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On September 16 the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect released a report in its Occasional Paper Series titled “Prioritizing Protection from Mass Atrocities: Lessons from Burundi.”

The report details events in Burundi during the civil war of 1995–2005, and analyzes and critiques the measures taken by the international community in response to human rights abuses committed against civilians, in an effort to identify the lessons that can be gleaned with regard to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine. The report’s authors—Gregory Mthembu-Salter, Elana Berger, and Naomi Kikoler—conclude that these measures “ultimately brought stability to Burundi, thus leading to an end to atrocities, [but] for many years they failed to protect Burundians from the daily threats of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, and ethnic cleansing.” (Estimates of the number of people killed in Burundi’s civil war range from 200,000 to 300,000.)

The report describes the measures taken in Burundi as a direct response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, building on the situational and historical commonalities, as well as the ways in which the international community departed from previous actions, or inaction, in Rwanda. The three major areas of response are 1) mediation efforts, 2) the use of force, and 3) the application of economic sanctions, all of which were attempted by both regional and global organizations.


The report documents the mediation efforts of Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere, South African president Nelson Mandela, and deputy South African president Jacob Zuma. It attributes Nyerere’s efforts with ultimately bringing the involved parties to the negotiating table, but faults him for failing to include the CNDD-FDD (the military wing of the CNDD) and the FNL (the military wing of the Palipehutu); both were Hutu rebel groups engaged in combat with the Tutsi-run Burundian army, the FAB. These exclusions resulted in continued atrocities throughout the onset of mediation and the negotiation process.

The authors credit Nelson Mandela with the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in 2000. This agreement established a transitional government, restructured the military to a 50/50 representation of Hutus and Tutsis, and contained a provision for the prevention of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Once again, however, the CNDD-FDD and the FNL were excluded from the negotiation, and both groups intensified their attacks on civilians after the treaty, causing more violent reprisals by the Tutsi FAB.

Jacob Zuma successfully brokered a ceasefire with the CNDD-FDD in December 2002, which resulted in its full integration into the Burundian military in late 2003, which brought about a marked decrease in atrocities against the population. In 2006 Zuma reached an agreement with the FNL that fully demobilized the last rebel militia, which was incorporated into the military in 2009.

The authors of the report believe the impact of mediation efforts was ultimately positive, successfully ending the war and bringing a stop to atrocities on both sides. On the other hand they note that, “The efforts were premised on the belief that a negotiated political solution would automatically lead to a cessation in violence and atrocities,” arguing that mediators instead should have addressed the problem of atrocities explicitly. They also say the exclusion of the two largest militias resulted in continued atrocities throughout the mediation and negotiation process.

Use of Force

The use of force was threatened but never employed during Burundi’s civil war. In fact the authors of the report claim that in many ways this exacerbated the situation, since there was no real commitment to using force, and regional and international troops on the ground had neither the manpower nor the mandate to protect civilians.

According to the authors, the United Nations’ threat of force in 1996 (see UNSC 1049) was undermined by the resistance of important countries like the United States and France, and thus actually had a negative effect: “The resolution did nothing to provide protection to Burundi’s population and instead, by threatening the use of force without being prepared to follow through . . . the Council created a moral hazard and likely slowed the progress of Nyerere’s peace process.”

A South African force deployed in 2001 was successful in its protection of politicians returning to form the transitional government established by the Arusha agreement, but did nothing to prevent atrocities against civilians. A competent peacekeeping force with a Chapter VII mandate was not established until late 2004. The report concludes, “The deployment of foreign peacekeepers to Burundi contributed to the development of long-term peace and security but did not protect civilians from immediate threats of atrocities.”

Economic Sanctions

Sanctions were a tactic employed by regional heads of state in Burundi early on. Yet a 1996 embargo on Burundian goods only resulted in the establishment of a black market by military officials, and since it effectively ended all foreign investment, it exacerbated poverty. The European Union and the UN froze all emergency aid to the country, but failed to enact sanctions of their own or to effectively support those who did. Without effective international support the sanctions had mixed effects, becoming “increasingly lackadaisical” until they were lifted in 1999.

The authors of the report state that this case demonstrates that regionally imposed sanctions on a possibly genocidal government are effective only if well enforced and the creation of a black market is blocked. Sanctions are employed in the hope that “suffering civilians will blame their government for their worsening hardship, placing popular domestic pressure on government actors to comply with international demands.” But this requires a strong political force that can provide direction to the people’s discontent, which did not consistently exist in Burundi, leaving the population to suffer without the reward of change.


In conclusion the authors note that “the incidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity has greatly declined and . . . the threat of genocide has subsided—in part due to continuous regional and international engagement in Burundi.” In retrospect, however, “A comprehensive peace agreement may have been reached more quickly and more lives could possibly have been saved . . . had states more strongly focused their efforts on protecting populations, in addition to their emphasis on finding a political solution to the crisis.”


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