The AU is planning to send peacekeepers to Burundi to 'protect civilians.' International pressure has so far failed to quell violence in the country which has claimed at least 400 lives since April.
The African Union's (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) has proposed sending 5,000 peacekeepers to Burundi, which UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon warned was on "the brink of a civil war that risks engulfing the whole region."
Senior AU official Bonaventure Cakpo Guebegde told AFP in Addis Ababa the troops would be under the banner of the East African Standby Force (EASF) and would be sent in "to protect civilians."
The 10-nation EASF, which includes Burundi itself, is one of five AU regional bodies with a mandate to boost peace and security. The EASF has never deployed and is currently a force in principle only.
"It has never fired a shot in anger. It has no direct combat experience. It has never had to protect civilians in the way the African Union has said it should do," Phil Clark, lecturer in international politics at SOAS, University of London, told DW.
Burundi has so far dismissed proposals for any peacekeeping force. Government spokesman Philippe Nzobonariba said that if the AU sent troops without Burundi's consent, it would be viewed as an attack. He said Burundi had enough forces to maintain peace.
Guebegde said the AU could either send in troops with Burundian government consent or they would wait for consent from African Union heads of states. At least two thirds of those heads of state would have to agree to the deployment before it could go ahead without Burundi's consent.
Guebegde could not comment on whether Bujumbura had reacted to the proposal.
"Our favorite option is to reach an agreement with the Burundian government," he said.
Clark sees obstacles ahead. "I think it is going to be very difficult for the AU troops to operate if the Burundian government doesn't give permission. There is also the danger of a flare up of violence between Burundian troops and African Union troops," he said.
Guebegde said the number of troops the AU would send "has not been fully determined yet."
But Reuters quoted a diplomat from a PSC member country as saying they had "authorized the deployment of a 5,000-man force."
According to Clark, it remains to be seen which African Union member states will send forces to Burundi. "It would be explosive to say the least for Rwanda to send troops to Burundi given the bad blood between the two countries," he said. "Only in the last week or so, Burundi has accused Rwanda of supporting Burundian rebels."
Rwanda is a major contributor of troops to the East African Standby Force.
But overall Clark believes the decision by the AU to send in troops is the right one. "At the moment I don't see an alternative. Most other options have been exhausted," he said.
AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smail Chergui said on Thursday there was "a very clear message" from the PSC meeting, that "the killings in Burundi must stop immediately."
The AU's decision to deploy peacekeepers would need the approval of the UN Security Council.
Rights investigators to Burundi
In Geneva on Thursday, the UN Human Rights Council held a special session on Burundi and unanimously decided to urgently send investigators to the central African country to probe widespread rights abuses.
UN rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, echoing warnings by other officials, told the session that the country of around 11 million, which has seen more than 220,000 flee the violence, was "on the very cusp of civil war."
Zeid said his office had documented 312 killings since public demonstrations began in April 2015, including 19 children.
"Over the last bloody weekend (12.12.2015 - 13.12.2015) in Bujumbura, government figures indicate that another 87 people were killed, but figures we have received from other sources are considerably higher," he added.
AU rights investigators returned from a fact-finding mission to Burundi this week. They said they had reports of "arbitrary kilings and targeted assassinations" as well as arrests, detentions and torture.
Burundi descended into violence in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a controversial third term, which he went on to win in July.
The violence has unnerved a region that remains volatile two decades a genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
"Africa will not allow another genocide to take place on its soil," the PSC said on Twitter during its meeting.
After the Rwandan genocide, in which an estimated 800,000 people were massacred, the majority of them Tutsis, the UN adopted the concept of the "responsibility to protect" to prevent any repetition of wholesale slaughter.
Andreas Zumach is a Geneva-based correspondent at the UN. Asked if the "responsibility to protect" concept was workable and could stop genocide in Burundi, he told DW: "Absolutely. It takes the consensus of the five permanent members [of the UN Security Council]. If one of them would be against it and issue a veto, they could stop all these measures, but in this specific case I don't see this danger."
Zumach sees a parallel to what happened in Rwanda 20 years ago.
"It was not as if any members of the council were against sending in forces to stop the genocide, it was a lack of interest on the part of all 15 members of the Security Council. And since the UN does not have its own forces, the UN Secretary General at the time was not able to send in the 25,000 blue helmets which could have stopped and prevented the genocide," he said.
Fred Muvunyi contributed to this report