Policy Report Executive Summary

April 4, 1996




Burundi is caught in a vicious civil war. Conservative estimates put the number of deaths at around 100 per day, mostly women and children. The continuing violence has contributed to a major refugee crisis. 200,000 refugees from Burundi remain outside of the country and a further 200,000 people are internally displaced. There is no clear consensus among UN officials, governments and NGO staff on the likelihood of an escalation in the current level of violence. There are fears that Burundi may be on the brink of genocide. The mood in the country is tense and events are extremely difficult to predict.

On the other hand, there are grounds for hope. Recent decisions by the prime minister, cabinet ministers, army leaders and judges on the Constitutional Court all give some credence to the argument that moderates are slowly gaining ground within key institutions of state and that extremists are becoming increasingly marginalised. Meanwhile, the inability of government forces to gain a clear-cut victory over militia groups may be starting to convince some of Burundi's leaders that the solutions to Burundi's problems lie in the political not the military arena. At a recent summit of regional leaders held in Tunis and hosted by former US President Carter and former Tanzanian President Nyerere, the leaders of Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Zaire and Uganda agreed to undertake a number of specific steps to avert a worsening of the crisis. In Burundi, a National Debate is due to start shortly. The debate will involve the leaders and representatives of all of Burundi's various factions and will focus on constitutional and political reforms aimed at achieving a fairer distribution of political and economic opportunities and strengthening the capacity and neutrality of the state.


The UN Secretary General's call for troops

On February 15, 1996, the Secretary General of the United Nations called on members of the Security Council to authorise contingency planning for a multinational military intervention in Burundi in the event of genocide erupting. He proposed that discussions be initiated with a number of countries with a proven rapid deployment capability, including some African countries, with regard to establishing a standby force of some 25,000 soldiers. The countries concerned would be asked to earmark contingents to participate in the multinational force. These contingents would remain in their respective home countries but would be fully trained and equipped so as to be ready for deployment at very short notice. The possibility of setting aside staging areas close to Burundi's borders and pre-deploying some logistical and command structures was also raised.

When it met on March 5, 1996, the Security Council placed the proposal to one side and focused instead on existing political and diplomatic efforts to prevent an escalation of the crisis in Burundi. The matter will come before the Security Council again on May 1.


Reaction to the Secretary General's proposal

The report includes feedback from government officials and non-governmental organisations based in the US and Europe on the Secretary General's troops proposal. The findings suggest that a vigorous debate is still in progress between those who believe contingency planning for a military intervention will deter further violence and those who fear it may actually do the opposite by provoking panic among civilians on the ground.

Among the political issues discussed in greater depth in the body of the report are:

  • Whether planning and establishing a force of the size and type proposed by the Secretary General would have a deterrent effect on the warring factions in Burundi

  • Whether planning and establishing such a force risks provoking panic on the ground, causing an increase rather than a reduction in the level of violence

  • The perceived lack of popular support in the US and Europe for the proposal

  • The continuing opposition of the Burundian government and army

  • The lack of consensus on the likelihood of a genocide occurring in Burundi

  • The need to establish a clear and detailed mandate for the force in the event that it is deployed inside Burundi

  • The potential cost of implementing the proposal in full and potential sources of funding

A number of military issues are also discussed in the report, including:

  • The size and make up of the force required

  • Military strategies

  • Pre-deployment

  • Casualties

  • Transportation requirements


Governmental opinion

Of the governments contacted by ICG for comment, the United States was the most favourable to the troops proposal. Many US officials believe that real and detailed contingency planning work on the proposal should proceed with a view to identifying countries willing to contribute troops, leadership and logistical support. However, the US is unlikely to take the lead in this area, in part because of the perceived lack of support for the proposal from America's allies in Europe but also because of an increasing sense of political nervousness about the US becoming entangled in preparations for another overseas military operation. It is highly unlikely that either the United States or Europe would be willing to commit troops to the proposed multinational force, although the US, the UK and France signalled a willingness to consider providing logistical and possibly financial support. Initial consultations carried out by the UN Secretariat have identified a number of African countries which would consider contributing troops to the force although no formal discussions have been initiated. The proposal has the support of the OAU.


Non-governmental opinion

Opinion among NGOs on the troops proposal is mixed. If there is a discernible trend it is that the degree of enthusiasm for the idea of a standby force seems to increase the further away one moves from Burundi. Most NGOs do not have an official position on the troops proposal and have not undertaken much advocacy on the issue one way or the other. In some cases this is because the NGOs concerned have ground staff who might be vulnerable to attack if the organisation was seen to associate itself too strongly with one or other side of the debate.

Most NGO field staff based in Burundi fear the effect of discussing a military intervention on the behaviour of government and militia forces and on the level of tension between Hutu and Tutsi communities on the ground. This fear is not universally shared, Medecins Sans Frontiļæ½res Holland, for example, which has a sizeable presence in the field, has argued strongly in favour of the troops plan as one element within an overall strategy aimed at discouraging violence and encouraging dialogue. A number of American NGOs are also more disposed to the idea of a establishing multinational force and have pressured the US administration to take the lead in carrying out contingency planning work.


Other issues

Finally, even the most enthusiastic supporters of the Secretary General's troops proposal agree that it forms only one part, albeit a potentially significant part, of a much larger picture. The report therefore goes on to look at a number of other issues which will need to be addressed by through dialogue and action at a local, national, regional and international level, if Burundi's crisis is to be brought to an end. These include:

  • The safety of international personnel

  • Impunity

  • Restructuring and strengthening the state

  • Building the capacity of the local press and media

  • Keeping international media attention focused on the region

  • Halting the flow of arms in the region

  • Repatriation of refugees and displaced persons

  • Longer-term regional issues



The report concludes by recommending a role for ICG in support of the continuing international effort to prevent further violence in Burundi and restore trust, peace and stability to the region. It is argued, in the first place, that ICG should give its support to the Secretary General's troops proposal, on the basis that keeping alive the possibility of military intervention will deter violence and buy time for other political and diplomatic initiatives to produce results.

Secondly, it is argued that ICG should use its influence to persuade the international community to support a number of specific measures aimed at tackling the broader range of social, political and economic issues facing Burundi. There is already a wide range of initiatives, some of them products of the Carter-brokered regional peace process, which need and deserve international support. Funding, advice, training, equipment and monitoring personnel are all required. ICG should identify those areas where support is most urgently needed, identify potential sources of assistance and devise and implement an advocacy strategy accordingly.

Finally, the report argues that ICG should establish a working group on Burundi, composed of approximately six board members, with responsibility for developing ICG's role in relation to Burundi.

One issue which this group may wish to consider as a priority, is the question of whether ICG should send a delegation of board members to Burundi. The purpose of such a visit would be to familiarise members of the working group with the situation on the ground and to establish credibility as spokespersons on issues relating to Burundi. A second issue which the group should address is how best to mobilise media interest in Burundi as a means of increasing the pressure on governments, international organisations and others to respond to Burundi's needs.

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