commitment to further support UN Peacekeeping missions at the UN General Assembly this year and now it is time for the administration to fulfill that promise. Acting swiftly will allow the troops to be peacekeepers as opposed to mere witness to a slaughter.
The gathering storm over Burundi can be cleared. The sun may shine once again on the beautiful country, but it will require various stakeholders to get up, stand up, and act. The United States of America can utilize diplomatic and logistical tools to help prevent genocide and restore stability to the country. These levers must be pulled now as the clock against the innocent civilians of Burundi is ticking. Act, and let us not ask in ten years why we did not work to stop the carnage in Burundi in 2015.