Background Briefing

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The United Nations

After endless disputes and postponements had bogged down the transition in Burundi, the United Nations Security Council gave a new impetus to the peace process by creating a relatively strong peace-keeping force for Burundi while the Secretary General named a new special representative to push forward political developments.92 Some Burundian actors did not appreciate the new dynamism shown by the UN and would have preferred continuing the war or at most making hesitating progress towards peace and the elections meant to mark the end of the transition.

No Burundian military or civilian leader informed UN staff of the Gatumba massacre until well after it was over. According to one UN staff member, the commanding officer of the ONUB peace-keeping force learned of the tragedy from MONUC officers, not from his Burundian counterparts. UNHCR staff, accustomed to being contacted by refugees for all kinds of problems, were first told of the slaughter by a local official who called one of them at 6 a.m.93 Such a uniform and blatant failure to inform any UN officer in Burundi promptly of the tragedy—at a time when Burundian civilian and military officials were exchanging information among themselves—appears to have been more than a simple oversight.

The ONUB mandate in paragraph 5 charges the force with protecting civilians in immediate danger of physical violence, a task to be discharged without infringing on the responsibilities of the Burundian government in the same domain. Political leaders from Burundi, Rwanda, and elsewhere used this most recent case of UN failure to protect civilians to once more stress UN inability to save civilian lives, in the past as in the present. In making such criticism, they do not mention that UN staff had not been informed of the attack and so could not possibly have intervened to stop the killing.94

While criticizing ONUB for not reacting to this specific event is unfair, it is appropriate to remark that the UN force had not yet exercised effective control over the borders even though its mandate in paragraph 6 specifically assigns it the duty of “monitoring the borders of Burundi, paying special attention to refugees. . . .” At the time of the attack, the force had only about half its projected troop strength which may help explain why it had not yet begun to effectively monitor the border.95

The first ONUB statement about the Gatumba massacre on August 14 denounced the slaughter but ended by calling on perpetrators of the attack to return to cooperating with all parties in the peace process. As public horror over the crime grew, the UN withdrew from this position and announced a suspension of talks with the FNL, apparently recognizing that even the hope of negotiating an eventual settlement to the war could not justify dealing with persons who accepted responsibility for such a crime.

[92] The peacekeeping force ONUB was established by 1545 (2004), adopted May 21, 2004.

[93] Human Rights Watch interviews, Bujumbura, August 21 and 22, 2004.

[94]Agence France Presse, “Massacre de Gatumba: l'Onu ‘ne fait rien’, selon le président rwandais , Kigali, August 17, 2004.

[95] United Nations Security Council, “First report of the Secretary-General,” paragraphs 37-39.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>September 2004