Alarmed at Escalating Crisis, Brimming Tensions in Burundi, Top Officials Brief Security Council, Suggesting Interventions to Prevent Spiralling Violence

SC/12112
9 November 2015
7553rd Meeting (PM)

Alarmed at Escalating Crisis, Brimming Tensions in Burundi, Top Officials Brief Security Council, Suggesting Interventions to Prevent Spiralling Violence

The Security Council this afternoon was briefed on the situation in Burundi by high-level officials of the United Nations and the African Union, as the violence there, according to speakers, threatened to spiral out of control with risks that the country could slide back into an “all too familiar chaos”.

Jeffrey Feltman, United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said that Burundi was in a deep political crisis, facing a rapid escalation of violence.  In the capital, several neighbourhoods had experienced nightly exchanges of gunshots and grenade explosions and traumatized residents had frequently discovered mutilated bodies, victims of executions.  Inflammatory and chilling public statements from authorities had provoked concern and alarm in Burundi, the region and beyond.  Many recent statements had also been interpreted as having an ethnic dimension.

“The crisis in Burundi is political at its core and cannot be resolved by a security clampdown,” he said.  A political solution must be found to resolve the crisis before it spiralled out of control.  He hoped that all international partners, particularly those in the region, would speak with one voice in urging Burundi to find a political settlement.  The Secretary-General had called on all Burundi parties, inside the country and abroad, to cease immediately the propagation of hate speech, renounce violence and engage in good faith with the ongoing facilitation of the East African Community.

Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the country was at a dangerous tipping point and the Council could intervene to prevent the repetition of past horrors.  There had been an increase in extrajudicial killings, including political assassinations, with 240 people killed since April and bodies dumped on the streets on an almost nightly basis.  Those expressing divergent views from the Government continued to live in a climate of intense fear.

Pointing to reports of credible allegations of torture by the intelligence service and by the heavily armed police units, he said those responsible, regardless of rank or political affiliation, must be held to account.  No one could forget the killing that had generated mass displacement two decades ago, he warned, adding that it was the Council’s responsibility to address the profound concern that had been well-known for months.

“I appeal to you to keep Burundi at the top of your agenda,” he said, and to explore all options, including steps to freeze assets of those inciting violence and invoke Chapter VII to prevent a regional conflict.  He also urged financial and political support for African Union efforts to conduct human rights investigations.  The disarming of the foreign militia and those illegally possessing arms must also figure high on the agenda.  Speech that incited violence must be avoided at all costs, he concluded.

Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, said 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.  The United Nations could not fail to take appropriate action now.  Otherwise Burundi would slide back into an all too familiar chaos.

Providing an overview of the situation, he said human rights violations in Burundi had included the assassination of civilians, senior members of security forces, high level members of political parties and opposition members.  He was alarmed by the Senate president’s speech, which contained language similar to that used during the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda.

Tété António, Permanent Observer of the African Union to the United Nations, said that since April, said the African Union was determined to fully carry out its responsibilities and had had stepped up its efforts regarding Burundi.  Among actions taken, he said its Peace and Security Council had agreed on a road map aimed at de-escalating tension and had been asked to launch a planning contingency for a possible deployment.  The Council had also decided to impose targeted sanctions, including travel bans and a financial freeze.  He asked other actors to rise up to the challenge as well.

“Burundi is not in flames,” said Alain Aimé Nyamitwe, Minister for Foreign Relations and International Cooperation of Burundi.  “My Government is not against dialogue.”  Rather, peace initiatives had been “blackened out” by media, he said, underlining that dialogue had always been part of his country’s tradition.  The President had established an inter-Burundian dialogue commission that was politically, ethnically and religiously inclusive.  It would act in line with the ceasefire agreement and national Constitution.  Moreover, the Government was in contact with the Ugandan President and would continue discussions with various stakeholders about the approach to take in the coming weeks. 

