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Burundi:'It is not about ethnicity'

Christine Harjes (jak)January 29, 2016

Is there a threat of civil war in Burundi? International law expert Gerd Hankel says no. In an interview with DW, the expert is against the deportation of Burundian refugees from Germany.

Burundi Gewalt Unruhen
Image: Getty Images

There has been mounting unrest in Burundi since President Nkurunziza announced he was seeking a third term in office. In 2015, the country held presidential elections, which he won, but since then civil unrest has persisted and hundreds of ordinary Burundians have died. Nkurunziza has ruled Burundi since 2005. DW spoke to Gerd Hankel, a lawyer with the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and an expert on the Great Lakes Region.

Deutsche Welle: You recently wrote a report about the human rights situation in Burundi on behalf of the Lower Saxony Constitutional Court. It was about the question of whether Burundian refugees in Lower Saxony have a right to asylum. What conclusion did you come to?

Gerd Hankel: It was about Burundian refugees in Lower Saxony, but decisions taken at a level of a federal state have an effect on the entire country. It was a question of whether Burundians in Germany get asylum or they have to be treated in accordance to the Geneva Convention. This particular case was whether a Burundian Tutsi, who was a member of the Hutu party of the opposition, may be expelled from Germany. After my visit to Burundi in early summer 2015, I saw that there is no way you can send back Burundians at the moment, be they Hutu or Tutsi, and regardless of any party. Unless someone is an ardent supporter of President Nkurunziza. The risk is very big. One may pay with his life or suffer severe physical injury.

It is mostly the Hutu and a Tutsi minority who live in Burundi. In the past there have always been serious conflicts between the two communities. Could the current conflict also turn out to be ethnic?

My assessment is that, it is still not an ethnic conflict. And I also do not think that it will be, because everyone knows what is at stake. The fear is too much, but also intra-ethnic solidarity between Hutu and Tutsi in Burundi is too pronounced to facilitate a conflict. In this regard, Burundi is actually a very solid land. Besides that, the opposition against Nkurunziza [is comprised] of members from both ethnicities.

You have extensively studied the human rights situation in the country. How does the current situation look like now?

There is political repression and people's legitimate demands to the state leadership are suppressed. There is crime, there is unrest, and there is lack of prospects. Human rights violations and arbitrariness are, unfortunately, on the agenda in Burundi. The violence is mainly carried out by the government. The authorities disproportionately react with violence on the general public. There is the practice of enforced disappearances, there is a kind of death squads that revenge at night or in the early morning hours. The violence is primarily on the part of state. But one should not forget that there are also a number of criminal elements who want to benefit from this general insecurity.

Dr. Gerd Hankel Bodo Dretzke. Das ©
Dr. Gerd Hankel is a lawyer with the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and an expert on the Great Lakes Region.Image: Hamburger Institut für Sozialforschung

Many experts speak about a threat to civil conflict. What do you have to say about this?

The possibility is not completely out. However, at the moment, I still have very high hopes in the international community, the African Union and various other local associations, such as the East African Community and others. The pressure on Burundi and the president is immense. I do not think he'll be so stupid to let the situation escalate further. Because the risk is so big that he may one day find himself before the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague or he will pay the with his life.

What should the international community specifically do? Till now, they have not been able to achieve much in Burundi.

For example, the UN Security Council should enforce measures under Chapter Seven of the UN Charter. These are coercive measures, which can be enforced even against the will of the Burundian state power. Until now it has always adopted measures that require the consent of the Burundian government, such as the posting of specialists through the UN Commission on Human Rights or when the African Union wanted to know the extent to which Rwanda is involved in destabilization of the country. All these [presuppose] that Burundi allows investigations in the country. The next step now would be to enforce measures against the Burundian government.

Gerd Hankel is a lawyer specialized in the field of international law. He works for the Hamburg Institute for Social Research and is an expert on the Great Lakes Region.