Return to Genocide: Can Sanctions Save Burundi?

By April Kent

Photo Credit: "Clashes in Burundi" by REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic 
is licensed under CC Commercial 2.0

On February 15, European Union foreign ministers released a statement that they were prepared to strengthen economic sanctions on Burundi following the failure of peace talks with opposition leaders: “The EU... stands ready to impose restrictive measures against those whose actions might have led or might lead to acts of violence and repression (and) serious human rights violations.”

The United Nations has repeatedly warned that the situation in Burundi has serious genocidal overtones, “catapulting the country back to the past” more than a decade after the civil war between Hutus and Tutsis in which tens of thousands were killed. As a result of the current political crisis, at least 400 people have already been killed and 220,000 have fled to neighboring countries.

The conflict erupted on April 25, 2015, when the ruling political party in Burundi announced that the incumbent President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, would run for a third term in the upcoming election. The announcement sparked protests by those opposed to Nkurunziza seeking an unconstitutional third term in office, setting off widespread demonstrations in the capital. In January 2016, Amnesty International published satellite images it believed to portray mass graves where killings took place. That same month, the African Union announced a plan to send 5,000 peacekeepers to Burundi, but the plan was shelved after President Nkurunziza declared a military intervention “too early.”

The statement by the EU comes at a time when civil society groups and government officials in the region appear torn over the question of whether imposing sanctions will improve the situation.

In February, activists and opposition leaders in Burundi called on the African Union to impose economic sanctions to force Nkurunziza to enter a political dialogue following the failure of peace talks. A charity worker from Bujumbura told IBTimes UK, “Realistically, Nkurunziza will not even see the need of joining talks as he sees himself as victorious and the AU has just encouraged this attitude.” Pancrace Cimpaye, spokesperson of the coalition Council for the Observance of the Constitution (CNARED) agreed: “Only economic and targeted sanctions could make Nkurunziza think about dialogue.”

Others are averse to sanctions. Ms. Hafsa Mossi, a member of the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) from Burundi explained, “It is important for regional leaders and neighboring countries to stand in solidarity with Burundi... sanctions will not work.” Her remarks were supported by other legislators, who called for a participatory approach in addressing the problems Burundi was facing. “It is vital for the region to find a lasting solution to what is happening in Burundi,” said Mr. Peter Mathuki from Kenya.

In advance of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s visit to the country on February 22-23 and a subsequent visit by a high-level African Union delegation on February 25-26, the government has made several goodwill gestures, permitting the return of a few broadcasting stations and lifting some international arrest warrants. It remains to be seen whether these signs of progress will divert international attention from both the UN visit and the possible EU sanctions.