The Government was committed to disarmament through dialogue, he continued.  Through October, 424 rifles and 12,455 cartridges had been collected, among other arms, with operations conducted in the presence of African Union monitors.  He called for investment in the economy through projects that created jobs for women and youth and cautioned against sanctions, urging support for both the inter-Burundian dialogue and cooperation with the Government, rather than a hardening of positions.  While concern was justified, he said Burundi was ready to work with its partners to ensure there would be no genocide.

The representative of Uganda urged Burundi’s political leaders, including those in exile, to find a common cause and commit to building the stability that had been ushered in by the Arusha Agreement.  For its part, Uganda was committed to facilitating dialogue, as mandated by the East African Community Heads of State.  He then reported on the visit of Uganda’s Minister of Defence to Burundi.

Jürg Lauber (Switzerland), Chair of the Burundi Configuration of the Peacebuilding Commission, briefed on his visit, which aimed at establishing direct contact with the country’s leadership to understand the current political situation and plans to address it.  He would also explore opportunities for the Commission’s future engagement.

The meeting started at 3:04 p.m. and adjourned at 4:22 p.m.

Statements

JEFFREY FELTMAN, Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs, said that Burundi was in a deep political crisis, facing a rapid escalation of violence.  The political, economic, social and security gains that had come out of the landmark Arusha Agreement were already at risk.  The May 22 killing of key opposition figure Zedu Feruzi had marked the beginning of politically-motivated assassinations and attacks.  Neither the conclusion of Burundi’s legislative and presidential electoral cycle nor the inclusion of key opposition figures in the governing coalition had calmed the situation.

In the capital, several neighbourhoods had experienced nightly exchanges of gunshots and grenade explosions, he said.  Traumatized residents frequently discovered mutilated bodies, victims of executions.  Earlier in the day, at least two people had been killed in a grenade attack.  On 7 November, at least nine people, including a United Nations staff member, had been killed.  In that very tense environment, inflammatory and chilling public statements from authorities had provoked concern and alarm in Burundi, the region and beyond.  In a 29 October speech, the Senate president had told local administrators to be ready and set their emotions aside if a signal is given to the police to “go to work”.

On 2 November, President Nkurunziza had given armed civilians five days to surrender their arms or face being “dealt with as enemies of the nation”, and had said the police had the right to use “all available means” to find illegal weapons.  That had prompted a large number of people living in affected neighbourhoods to flee their homes.  Many recent statements had also been interpreted as having an ethnic dimension.  The Secretary-General had strongly condemned such dangerous incitement.

“The crisis in Burundi is political at its core and cannot be resolved by a security clampdown,” he said.  To address the deteriorating situation, Burundian leaders would need to address the political deadlock that had preceded and transcended the summer elections.  The Government had established a commission for inter-Burundian dialogue, said to be open to all except those implicated in the failed coup d’état on 14 May.  That commission, however, could not be able to make progress in the tense security context where members of political parties and civil society were frequently found dead on the streets.

On 17 October, the African Union Peace and Security Council had agreed on a multipronged approach, including the expanding teams of its human rights observers and military experts and the initiation of contingency planning for the possible deployment of an African-led Mission.  The United Nations was in close consultation with the African Union Commission on how to provide technical and logistical assistance and had also offered to provide support to the Ugandan-led initiative under the rubric of the East African Community.  The Secretary-General would shortly announce the appointment of a special adviser who would lead and coordinate United Nations efforts in support of Burundi.

The sharp deterioration of the political and security situation was happening at a time when the mandate of the United Nations Electoral Observation Mission in Burundi (MENUB) was ending, he said.  There was clearly a need for continuing political engagement and presence on the ground, but that required a mandate from the Security Council and the cooperation of the Government of Burundi.  A political solution must be found to resolve the crisis before it would spiral out of control.  He hoped that all international partners, particularly those in the region, would speak with one voice in urging Burundi to find a political settlement.

