‘Robust, decisive’ action needed now to avert civil war in Burundi, UN rights chief warns

High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein addresses a special session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva on Burundi. UN Photo/Jess Hoffman

17 December 2015 – The top United Nations human rights official today urged the international community to take “robust, decisive” action instead of “fiddling around the edges” to avert a civil war in Burundi that could have serious ethnic overtones and alarming regional consequences.

“Burundi is at bursting point, on the very cusp of a civil war,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told the Human Rights Council in Geneva in a special Session in his latest warning on the Central African country where the UN played a key role in restoring stability after decades of war between Hutus and Tutsis that killed tens of thousands.

“The carnage of last week confirmed the extent to which violence and intimidation are catapulting the country back to the past – to Burundi’s deeply troubled, dark and horrendously violent past...and has only served to move the much-needed political solution further from reach,” he said, calling for involvement of the International Criminal Court to combat impunity.

Burundi has been in the midst of a political crisis since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a controversial third term earlier this year, since when at least 400 people have been killed, with the toll possibly considerably higher, and 220,000 have fled to neighbouring States with many others internally displaced. Just last month, Mr. Zeid warned of a relapse into full-fledged civil war.

“The time for piecemeal responses and fiddling around the edges is over,” he said today. “The situation in Burundi demands a robust, decisive response from the international community. I called last month on the Security Council to consider all possible steps to stop the ongoing violence and prevent a regional conflict, including travel bans and asset freezes.

“Today, those calls are more relevant than ever. Diplomatic and political calculations must not eclipse the need for action,” he added, warning of the “growing, alarming risk of regionalization of the crisis” and calling on Burundi’s neighbours to play a constructive role in defusing the crisis, including by monitoring borders, possibly with “drones,” to halt the reported flow of weapons.

He again highlighted the untenable situation for human rights defenders and independent journalists, most of whom have fled the country, and noted that many of the “220,000 terrified people” seeking refuge in neighbouring countries are the same families that had to flee their homes during the civil war and had returned over the past decade, full of hope for peace.

“Imagine the despair of having to relive such desperation and abandon one’s home yet again,” Mr. Zeid said, stressing that fear is also palpable among those who remain. “A frightened, uninformed population, fed a diet of hate speech and paranoia, is one that may be recruited to the path of violence by either side of the current political impasse,” the emphasized.

“The consequences of the mobilization of more such individuals would be catastrophic – especially given that ethnic elements are already being stoked – given the country’s terrible history in this regard,” he said.

He called on the Government to take all necessary steps to disarm pro-government militias and bring operations of the police, intelligence services and other security forces under the mantle of the law.

“While the future of the county is in the hands of Burundian leaders, this Council has a clear responsibility to do all in its power to prevent the worst from materializing in Burundi in the coming days,” he concluded. “We owe no less to the people of Burundi, who have endured enough.”

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