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Burundi threatens to become another Rwanda as world turns away

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Pierre Nkurunziza, President of Burundi.

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Another Rwanda looms in Africa, this time in the tiny Central African nation of Burundi, and the world is standing by determined to do nothing to prevent it. This calamitous possibility, which I wrote about in January, looms closer, according to many observers, yet intervention by African leaders or the United Nations Security Council is no closer.

In 2002, when the African Union was created as a forum for continental decision-making, its aspiration was a "new Africa" characterized by "African solutions for African problems." The AU Charter boldly gave the organization the right to intervene in a fellow nation state "in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity." In the previous tragic decades, tyrants and madmen had inflicted all of these atrocities on their fellow Africans with impunity while the rest of Africa's leadership remained passive bystanders.

AU military missions have intervened in various conflicts, in Darfur, South Sudan, Somalia and Mali, among others. Currently, many anticipate an imminent bloodbath in Burundi, Rwanda's southern neighbour, but there will be no AU intervention. Why? Because the Burundian president, Pierre Nkurunziza, who is most responsible for the present parlous state of the country, refuses to allow a proposed AU peacekeeping force to be deployed, and the charter be damned.

The AU is paralyzed by a reluctance to deploy its mission against Mr. Nkurunziza's wishes. Forget about African solutions to African problems unless the chief culprit agrees.

Yet the situation, according to many, continues to deteriorate. According to my best source: "It's dire -- both the situation and the response from the region and international community." Some optimists disagree and believe the fear is exaggerated. But what if they're wrong?

Burundi's history has been bloody ever since a president was assassinated in 1993. Then last year, Mr. Nkurunziza decided he must have a third term as president. The resulting politically inspired violence has left hundreds dead while an estimated quarter of a million people have fled to adjacent Tanzania and Rwanda. Mr. Nkurunziza is now the greatest threat to his own people, with thousands living in fear of a militia that echoes the dreaded Interahamwe of Rwandan genocide infamy.

Since President Nkurunziza's re-election last July, violence between his supporters and opponents has become more deadly and more frequent. Even more worrying, traditional ethnic rivalries, briefly suppressed, are once again exacerbating existing political rivalries with the majority Hutu, of which the president is a member, turning against the minority Tutsi.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is also calling for troops to keep order, but the United Nations is not sending a peace force to Burundi.

There's a story within a story here: The American ambassador to the UN is Samantha Power, whose rise to prominence resulted from her powerful 2002 book A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Ms. Power lambasted her own country for refusing to intervene in a series of calamities, most flagrantly Rwanda, even for purely humanitarian reasons.

So why is UN Ambassador Power, with all her influence and commitment to preventing atrocities, not leading the charge at the Security Council for a significant UN peacemaking force for Burundi? We don't know.

And why isn't the Security Council deploying a military mission to Burundi? After all, right next door in Congo sits MONUSCO, the world's largest peacekeeping mission. Some of its Blue Berets could be in Burundi by lunchtime.

Ms. Power and other Security Council members' ambassadors did visit Burundi last January, a reflection of the fragility of the situation. They pressed President Nkurunziza to accept mediation efforts, plus the proposed AU military mission. He unceremoniously rebuffed them.

So once again, as in Rwanda, the "international community" proves to be a diplomatic fiction. On April 1, the UN reported that, "Amid continuing violence and a persistent political impasse in Burundi, the Security Council requested today that the Secretary-General present options for the deployment of a United Nations police contribution to monitor the security situation, promote respect for human rights, and advance the rule of law in the country." Burundi grows more unstable and unsafe, but in this report the usual UN verbiage takes the place of real action.

The new federal government might have a role here. In 1994, Jean Chrétien's Liberals chose not to intervene in the Rwandan tragedy. So far, it seems that Justin Trudeau's government will similarly ignore Burundi. But a proactive role by Canada in pressing on the Council the plight of Burundi surely makes good sense as it tries to get back onto the Security Council.

Or is the alternative really, truly possible? Will the world watch once again, as it did in Rwanda, as Burundi descends into mass murder? Will it betray Burundi as it did Rwanda? Will senior Western politicians later dare claim, as then U.S. president Bill Clinton did after Rwanda, that they didn't know what was really happening?

Will hundreds of thousands of Burundians have to die while the world solemnly pledges "never again" over and over again? It seems inconceivable, but also entirely possible.

It can make you wonder about humanity.

It can make you despair.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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