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Department of Political Affairs

Burundi, and the UN, in Transition

The United Nations presence in many post-conflict countries evolves according to a familiar pattern. Peacekeepers deployed when the shooting war stops give way over time to political or peace-building offices, which then transition out in favour of a more standard presence of UN agen­cies, funds and programs.

This is a hoped-for progression as the needs of nations emerging from wars evolve, from assistance with managing security or con­solidating political stability, to building durable institutions and promoting economic development.

Still, knowing exactly when to pick up the UN’s political stakes in such cases remains a tricky business. How can the United Nations and the host country be sure that a mission’s departure will not cause a vacuum? How can they know that peace is on suf­ficiently solid footing to make that final transition with confidence?

Special Representative Landgren at an event on poverty, food and rural women. October 2011.These were questions on the mind of Karin Landgren, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Burundi and head of the United Nations Office in Burundi (BNUB), when she was interviewed by DPA E-News in December 2011, after having briefed the UN Security Council on the situation in the country.

A political mission overseen by the Department of Political Affairs, BNUB was established in 2011 as part of a process already well underway of slimming down and refocusing the UN presence in the country in accordance with Burundi’s post-war needs.

Burundi’s 13-year war civil war ended in 2005, five years after the signing of the Arusha peace accords. The country’s progress has been considerable.


Benchmarks for Transition

BNUB replaced a larger UN peace-building office, BINUB, which had supported peace implementation from 2007-2010 following the departure of a sizeable UN peacekeeping mission. The mission’s current mandate extends through February 2013.

While important issues remain to be resolved in the country’s peace pro­cess, the Security Council is looking ahead to the next phase. It has asked BNUB to define, by mid-2012, benchmarks against which progress in consolidating peace could be measured in order to help the Council determine when the mission should be phased out. Landgren and her team based in Bujumbura will be thinking this through in the months ahead, in close consultation with the gov­ernment of Burundi.

Having headed the UN’s political mission in Nepal dur­ing its final phase in 2009-2011, Landgren has valuable experience in managing such transitions for the United Nations. She cautions that it is no “exact science” to know when the time is ripe for the UN’s extraordinary political presence to depart.

“We are never going to be able to say we are now at a count of 50, and when we hit 75 that is the time for the mission to go,” she said. “We will be look­ing at more of a traf­fic light approach, in which as long as trends are moving in a positive direction, moving towards green in the key areas, we can leave with the satisfaction of knowing that the peace process is on the right track.”

Women attending the launch of a reintegration programme for war-affected populations in Burundi, October 2011.

Meanwhile, BNUB will con­tinue to have its hands full working to provide support to Burundi’s authorities in important areas of its mandate, including political dialogue, human rights and transitional justice.


Sources of Fragility

While Burundi has remained “broadly stable” since holding elections in 2005 and 2010, and is well integrated into the East African Community, sources of fragility remain. Landgren is particularly concerned for relations to be normalized between the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza and the parties which boy­cotted the last elec­tions and thus have no representation in parliament.

Polarizing issues clouding the political environment include the killings of political party members and the recruitment and training of para­military groups.

“Both sides express an interest in dialogue, but at the moment ambiguous signals are being given,” Landgren said. “The time may not be quite ripe for everyone to sit down around a table, but we can certainly play a role in carry­ing messages among the parties and in encouraging them to find a formula to talk and resume a nor­mal democratic political life so that successful elections can be held the next time around, in 2015.”

The recent violence comes despite important advances in human rights such as the establishment in 2011 of a national human rights commission. BNUB pro­vided strong support to its crea­tion and has welcomed its initial progress. Landgren points out that the latest killings, while deeply worrisome, have not had the ethnic undertones that characterized the country’s brutal civil war.


Transitional Justice

The wounds of that conflict still run deep, nonetheless. Transitional jus­tice will be an important focus for BNUB in the period ahead as the proposed Truth and Reconciliation Commission begins a mandate to look at waves of violence dating back a half-century to Burundi’s independence. “This will be sensi­tive. Our aim is to have a strong process, a process that remains reconciliatory in spirit and does not turn into score-setting or a revival of grievances,” says Landgren.

The mission will also focus in 2012 on helping Burundi imple­ment a “second-generation” poverty reduction strategy paper that would help to attract continued donor assistance.

BNUB is also mandated to assist in the strengthening of institutions critical to long-term democracy and governance in Burundi, such as the parliament and the justice system. These are areas where the UN team as a whole will be expected to contribute long after BNUB transitions out.

“Frankly, long-term institution building is the work of decades, so my aim in those fields is to entrench this type of support in the UN country team,” Landgren says. “This is the work that others can carry on.”


Related Links

More about the UN's political work in Burundi

UN Office in Burundi (BNUB)