He said the Secretary-General had called on all Burundi parties, inside the country and abroad, to cease immediately the propagation of hate speech, renounce violence, and engage in good faith with the ongoing facilitation of the East African Community.  The United Nations was prepared to do what it could to support a credible and inclusive dialogue that could address the deep political challenges the country currently faced.

ZEID RA’AD AL HUSSEIN, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern at the grave crisis in Burundi, which, in addition to the rising death toll, could lead to an escalation with serious repercussions.  The country was at a dangerous tipping point and the Council could intervene to prevent the repetition of past horrors.  There had been an increase in extrajudicial killings, including political assassinations, with 240 people killed since April and bodies dumped on the streets on an almost nightly basis.

While pleased that the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) intervention had resulted in the release of 340 detainees last month, he said those expressing divergent views from the Government continued to live in a climate of intense fear, citing the abduction and murder of a 25-year-old son of a prominent human rights defender as an example.  He also mentioned reports of other credible allegations of torture by the intelligence service and by the heavily armed police units created to “fight against acts of terrorism”.

Moreover, the spectre of more bloodshed was driving people out of their homes, he said, noting that more than 280,000 people had been internally displaced across the Great Lakes region, while armed groups were recruiting in camps in neighbouring countries.  Amid those and other signs of the sudden regionalization of the crisis, Governments must ensure that camps were protected and remained civilian in nature.

The President’s ultimatum for Burundians to hand in all weapons had led many to flee their neighbourhoods, for fear of police sweeps and crackdowns, he continued.  Recent inflammatory remarks by the Government could increasingly take on an ethnic dimension.  The Senate president had ordered local authorities to find “elements that were not in order” and had called on police to “finish the work” — phrases that the region had already heard and should not be hearing again, he said.

Recalling that the International Criminal Court Prosecutor had warned that those engaging in mass violence might be subjected to prosecution by her Office, he said the crisis had been escalating for months.  Those responsible, regardless of rank or political affiliation, must be held to account.  No one could forget the killing that had generated mass displacement two decades ago.

In that context, he urged neighbouring countries to increase efforts to promote an inclusive political dialogue in Burundi and ensure that camps were not used being by any actors to fuel the conflict.  He welcomed the work of the African Commission on Human Peoples’ Rights in Burundi, pressing the international community to respond decisively, should events further deteriorate.  He also urged Burundi to sign a memorandum of understanding with the African Union for its human rights observers to operate in the country.

It was the Council’s responsibility to address the profound concern that had been well-known for months.  “I appeal to you to keep Burundi at the top of your agenda,” he said, and to explore all options, including steps to freeze assets of those inciting violence and invoke Chapter VII to prevent a regional conflict.  He also urged financial and political support for African Union efforts to conduct human rights investigations, stressing that an all-inclusive dialogue must take place, in line with the Arusha Agreement, led in coordination with the mediation process.  The disarming of the foreign militia and those illegally possessing arms must also figure high on the agenda.  Speech that incited violence must be avoided at all costs, he concluded.

ADAMA DIENG, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, said via videoconference that one year ago, he had warned that even though the crisis was primarily political, some leaders had been using the issue of ethnicity to advance their interests.  Unfortunately, the country was on the verge of descending into violence.  The ongoing efforts to promote dialogue had not succeeded.  Human rights violations had included the assassination of senior members of security forces, high level members of political parties and civilians.  There were also assassinations of opposition members.  He was alarmed by the Senate president’s speech, which contained language similar to that used during the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda.

If there was ever a time for the Government to display leadership, it was now.  There was a need for the Government to restore peace through dialogue and to de-escalate the crisis.  That was not the Government’s responsibility alone.  The international community, the African Union and the United Nations had an indispensable role to play.  The African Union Peace and Security Council had expressed its willingness to impose sanctions and had requested the African Union Commission to initiate planning for a mission in Burundi.  Those commitments must be followed through and supported by the international community.

The United Nations Security Council should take urgent measures, including support for African Security Council decisions.  Holding those who had incited and committed violence accountable would also help.  It was important in that regard to remind Burundi, as a State party to the International Criminal Court, that those inciting violence would face prosecution.

