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Dispatches: Pulling Burundi Back from the Brink?

Ambassadors to the UN Security Council rarely leave New York, but this week they’re in Burundi because of concern about hundreds of killings in the capital, Bujumbura, and fear that political violence might explode into all-out war. It’s encouraging to see the Security Council (and the African Union, which has proposed a peacekeeping mission) take the situation seriously, but preventing further loss of life and human rights violations will require strong diplomacy and a comprehensive action plan.

The ambassadors should use their time in Bujumbura to persuade President Pierre Nkurunziza to accept a strong UN political mission with a substantial international police force, and sections on human rights, justice and political analysis. The aims would be to reduce abuses, by both the security forces and armed opposition groups; strengthen human rights safeguards in Burundian institutions, particularly the justice sector; and encourage non-violent solutions to the crisis.

The UN police force would be based in and patrol Bujumbura neighborhoods and other areas most affected by the violence, including at night. It would provide residents with a visible, permanent presence and allow them to report attacks and threats.  Its presence could bolster security and deter attacks by the armed opposition, as well as extrajudicial killings and other security force violations.

The mission should include a human rights section, to work closely with the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights team already in place, to investigate and report publicly on abuses by all sides, including incitement to violence and hate speech. Forensic experts could be deployed to crime scenes and assist judicial authorities, who have so far failed to credibly investigate the killings. A rule of law and justice section would help strengthen the corrupt, politicized and underfunded justice system, and could offer assistance in increasing justice and accountability for serious crimes.

The UN should also deploy a quick reaction force to protect the mission; it would be limited in numbers and fielded from a single, preferably African, country.

Such a mission couldn’t be expected to stop the violence completely or end all political killings, but could have a significant effect in deterring or decreasing the abuses. UN action, especially in concert with the proposed African Union force, would offer a chance of pulling Burundi back from the brink and demonstrate strong international support to the Burundian population caught in the violence, at risk of violations.


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