UN police presence in Burundi can make dialogue more attractive, violence more costly

Saturday May 07 2016


Almost exactly a year ago, President Pierre Nkurunziza announced to the Burundian people that he would seek a controversial third term as president. The protesters who soon filled the streets of Bujumbura, as well as many observers abroad, predicted that if Nkurunziza did not step down, the country would explode.

When I visited Burundi last month, it was clear this apocalyptic vision had not yet materialised: Nkurunziza remains in power, and the armed opposition seeking to oust him appears fragmented and disorganised.

But make no mistake: What keeps Burundi “quiet” these days is not peace, but fear. And the need for a robust United Nations mission to protect Burundian civilians is as acute as ever.

Cases of arbitrary arrests, torture, and disappearances are now on the rise – both in Bujumbura and in rural areas.

The CNDD-FDD’s so-called Imbonerakure militia – who stand accused of severe and widespread human-rights abuses – are becoming ever-more deeply integrated into the country’s security services.

And mass graves, some visible via satellite imagery, are turning up around the capital.


To make matters worse, the government is doing everything possible to isolate its victims. Local human-rights groups, once a vital part of Burundian society, have had their bank accounts frozen and their staff driven into exile.

“There are still arbitrary arrests, killings, and disappearances going on,” one local activist told us, “but no Burundian here can report on or denounce these abuses anymore.”

International organisations, too, are coming under pressure. Aid workers say that their local employees – their bridge to Burundians in need – are harassed by the authorities, making it nearly impossible for them to protect and assist civilians.

“Our local staff are so heavily pressured they are afraid even to talk to us,” one foreign aid worker said. “Sometimes they don’t even show up for work because someone has threatened them.”

Shockingly, staff working to assist survivors of gender-based violence (GBV) are among the most at risk: One aid organisation said its GBV efforts had stalled because “our staff are terrified of doing this work now.” Other women’s aid groups in the country have shut down entirely.

It’s unclear how long this level of repression can continue. But the world shouldn’t wait around to find out.

For its part, the United Nations Security Council has recently expressed its willingness to deploy a police mission to Burundi.

Earlier this month, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon presented the Council with three possible models for such a mission.

The most limited of the three would involve just 20-50 UN police officers and would merely assess the security situation on the ground and advise Burundi’s national police. This proposal has already won support from the Burundian government, which under the principles of UN peacekeeping must give its consent to any such mission.

Yet deploying such a miniscule force would provide little more than a fig leaf for Burundian authorities – a signal of their “willingness” to engage with the international community, but one with no ability to directly protect vulnerable civilians.

A second option would involve just over 220 police officers and would be focused on human-rights monitoring and early warning activities. While more monitoring of abuses is clearly needed, this is not where the comparative advantage of a UN police mission lies.

As described above, there are already huma- rights and humanitarian organisations in Burundi who wish to monitor human-rights violations, in addition to human-rights observers already deployed by the African Union.

Yet their effectiveness is limited by threats against them and the people they are trying to assist.

Given that, a UN police presence should focus on creating a safe environment in which these organisations can do their jobs, rather than trying to replace them.

Another strike against this mission proposal is that, should the situation in Burundi further deteriorate, a force of just 220 officers would have little chance of deterring mass violence in Bujumbura, let alone beyond the capital.

The Secretary General’s third proposal, “the only option that could provide some degree of physical protection to the population,” would see up to 3,000 officers deployed to Burundi.

Such a mission would be costly and take time to organise, but it is clearly the best approach among those offered to the Council. With such a force, the UN could provide a much-needed presence in Bujumbura, in outlying provinces, and along Burundi’s international borders.

It could also bring to bear not just individual UN police officers, but also Formed Police Units that would be better able to respond to major security incidents.

Clearly, no force currently envisioned by the UN can provide complete protection to Burundians in need. But such a force could help us shine a light on what’s happening and, even indirectly, encourage the government to resume dialogue and prevent the radicalisation of the opposition.

Making dialogue more attractive, and violence more costly, should be the overarching goal of a robust UN police presence in Burundi.

Michael Boyce is an advocate with Refugees International.