No one should underestimate what was at stake, he said.  History in the region had shown the consequences of failing to act when leaders incited violence.  The Arusha Agreement was at risk, with consequences for the entire region.  The United Nations could not fail to take appropriate action now.  He urged the Council to send a clear message to the Government to sit down with the opposition and to call on all actors to renounce violence.  He invited the Council to urge the Government to bring to justice all perpetrators of violence and of incitement.  Otherwise Burundi would slide back into an all too familiar chaos.  The international community had the responsibility to prevent the commission of atrocities, he said in conclusion.

JÜRG LAUBER (Switzerland), Chair of the Burundi Configuration of the Peacebuilding Commission, speaking via videoconference from Burundi, briefed on his visit, which aimed at establishing direct contact with the country’s leadership to understand the current political situation and plans to address it.  He would also explore opportunities for the Commission’s future engagement.

On his first day, he had held “open and substantial” discussions with Second Vice-President and Minister for External Relations and Cooperation about starting a political dialogue, addressing the socioeconomic situation and partnering with regional and international actors.  In addition, he had urged them to intensify international engagement with the East African Community, African Union, European Union, bilateral partners and the United Nations.  He also encouraged them to accept international assistance to disarm groups and staunch views that had led to an incitement of hatred.  Both the Second Vice-President and minister had reiterated the Government’s interest in continued cooperation with the configuration.

Expressing regret over the deaths of United Nations staff who had fallen victim to the recent violence, he said he would meet with the First Vice-President and Minister for the Interior, among others, including representatives of the Commission for Inter-Burundian Dialogue and of international financial institutions.  A meeting with the President was scheduled for Wednesday.  He would then travel to Uganda and the United Republic of Tanzania, where he would meet with representatives of the World Bank, among others.

TÉTÉ ANTONIO, Permanent Observer of the African Union to the United Nations, said that since April, the hard won peace in Burundi had been seriously tested.  There was now a security and human rights crisis.  More than 200,000 Burundians had fled to neighbouring countries and the deteriorating security situation was spreading from the capital to other parts of the country.  The targeted killings of political and military figures and the torture and discovery of bodies in the streets, among other things, had become almost daily occurrences.  He expressed particular concern at inflammatory statements by officials, which were unacceptable given the region’s painful past.

The Government was making efforts to restore security, in particular in the neighbourhoods that housed protesters, he said.  Although the Government had claimed it had recovered 90 per cent of arms held by the population, those efforts were not enough.  On the contrary, both the Government and the protesters of the Third Mandate had shown a toughening stance.

The African Union had stepped up its efforts regarding Burundi, he continued.  Its Peace and Security Council had agreed on a road map aimed at de-escalating tension and preventing the violence from spiralling out of control.  The African Union Commission Chair had repeatedly appealed to the parties for de-escalation.  Further, the Peace and Security Council had decided to impose targeted sanctions, including travel bans and a financial freeze.  The African Union had asked the African Commission of Human Rights to launch a study of the situation.

The Peace and Security Council was also asked to launch a planning contingency for a possible deployment in Burundi, he said.  The Peace and Security Council had reiterated that only a sincere dialogue would make it possible to find a solution to preserve peace and the rule of law.  He strongly supported Ugandan efforts and welcomed the visit of the Ugandan Minister for Defence to Burundi to discuss the modalities for the resumption of dialogues.  Reiterating concern about the current situation, he asked other actors to rise up to the challenge.  For its part, the African Union was determined to fully carry out its responsibilities.

ALAIN AIMÉ NYAMITWE, Minister for Foreign Relations and International Cooperation of Burundi, said dialogue had always been part of his country’s tradition and while arrangements might vary, everyone could agree there was a need for it now.  While that was a task first and foremost for Burundians themselves, the country would “never close the door” on friends seeking to foster national cohesion.

