Political Violence in Burundi: Human Dignity and the Sanctity of Sovereignty

Cole Lussier
Vol. 37 Associate Editor

Domestic conflict in a small Central African country is once again leading the international community to reflect on its willingness to ensure human security and republican government in a nation long marred by violence and instability. Since April 2015, the Republic of Burundi has teetered on the brink of civil war, prompting concerns of possible ethnic cleansing and genocide.[1] With the memories of neighboring Rwanda’s genocide still weighing on the global conscience, the killings in Burundi have once again raised serious questions regarding the sanctity of state sovereignty and the moral urge to protect human life and democratic government.[2]  Civil unrest erupted in Burundi in April 2015, following the announcement that President Pierre Nkurunziza would seek a third term in power.[3] To opposition members, this clearly violated the Burundi constitutional provision limiting a president to only two terms in office.[4] Yet, Nkurunziza’s supporters argued that this limit had not been reached because the president had been elected by the legislature for his first term in office, rather than the electorate-at-large.[5] The ensuing dispute over domestic constitutional law was ultimately decided by the Supreme Court of Burundi, which among allegations of threats and the dissenting justice fleeing the country, validated Nkurunziz’s campaign for a third term.[6] The ruling did little to stem the violent protests and opponents within the military launched a failed coup attempt on May 15, 2015.[7] Thus far, the violence has claimed over 400 lives and caused 250,000 refugees to leave the country.[8] Condemnation of the regime’s actions has been widespread. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has proclaimed the United States’ deep “disappointment with President Nkurunziza’s…use of undemocratic means to maintain power through an electoral process that was neither credible or legitimate.” While this statement shows the willingness of the United States to comment on the domestic legal disputes of a fledging democracy, other global actors have considered different degrees of intervention. The African Union (AU) has perhaps played the most prominent outside role in dealing with the crisis in Burundi. The AU, an international organization lead by the Heads of State of 54 African nations,[9] was founded to “achieve greater unity and solidarity between African countries and the people of Africa.”[10] In December 2015, the AU Peace and Security Council stood strong in its condemnation of the Burundi government and promised to send a peacekeeping force of 5,000 troops to the country to maintain order against the wishes of the Nkurunziza administration. Such action would have required, for the first time ever, the AU’s invocation of Article 4(h) of the AU Charter, which provides “the right of the Union to intervene in a member state…in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.”[11] However, only a month later, the heads of state comprising the AU abandoned the peacekeeping plan, instead opting to pursue “dialogue with the government” by dispatching a high level delegation to Burundi.[12] To some, the AU’s reversal marked an embarrassment for the organization. As one commentator stated, “the idea of African solutions to African problems seems to be stalling here.”[13] Another expert saw this as a clear “sign that African heads of state are not ready to set a precedent to intervene without the consent of the host government.”[14] Indeed, the prospect of an unprecedented infringement upon an African state’s sovereignty seems to have cautioned AU leaders into diplomatic efforts. The concern with Burundi’s sovereignty, however, begs the question: why does territorial integrity still matter so much when there is a persistent fear in the international community that a government may engage in the widespread killing of its citizens? The motivations behind the AU leaders’ focus on sovereignty are unclear. Is the legal tradition of sovereignty simply so great, that in the end, it must be respected? Do they believe in a need for Burundian solutions to Burundian problems? Or rather, does the thought of foreign troops within the borders of an African state against the wishes of the country’s president instill a sense of fear among leaders attempting to govern young democracies of their own? Regardless of the motivations, the equivocation of the AU marks a defeat for those who see international intervention as necessary to protect human dignity when it is threatened by a national government. This is especially true when the AU’s constitutive treaty seems to provide a legal basis to act.[15] Perhaps, the AU’s hesitation to intervene can be attributed to its structure, which requires heads of states to act collectively before action can be taken.[16] In any event, reversal of the plan to send peacekeeping troops to Burundi provides a clear indication that sovereignty still matters in the eyes of AU leaders. Yet, the lack of any will to launch military intervention does not mean that the global community is without any means to punish a government for actions repugnant to international norms. This is evident from the European Union’s (EU) announcement on March 14, 2016 that it would suspend the projected 432 million euros in aid that it intended to provide Burundi between 2014 and 2020.[17] While the suspension of economic support may be much easier for the EU to stomach than military intervention, EU aid comprises approximately half of Burundi’s annual budget and deals a substantial blow to the administration.[18] The announcement added to sanctions that had already been levied against officials close to the president.[19] The responses of the AU and the EU show how the global community has yet to fully determine the proper course of action when a government threatens the safety and dignity of its own people. How grave must a situation be before the AU will finally exercise the right to intervention provided in its charter? Can economic pressure really be sufficient in ensuring compliance with international norms? Should respect for state sovereignty continue to stand in the way of international coalitions’ use of force to stop violence that is entirely domestic? There are no easy answers to these questions, but the violence in Burundi has once again forced those paying attention to consider the true costs of inaction, as well the complications of potential intervention. Our best hope lies somewhere between our moral impulse to end the suffering of those living under oppressive regimes and the pragmatic concerns that drive a strict commitment to state sovereignty. Tragically, as time is taken to consider an appropriate balance, the burden falls on the people of Burundi, whose personal security and realization of democracy remain nothing more than distant aspirations.

  [1] Editorial, Averting genocide in central Africa: Why we can’t ignore Burundi’s Crisis, Chicago Trib. (Dec. 20, 2015), http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/editorials/ct-burundi-africa-genocide-rwanda-edit-jm-20151218-story.html. [2] Michelle Nichols, Burundi gripped by terror, on brink of ‘massive’ violence-U.N., Reuters (Mar. 19, 2016), http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-burundi-un-idUKKCN0WK2MY. [3] Deadly Burundi protests after president seeks third term, BBC News (Apr. 26, 2015), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-32471667 [4] Id. [5] Id. [6] Isma’il Kushkush, Burundi Court Backs President’s Bid for Third Term, N.Y. Times (May 5, 2015). [7] Faith Karimi & Robyn Kriel, Burundi: Leaders of Attempted coup arrested after President’s return, CNN (May 19, 2015), http://www.cnn.com/2015/05/15/africa/burundi-coup-leaders-arrested/. [8]Burundi Crisis: Amnesty claims evidence of ‘mass graves’, BBC News (Jan. 29, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-35436560; Number of Burundian Refugees tops 250,000 since April, United Nations High Commission on Refugees (Mar. 4. 2016), http://www.unhcr.org/56d97f2d9.html. [9] Member State of the AU, African Union (Mar. 28, 2016, 9:18: 26 AM), http://www.au.int/en/countryprofiles. [10] AU in a Nutshell, African Union (Mar. 28, 2016, 9:19:20 AM), http://www.au.int/en/about/nutshell. [11] Constitutive Act of the African Union (AU), art. 4(h), entered into force May 26, 2001, 2158 U.N.T.S. 3, 33. [12] Milton Nkosi, Has African Union let down Burundi?, BBC News (Feb. 1, 2016), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-35462079. [13] Id. [14] Id. [15] Ian Hurd, Is Humanitarian Intervention Legal? The Rule of Law in an Incoherent World, 25 Ethics & Int’l Aff. 293, 300 (2011). [16] Id. [17] EU suspends aid to Burundi’s government, The Guardian (Mar. 15, 2016), http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/mar/15/eu-suspends-aid-to-burundi-government. [18] Id. [19] Id.