Burundi: R2P in Action?
Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 19th December, 2015
The African Union, moving with uncharacteristic speed, has decided to send 5,000 peace-keeping troops to Burundi, even though the government there has not asked for them. This is a legitimate move under an evolving concept in international law: the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which basically argues that the international community has a moral duty to intervene in a country if there is a danger of genocide or other grave humanitarian crisis and the government on the spot either can’t or won’t solve the problem itself. Accordingly, R2P challenges a fundamental principle of the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, namely that the ruler or government of a nation state has the sole authority for managing its affairs. Some countries, such as China, still cherish the notion of non-interference in the internal affairs of another state, not least because of foreign criticism of its policies in Tibet, but in a case like Burundi there is unlikely to be much protest at any peace-keeping action. This is because of the awful precedent of Rwanda, where I am now.
In 1994 one of the worst genocides in history took place as predominantly Tutsi Rwandans were slaughtered or maimed with machetes and other weapons by a militia force with the encouragement of some people in power and, shamefully, even some Christian priests. The international community stood by — some UN troops were even withdrawn, sealing the fate of thousands — until France decided that something must be done to halt the carnage. It was largely because of the Rwanda genocide that the idea of R2P was formulated. As it has evolved, the assumption is that military intervention should only take place when it is clear that diplomatic and other pressures or measures will not work. Moreover, rather that the United Nations itself being expected to act as a global policeman, regional organisations are encouraged to be the prime movers. So the African Union’s initiative will be widely welcomed. There is no doubt that the matter is urgent; scores of bodies have been found in the streets of the capital Bujumbura and hundreds of thousands of Burundians have fled into neighbouring countries. Although at the moment the conflict is not overtly ethnic it could so easily become so, as it was in Rwanda, and then the true nightmare would begin.