‘Time for Fiddling around the Edges Is Over; Take Decisive Action Now to Avert Civil War in Burundi’

Human Wrongs Watch

The top UN human rights official on 17 December 2015 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.



A young boy from Burundi, forced to flee his home due to violence, looks at his new surroundings in the Nyarugusu refugee camp in Tanzania. Photo: UNICEF/Rob Beechey

“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, 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.


Soldiers from the Burundian armed forces in the Musaga neighbourhood of the capital Bujumbura. Photo: Phil Moore/IRIN

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.” (*Source: UN).


More than 200,000 Burundians have fled unrest in their country to live as refugees in neighbouring states where families live extremely close together, and cooking must be done outside. Photo: Will Boase/IRIN

UN Urges Immediate Action to Stop ‘Senseless’ Violence

Amid the “deadly escalation” of violence in Burundi, the United Nations human rights chief on 15 December 2015 sounded the alarm at the unfolding crisis in the country and urged all actors in the current crisis to take every step possible to stop the growing violence and engage in a meaningful and inclusive dialogue.**

“More than ever before, there is an urgent need for decisive action from the international community to stop this senseless violence. We cannot turn our backs on the people of Burundi at this turning point of their history,” spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Cécile Pouilly told reporters in Geneva during a regular press briefing.

The latest call comes following the attacks on 11 December against several military camps in Bujumbura, which killed dozens of people in the course of heavy fighting prompting the UN Secretary-General to condemn the attacks and add that “such acts of violence can lead to a further destabilization of the situation in crisis-torn Burundi.”

According to Pouilly, the security forces carried out intensive house searches later in the Musaga and Nyakabiga neighbourhoods, where they arrested hundreds of young men, allegedly summarily executing a number of them and taking many others to unknown locations.

“With this latest series of bloody events, the country seems to have taken a new step towards outright civil war and tensions are now at bursting point in Bujumbura,” said Pouilly.

She added that the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urged all stakeholders to start inclusive dialogue and added that there is an urgent need for decisive action from the international community to stop this senseless violence. We cannot turn our backs on the people of Burundi at this turning point of their history.


People demonstrate in Bujumbura against a decision by Burundi’s ruling party to nominate President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third term (April 2015). Photo: Desire Nimubona/IRIN

Burundi has been in the midst of a political crisis that has driven countless people fleeing to safety in neighbouring countries since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a controversial third term earlier this year. Zeid and a host of senior UN officials including Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon have repeatedly called for calm and the resumption of the national dialogue that was suspended in mid-July.

At a press conference in the UN Headquarters today, two UN Emergency Directors briefed the media about their recent visit to the country and warned that “urgent action is needed to prevent a descent into catastrophic violence in Burundi.”

“Burundi is facing a critical crossroads. The levels of displacement and food insecurity are already concerning, but we risk another full-blown humanitarian crisis without urgent progress on the political front,” John Ging, the Emergency Director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told reporters.

At the same press conference, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) Emergency Director, Afshan Khan stressed that children are bearing the brunt of the violence in Burundi, as many have been killed wounded and arbitrarily detained and many more are living with the constant sound of gunshots and grenades.

“These violations against the children of Burundi must end now. Children must be protected from all forms of violence and their rights must be respected,” warned Khan.

According to UNICEF and OCHA, intensified violence in the country is worsening the humanitarian plight of an already vulnerable population, with over 80 per cent of families below the poverty line, 7 per cent of the population severely food insecure, and 58 per cent of people chronically malnourished, placing Burundi at 184 out of 187 on the recently released Human Development Index.


Burning barricades in Bujumbura, as turmoil erupted in Burundi. Photo: Desire Nimubona/IRIN 

The UN agencies also added that many areas of the country are suffering the ill-effects of El Niño, with widespread flooding having destroyed homes and livelihoods.

Before the crisis, donor funding accounted for over half of Burundi’s budget, however, several bilateral donors have suspended budget support in response to the political crisis, which is further straining the provision of essential public services like health and clean water, warned the UN Agencies.

Free healthcare for young children and mothers has just been suspended, a cut which is likely to have severe public health impacts, they added.

The UN agencies reported that in the past four days, about 100 people have been killed by violence in Bujumbura, and an estimated 340 people have been killed since April.

“Action is needed now to prevent a descent into catastrophic violence. Worsening tension in a country with a history of deep ethnic divisions must be urgently addressed to protect civilians from further harm,” warned Ging.

Further, the UN agencies noted that popular protests following the political crisis have been heavily repressed by security forces, resulting in significant human rights abuses and repression of the media.

Additionally, they also reported that nearly 220,000 people have fled Burundi and an additional 15,000 people have been displaced within the country since April.

The Emergency Directors of seven UN agencies, the International Organization for Migration and three international NGOs travelled to Burundi from 2 to 5 December to assess the deteriorating humanitarian situation, according to the UN agencies. (**Source: UN).

2015 Human Wrongs Watch

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