More Than 21 Years Later, Washington Faces Another Problem From Hell

The U.S. and its allies failed to stop Rwanda from descending into genocide. With Burundi teetering on the brink, they are facing a new and very dangerous test.

By Colum Lynch, a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Burundian soldiers walk near a burning barricade erected by protesters as people demonstrate against the president's bid for a third term in power in Musaga, in the outskirts of Bujumbura, on April 27, 2015. Police in Burundi battled protestors on April 27 in a second day of demonstrations over a bid by the central African nation's president for a third term in office. AFP PHOTO / SIMON MAINA        (Photo credit should read SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images)
Burundian soldiers walk near a burning barricade erected by protesters as people demonstrate against the president's bid for a third term in power in Musaga, in the outskirts of Bujumbura, on April 27, 2015. Police in Burundi battled protestors on April 27 in a second day of demonstrations over a bid by the central African nation's president for a third term in office. AFP PHOTO / SIMON MAINA (Photo credit should read SIMON MAINA/AFP/Getty Images)

Rwanda’s genocide still stands more than two decades later as the starkest symbol of the great powers’ unwillingness to confront mass slaughter in the modern age.

Now, the United States and the U.N. face a similar test of their commitment in neighboring Burundi, were ethnic Hutu elites in government have darkly hinted at plans to exterminate members of the country’s Tutsi minority.

It’s a potentially big test for U.S. policy makers, particularly for national security adviser Susan Rice, who handled key aspects of Rwanda policy in the White House during the 1994 genocide, and Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who as an independent journalist wrote a blistering indictment, entitled “Bystanders to Genocide,” of the Clinton administration’s failure to act to stem the bloodletting.

Since coming into government, Power has sought to ensure that the Barack Obama administration doesn’t make similar mistakes; she urged, for example, intervention in Libya in 2011 to prevent a bloodbath. For the time being, Power seems reluctant to call in the troops, preferring to let diplomacy, backed by the threat of sanctions, play its course.

“Our primary objective is to ensure that Burundi does not descend into mass violence,” Power said Thursday. But she cautioned reporters that Washington still hopes to resolve the crisis diplomatically without having to send in U.N. peacekeepers, reflecting longstanding U.S. reluctance to sign off on potentially costly new peacekeeping missions.

Trouble has been brewing in Burundi since April due to popular anger at plans by reclusive, born-again Christian President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third term. U.N. human rights officials say bodies are dumped on the street on a near-nightly basis, with the police and government-affiliated militias rounding up and threatening opposition politicians, journalists, and human rights advocates.

In recent weeks, Nkurunziza demanded that Burundians turn in their weapons within five days or be “fought like enemies of the nation.” Senate leader Révérien Ndikuriyo subsequently delivered a speech that appeared to incite violence.

“The day we unleash people and the order to work will be given, be careful,” he warned in his remarks, which were translated from the original Kirundi. “You will be fished out even if you hide under your bed.” Rwanda’s mass murderers used the Kirundi word gukora, “to work,” as a synonym for murder before launching the genocide, according to U.N. officials.

“The country appears to be on the verge of descending into violence that could escalate to atrocity crimes,” said Adama Dieng, the U.N. special advisor for the prevention of genocide.

On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the violence and threatening “additional measures,” diplomatic shorthand for asset freezes and travel bans against those who foment violence and prevent peace. The French-drafted resolution instructs U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to explore options to build a U.N. presence in the country. One of those options could involve dispatching U.N. peacekeepers currently in the Democratic Republic of Congo to Burundi to protect civilians.

“We talk a lot about conflict prevention, in general,” Britain’s ambassador Matthew Rycroft, who holds the rotating presidency of the Security Council, told reporters Thursday. “Well, here is a very specific potential conflict, which has been flagged up by the international community for many months. We know how high the stakes are. We know that in the worst case what we are talking about is a possible genocide and we know that we need to do everything that we possibly can to prevent that.”

But Power seems inclined for now to exhaust diplomacy rather than reach for the blue helmets. Re-deploying peacekeepers from another country is “a complicated piece of business and I want to stress our goal is not to have to get to that point.”

Despite Thursday’s show of unity on Burundi, some U.N.-based officials say that the world is perhaps even less prepared to confront a rapid descent into violence than it was a generation ago. There are no armed U.N. peacekeepers on the ground as there were in 1994. A small U.N. electoral mission is preparing to wind down and leave by the end of next month. President Nkurunziza is largely inaccessible to outsiders, turning down requests to speak with American and U.N. officials. The 54-nation African Union has issued a tough communique warning of a possible intervention in Burundi, but its members remain divided over the wisdom of carrying through on the threat, according to U.N.-based officials.

“If genocide were to start tomorrow the international community would not be ready,” one senior U.N. official told Foreign Policy. “Twenty years have passed and the international community still doesn’t have the tools, the preparedness, and more worryingly, the political will, to deal with an outbreak of violence in a place like Burundi.”

The official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the council has been “reluctant, very slow, dragging its feet” on Burundi for months, hiding behind African mediation efforts that appear to be headed nowhere. Uganda’s President, Yoweri Museveni, has committed to leading mediation efforts in Burundi to convince the government and the opposition to settle their political differences through diplomacy. But there are no serious talks underway between the Burundian government and the opposition. There are mounting concerns that Rwanda’s pro-Tutsi government may intervene militarily on behalf of Burundi’s ethnic Tutsis.

