Protecting Peace in Burundi: A Crucial Moment

05/22/2015 12:21 pm ET | Updated May 22, 2016
CARL DE SOUZA via Getty Images

DAR ES SALAAM -- Fifteen years ago, as secretary general of the Organization of African Unity, I bore witness to a historic peace agreement in Arusha, Tanzania, heralding peace for Burundi after 10 gruelling years of civil war. With Nelson Mandela at my side, I witnessed the dawn of a new era for a country beset by conflict and in a region shaken by genocide in neighbouring Rwanda.

I fear that hard-earned peace is under imminent threat. An attempted coup d'état last week is the latest indicator that Burundi is once again on the brink. Immediate measures need to be implemented to de-escalate the situation or the country could descend into civil war once again.

If there was ever a time for President Nkurunziza and his government to display courageous leadership, it is now. For the sake of all Burundians, we need them to commit to restore the unity of the country through dialogue and take a series of concrete steps.

First, the president must acknowledge that the political and security conditions do not currently exist for peaceful, credible, transparent and inclusive elections. Creating these conditions must be the priority of the government and the international community.

Second, the government needs to prove its commitment to democracy by respecting the basic freedoms of assembly and expression. Protestors must not be equated with the putschists who attempted to seize power. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the president's bid for a third term, Burundians have a right to demonstrate peacefully and voice their opinions without being violently attacked by police.

Third, the government should remove restrictions on the media and Internet. Denying access to information creates uncertainty and further tension. Arbitrary arrests and human rights violations have equally pernicious consequences and are completely at odds with international standards and the basic rule of law. Those who have been arbitrarily arrested and detained by police should be released unconditionally.

Finally, the government needs to disassociate and disband its violent supporters and militants. The ruling party's youth wing, the Imbonerakure, is a particular cause for concern. Opposition leaders must also rein in violent elements on the protesting side.

The onus should not only be on Burundi's government. The international community -- in particular the East African Community, the African Union and the United Nations -- also has an indispensable role to play in restoring peace to Burundi.

The African Union's Peace and Security Council issued a strong statement expressing its determination to impose sanctions against those perpetuating violence, calling for the deployment of human rights monitors and requesting contingency planning for the potential deployment of a peacekeeping mission to protect civilians. These strong commitments must be followed through with action.

To deter further violence, the threat of taking "all necessary measures" against those perpetrating violence must be credible. The AU should therefore request the UN Security Council to establish a sanctions regime for Burundi. Likewise, the deployment of human rights monitors could be a key deterrent against human rights abuses, so negotiations must begin in earnest to have these monitors deployed expeditiously.

The other essential deterrent is accountability. Those who incite or commit acts of violence must know that they will be held individually accountable, regardless of their level or political affiliation. Burundi is a state party to the International Criminal Court; those inciting or engaging in atrocity crimes will be at risk of criminal prosecution.

No one should underestimate what is at stake: a civil war between 1993 and 2005 cost 300,000 lives and displaced one million people. The histories of Burundi its neighbour Rwanda show the tragic consequences of failing to act when leaders incite or fail to contain violence. In Rwanda, over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed in a 100-day period in 1994. Beyond the possible human toll, a return to conflict would nullify the Arusha agreement and have destabilizing consequences for the entire region. Without coordinated international action to de-escalate the situation, I am fearful for the consequences.

Protests Rock Burundi