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Africa

International community hesitates over Burundi crisis

Violence in Burundi shows no signs of abating as the international community struggles to respond to the conflict. They have threatened sanctions. But the question remains: will they work?

On Monday, November 9, 2015, France presented a draft resolution to the United Nations Security Council aimed at toughening the international response to violence in Burundi.

The measure threatens targeted sanctions against Burundian leaders who incite attacks or hamper efforts to end the crisis that followed protests over President Pierre Nkurunziza's third term. Senior government officials in France are not alone in warning about dire consequences, should the international community fail to act soon.

DW spoke to Benjamin Chemouni, lecturer at the London School of Economics, on the ongoing debate about how to react to the crisis in Burundi.

DW: The UN Security Council is discussing possible sanctions, specifically targeting officials fuelling the conflict in Burundi. Isn't that a bit late, now that hundreds of people have been killed?

Benjamin Chemouni: Yes, I think so. On the one hand, I think it is good that the UN Security Council (UNSC) is finally trying to take some action. Some weeks ago, the European Union implemented a few, mostly symbolic, sanctions against some officials. The UNSC is now trying to do the same thing. However, I think that the powers in Burundi are really committed to crushing the opposition violently, despite any pressure that might be put on the president. For them, crushing the opposition is a priority. So I am not sure if sanctions, at this moment, are going to have much effect.

Why is nobody trying to persuade President Nkurunziza to stop the violence?

I wouldn't be surprised if there were a lot going on behind closed doors. However, I think the answer is quite simple. People realize that at the moment Pierre Nkurunziza is not ready to listen. As mentioned before, the possibility of sanctions, the possibility of economic sanctions as well, offers of mediations, all this has been formally and informally rejected, just because in the short run the priority for Nkurunziza is to crush the opposition, whatever it takes. So, I think sanctions would only have an effect in the long run, once Nkurunziza is be less worried about short-term political survival.

A UN official has admitted that the world body is more poorly positioned to respond to warning signs in Burundi now, than in Rwanda in 1994. How worrying is this admission?

Even though it's an easy parallel, I think the conditions are very different from Rwanda in 1994. Of course there has been more and more noise about trying to "ethnicize" the conflict in Burundi. Nonetheless, the fact is that Nkurunziza's opposition are Hutus and Tutsis. The main political party that has been against the CNDD-FDD is the FNL, which is a Hutu party. So we are seeing attempts to try to have this ethnic discourse, but to what extent it will succeed, or is succeeding at the moment, is very unclear. Also, all this debate about Rwanda in 1994 has shown us, at least, is that the awful events twenty years ago have served, in a way, to sensitize the international community to the possibility of ethnic violence. I'd be careful about thinking that Burundi will necessarily go in an ethnic direction. It is not sure at all. But if this should happen, people would now be a bit more sensitized to the issue of ethnic violence, and maybe a reaction could be expected.

But President Kagame of Rwanda has already warned about ethnic violence. We hear of killings every day, bodies rotting in the streets, people leaving their homes. Surely all the signs are there?

Well, there is violence. But I think that the people who are killed in this violence are not from a specific ethnic group. Kagame was indeed right to warn that things can turn very quickly along ethnic lines. But, for the moment, this is not the case. From Rwanda's point of view, I think it is important to note that Kagame also has a strategy. For him it is a way to show legitimacy, to show that he was the only one to stop genocide. In a way he is still trying to foster legitimacy, because he is running for a third term. However, his running for a third term and challenging the constitution went extremely smoothly. And, unlike Nkurunziza, he can point to some results. I think his criticism of Nkurunziza is also to enhance his own image.

Burundi's foreign minister urged the UN Security Council not to resort to sanctions, calling them "ineffective." He maintained that the government was holding a dialogue with the opposition. Should his assurances be given the benefit of doubt? Are they really talking to the opposition?

No, it's clear that they are not. This kind of statement of course lacks credibility. On the one hand, they might say that they talk to the opposition, on the other hand they are killing the opposition, through targeted killings that happen every night in Bujumbura.

Benjamin Chemouni is a lecturer at the London School of Economics.

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