Behind the scenes, the United States has been pressing the council for weeks to step up its involvement in the crisis, and prodding the U.N. secretariat to develop a series of options, including the creation of a political mission or a peacekeeping force, in the event that the situation explodes. “It is U.S. leadership that is forcing the council to deal with this,” said the U.N. official. “They got burned in 1994 and they don’t want it to happen again.”

Burundi has been plagued by a history of violence stretching out over decades. More than 300,000 Burundians died during a 12-year-long civil war that ended in 2005, resulting in the election of President Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader.

The current crisis began in April, when Nkurunziza announced plans to run for a third term as president, triggering widespread protests from opposition elements who claimed the campaign was unconstitutional. The following month, Burundi’s former intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare staged a failed coup attempt.

What began as a political fray appears to have escalated. The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said his organization has documented rising numbers of extrajudicial killings and political assassinations.

“At least 240 people have been killed since protests began in April, with bodies dumped on the streets on an almost nightly basis,” he told the U.N. Security Council on Nov. 9. “There have been hundreds of cases of arbitrary arrest and detention in the past month alone, targeting members of the opposition, journalists, human rights defenders and their families… The Imbonerakure militia associated with the ruling party continues to terrorize the population, sometimes in collaboration with the police.”

Simon Adams, executive director of the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, a New York-based human rights advocacy group, said the situation is dire. “I think the statement by the Burundian president and the [Burundian] Senate leader really did spook people,” he said. “We are not at April 1994 in Rwanda yet. But all the elements are in place. The pot could boil over at any moment.”

In grappling with the worsening situation in Burundi, U.N. officials and diplomats also have to wrestle with the long shadow of the Rwandan genocide. Gerard van Bohemen, New Zealand’s representative to the Security Council, was serving there in 1994, when Hutu extremists began a systematic murder of more than 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus.

“We know there has been an unfortunate history of this kind of behavior — 1994 was not the first time we’ve seen large scale killings in either of these countries,” he said. “On the other hand, you have to be careful not to overinterpret and assume that what is happening is another genocide.”

The concern is that what had begun as a largely “political scrap” between the president and Burundian opposition elements could inflame ethnic divisions, van Bohemen said. Public statements have been “redolent of the language” used by instigators prior to the Rwandan genocide, he said.

To be sure, van Bohemen and other observers say there are significant differences between the situation in Rwanda in 1994 and Burundi today. The United States, which actively lobbied to pull a U.N. peacekeeping force out of Rwanda during the most violent days of the genocide, has been much more vocal in highlighting the risks of mass killing. The U.N. Secretariat — which withheld information about the coming violence in Rwanda — has been “front-footed” about informing the council about the potential for large-scale violence, according to van Bohemen. And, of course, hindsight helps inform present policy.

“Burundi is actually on people’s radar screens in a way that Rwanda really wasn’t,” Simon Adams said.

Burundi has sought to assure the Security Council that its concerns are overblown. In a November letter, the Burundian government’s chief spokesman, Philippe Nzobonariba, claimed the president’s statement had been misunderstood.

“The government of Burundi would therefore like to reassure the national and international opinion that the Message of the Head of State is in no way a call for persecution against anyone, but rather a measure to restore peace and security throughout the national territory.”

Burundi’s foreign minister also sought to assuage concerns. “Contrary to the information conveyed by the foreign-based radical opposition and by some affiliated media, Burundi is not in flames,” he told the council. He dismissed fears of impending genocide, telling the council that “the entire country is generally calm and that citizens are going about their activities peacefully, except for in a few well-defined areas in certain neighborhoods of Bujumbura.”

Until Thursday, the U.N. had remained largely on the sidelines regarding Burundi. In contrast, the African Union, a 54-member bloc of African states, raised the threat of sanctions last month on perpetrators of violence in Burundi, and started drawing up contingency plans for an East Africa standby force that could be deployed to Burundi if the violence worsens. The European Union has also cut aid funding to Burundi, citing the government’s dismal human rights record.

Inside the U.N. Security Council, as on many other issues, Western countries blamed Russia and China for inaction, said Philippe Bolopion, director of crisis advocacy at Human Rights Watch, who travelled to Burundi last month. Moscow and Beijing, he said, were routinely opposing Western proposals to ratchet up the pressure on Burundi.

“I came back from Burundi with a sense that the situation was quickly escalating, and becoming extremely dangerous,” he recalled. “I felt the Security Council was not up to the task– that it was missing in action.”

That finally changed on Thursday, with the security council’s vote. “It’s only now we’re seeing the beginning of a unified and forceful response. At least now there is some momentum,” he said.

France’s ambassador, Francois Delattre, told FP that the turning point came after Burundian leaders delivered a series of “hate” speeches that helped Paris and Washington convince countries on the council that had been cautious about threatening sanctions against Burundian extremists that the “worst was possible.”

“Frankly, this is how we convinced the others to move,” he said. “The council must fully embrace its role of prevention [of mass crimes] and not let the genie of ethnic violence out of the bottle.”

Photo credit: Simon Maina/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, Nov. 13, 2015: The U.N. is considering redeploying U.N. peacekeepers to Burundi from the Democratic Republic of Congo. An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the U.N. was weighing whether to move blue helmets from the Central African Republic.

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch