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Catastrophe In Burundi: Tragic Human Cost Of Political Deadlock – Analysis

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The international community must face up to the Burundian crisis, because by common consensus it is on the verge of explosive reignition. By reason of complex current political upheavals, it is estimated that perhaps as many as 100,000 Burundian people are become refugees or displaced persons every month. Burundi is a catastrophe in the making, yet the world seems determined to look the other way.

By Matthew Parish*

The Great Lakes Region has had more than its fair share of humanitarian catastrophes, and on each occasion the United Nations Organisation has been compelled to intervene in the face of massive human suffering and loss of life. Yet extraordinarily, there is now yet another military calamity unfolding in the one of the region’s smallest nations: a country that has already suffered so terribly before and yet the lessons of history are in danger of not being learned.

Burundi has some of the lowest quality-of-life indices in the world, and no nation deserves to suffer civil war. Yet Burundi is now facing the risk of renewed civil conflict, only very shortly after a gruesome and extended civil war that lasted from 1993 to 2006 that even on conservative estimates resulted in the deaths of some 300,000 people. The risk of renewal of past horrors is a potentially catastrophic turn of events, and the international community is morally bound to rise to the challenge of averting unprecedented levels of human suffering once again when prior atrocities are so fresh in our minds.

The statistics speak for themselves. Burundi has one of the most alarming rates of infant mortality: over 80 per 1000 live births as of 2011. Compare this with a mean of 31 in South Africa or just over 6 in the United States. Burundi has a mortifying history of recruitment of child soldiers. According to the Child Soldiers Global Report 2004:

Use of child soldiers was widespread in government forces and all active armed political groups. Children as young as ten served in the Burundi armed forces and militia, the Gardiens de la paix (Peace Guards), as combat troops, spies and domestic labour. Armed political groups abducted girls into sexual slavery. Child soldiers fought with Burundian armed political groups in Burundi, and with Burundian and Congolese armed political groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). A program began in January 2004 for the demobilization of 2,500 child soldiers, most of them from government forces, although an estimated 5,000 further child soldiers required demobilization. However, armed political groups, including those taking part in the demobilization project, continued to recruit children to their ranks.

The prevalence of recruitment of minors into the military is no doubt a reflection of the country’s astoundingly dejecting rates of child education. Although in theory mandatory schooling applies from the ages of 7 to 13, the reality is that many schools were destroyed by the end of the civil war that concluded in 2006 and reconstruction has not been nearly so progressive as it might have been. Acute teacher shortages are compounded by lack of access to educational materials. Children are often forced to walk miles every day to the closest school building. For many, attending school is impossible, and denial of the right to education is a burden that falls disproportionately upon girls. All too often, the devastating consequences of war compound social and sexual inequality.

The consequences of this compounding catalogue of social calamities are not hard to divine. Literacy rates stand at barely 60%, and Burundi is ranked in the bottom ten countries worldwide in the Human Development Rankings. Even the most elementary professional training is in short supply. Teachers need to be trained to teach children on matters as elementary as the use of water pumps and latrines, the dangers of HIV/AIDS, and the risks of other virulent infectious diseases.

There has been some good news. In 2012 the UN Secretary General commended UNICEF in achieving massive improvements in educational standards in Burundi. Nevertheless problems remain, and the most pressing reason for this underperformance is absence of resources. Children drop out of school at alarmingly high rates, and their subsequent destinations are often unclear but depressingly ominous. While UNICEF strives hard to ensure that the Sustainable Development Goals in education are pursued with the greatest of energy, the unstable local political environment in Burundi presents this as a perennial challenge.

Infectious disease, afflicting not just children but the entirety of the population, including the elderly and the most vulnerable, remain rampant. Amongst some of the most critical medical problems affecting Burundi are infant botulism; yellow fever; malaria; typhoid; and in some cases hepatitis B and even rabies. Sanitary and medical infrastructure is so sparse that it is reflected in depressing statistics. Humanium, the children’s rights charity, assigns to Burundi its gravest level of accreditation of children’s rights: namely inclusion a black list indicating a very serious situation. Notwithstanding, some 45% of the population is under the age of 15 in a country of over 10 million. Children are simply not living to see adulthood. Some half of the population has no access to potable water, while almost 70% of the population lives below internationally recognised poverty lines. Although reliable statistics are rarely available due to frailties in government infrastructure, reports indicate child trafficking and prostitution are recurrent problems in this most impoverished of nations.

One of the reasons reliable statistics are so hard to come by is because it is estimated a mere 60% of Burundian children are even registered at birth. Perhaps 400,000 children live homeless, on the streets. Over 100,000 children are orphaned by reason of AIDS. Many children remain incarcerated without trial or evidence by reason of their prior (and necessarily involuntary) participation as child soldiers. Child labour is endemic, with a particular risk exposed for young girls who may be forced into domestic servitude without legal rights or adequate social protections.

UNICEF has been undertaking admirable field world in screening children for malnutrition in Burundi in the most taxing of circumstances, but anecdotal evidence suggests that malnutrition remains a severe problem amongst Burundi’s youth, particularly for those substantial proportions of the population living in refugee camps. In such chaotic circumstances, accurate statistics remain elusive but it is believed that more than 50% of the Burundian refugee population comprises minors.

The international community must face up to the Burundian crisis, because by common consensus it is on the verge of explosive reignition. By reason of complex current political upheavals, it is estimated that perhaps as many as 100,000 Burundian people are become refugees or displaced persons every month. Burundi is a catastrophe in the making, yet the world seems determined to look the other way. This must change, and it is the international community’s solemn obligation to ensure that it does so. The agony suffered by Burundi’s population, the majority of whom are children or the dispossessed, is so inhuman that the entire civilised world is duty-bound to act lest its conscience never be forgiven.

International statesmen harbour indivisible consensus upon these principles. The British Ambassador to the United Nations insists that Security Council Member states “ensure that we are doing everything possible to increase the pressure on the authorities in Burundi to warn against the dangers of mass atrocities” and thereby regress to the horrors of the past. Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame implores that Burundians learn the lessons of his own country’s tragic history. “People are dying every day, dead bodies are being dragged along the streets every day”. Secretary General-elect Antonio Guterres understands the problem all too well, emphasising that the last thing Burundi needs is another crisis. The US State Department has publicly called for investigations into human rights abuses. The French President François Hollande expressed his deep concerns about the return to violence in Burundi, in a letter sent to the country’s President: but apparently to no avail. Even though the Russian view is that the Security Council has no proper role in political intervention in Burundi’s sovereign and constitutional affairs – an opinion that as a matter of international law surely commands respect and due deliberation even if some analysts might in the final analysis respectfully differ – Russia nonetheless remains profoundly concerned about the humanitarian crisis unfolding in the country. It benefits nobody, and it threatens to destabilise the entire Great Lakes region.

In Burundi’s contemporary political disputes, the United Nations is compelled as a matter of principle and integrity to act as an honest broker. But that is entirely consistent with its ethical mandate to alleviate human suffering that weights upon the conscience and dignity of us all. The valiant staff of the United Nations present on the ground in Burundi undertake the most extraordinary work in the most challenging of conditions, and deserve the support of all civilised nations, as do the impoverished people of Burundi themselves. And therein lies the fundamental failure of international policy in exercising its duty of care for this benighted nation.

On some estimates, humanitarian aid to Burundi is a mere US$35 million. This contrasts with government expenditure of some US$800 million in one of the most impoverished countries in the world. The United Nations can and must fulfil its duties to alleviate poverty and render the lives of all Burundians tolerable and humane, and it has the capacities to do so. This is one of the areas of UN operation which is an exemplar of efficiency, and in which there is nominal institutional overlap and an absence of the political complexities associated with interventionist peacekeeping operations.

Yet this type of proven and effective multilateral assistance requires reliable commitment of funds. The foregoing levels of humanitarian aid amount to barely US$3.50 per person. The international community cannot help but to be ashamed of itself in the mediocrity of its contributions. If the humanitarian crisis in Burundi is not addressed now, the political crisis can only expect to be exacerbated and the ultimate costs of intervening in yet another Great Lakes crisis will surely dwarf the moderate resources now required to attempt realistic stabilisation of the situation.

The United Nations has a proven track record in achieving concrete results in Burundi. The world must not look away, simply because this country is small. We have experienced the unrelenting horrors of neglecting the Great Lakes region far too recently. We must not commit the same tragic fallacies again. There must be a call to act. The vulnerable and the suffering of Burundi depend upon it. Our consciences depend likewise depend upon the same moral imperative.

*Matthew Parish is a former UN peacekeeper in the Balkans and formerly served as Legal Counsel at the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development in Washington, DC. He is the Managing Partner of the Gentium Law Group in Geneva, and formerly served as Chief Political Advisor to Vuk Jeremic in the selection process to become the next UN Secretary General in 2016. Mr Jeremic came second. Matthew is now a key political supporter of the Secretary General-elect, Antonio Guterres. www.gentiumlaw.com, www.matthewparish.com


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TransConflict was established in response to the challenges facing intra- and inter-ethnic relations in the Western Balkans. It is TransConflict’s assertion that the successful transformation of conflict requires a multi-dimensional approach that engages with and aims at transforming the very interests, relationships, discourses and structures that underpin and fuel outbreaks of low- and high-intensity violence.

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