Citing gains, he said the President had established an inter-Burundian dialogue commission that was politically, ethnically and religiously inclusive.  It would act in line with the ceasefire agreement and national Constitution.  It had a six-month mandate and, every three months, would submit a report to the Head of State, with copies given to Parliament, the National Assembly and the Senate.

Moreover, he said, the Government was in contact with Ugandan President through the Minister for Defence, who had visited Burundi one week ago.  It would continue discussions with various stakeholders about the approach to take in the coming weeks.  “My Government is not against dialogue,” he said.

The country was “generally calm”, he said, and that “people were moving around peacefully”, except in some areas of Bujumbura, where crime was ongoing.  He was unclear about where Mr. TÉTÉ had received his information on growing insecurity and requested more information.  “Burundi is not in flames,” he said.  Rather, peace initiatives had been “blackened out” by media that focused only on the so-called violence and chaos.

The Government was committed to disarmament through dialogue, he continued.  On 24 September, Decree No. 136 had been signed, outlining exemptions to the prosecution of unlawful possession of firearms, allowing people a chance to voluntarily surrender such material to security forces.  The decision to extend that timeframe by a few days had only sought to offer another opportunity for such surrender.  The Government was indeed committed to peace.  Through October, 424 rifles and 12,455 cartridges had been collected, among other arms.  Operations had been conducted in the presence of African Union monitors.

To comments made by the High Commissioner, he said everyone could agree it was important that human rights abuses stopped.  However, there must be authority in the management of disarmament issues so as to avoid a situation that undermined security.  People who had fled had done so because of rumours and all must be done to ensure their return.  Thanking Burundi’s neighbours for hosting its citizens, he recalled that his country had also hosted refugees and understood it was a costly endeavour.  He regretted that some refugee camps had become recruiting sites.

As for building confidence, he called on traditional and non-traditional partners to focus on Burundi’s future.  “We can’t build a country without traditional friends,” he said, noting that while partnerships might be “bittersweet”, it was important to stand by Burundi.  Suspension of development aid would not lead to the right direction.

On the request for Burundi to open discussions on human rights matters, democracy and good governance, he said the Government was in consultations so as to provide an appropriate response to its partners.  Its intention was to maintain cooperation.  He requested countries that were hosting individuals accused of reprehensible acts to hand them over for prosecution.  Unfriendly actions by neighbours were destructive, he said, noting that his country had always shown restraint in that regard.

Going forward, he called for investment in the economy through projects that created jobs for women and youth.  He cautioned against sanctions, urging both support for inter-Burundian dialogue and cooperation with the Government, rather than the hardening of positions.  While concern was justified, Burundi was ready to work with its partners to ensure that there would be no genocide.

RICHARD NDUHUURA (Uganda) urged Burundi’s political leaders, including those in exile, to find a common cause and commit to building the stability that had been ushered in by the Arusha Agreement.  At the 31 May emergency summit convened by the East African Community, the President of South Africa, as well as the Chair of the African Union Commission, the Special Envoy on the Great Lakes Region and the Executive Secretary of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region had called on all parties to stop the violence.

For its part, Uganda was committed to facilitating dialogue, as mandated by the Community Heads of State.  On his visit to Burundi, Uganda’s Minister for Defence had met with the Senate president and his deputies, the National Assembly president and his deputies, the Minister for Home Affairs and the Commission for Inter-Burundian Dialogue.

Throughout, he had received similar messages that, while they welcomed the Community’s intervention, they would prefer that the bloc played an advisory role to the Commission.  The Defence Minister had stated that the Community’s facilitation efforts would proceed as originally conceived, but would indeed work with the Commission.  The officials had promised to “get back” after consultations with the President and he was optimistic about progress.

Finally, he said that at the 20 October meeting of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, participants had appreciated the Community’s mediation process, led by Uganda’s President, and welcomed Burundi’s willingness to engage in an all-inclusive inter-Burundi dialogue.  The African Union Peace and Security Council had shown its ability to monitor the security situation, as reflected in its 17 October communiqué. 

For information media. Not an official record.