The ongoing crisis in Burundi now presents the most direct threat of mass atrocities and ethnic civil war the country has faced in recent years. Yet, thus far, few have been willing to take action.

On November 2, Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, declared that any “criminal” who did not surrender their weapons within five days would be treated as an enemy of the state. The ultimatum expired on November 7 and was immediately followed by further violence and accusations that security forces had summarily executed a dozen citizens in the capital of Bujumbura.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein, speaking before an emergency session of the United Nations’ Security Council on Monday, stated that Burundi is at “a dangerous tipping point”, noting that intervention would be necessary to prevent the repetition of past atrocities.

“It would be a tragedy if the international community proves itself incapable of forestalling a crisis that will affect not only Burundi, but a region with a very complicated history.”
– UN Special Rapporteur Pablo de Grieff

At the same meeting Adama Dieng, UN Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide, warned that violence could “escalate into atrocity crime”. Dieng also drew a direct comparison to the recent rhetoric of the Burundian Senate and that “used before and during the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda” – where 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and Hutu moderates were slaughtered. Similar sentiments were expressed in a recently released International Crisis Group report.

Although a recent upswing in violence has drawn greater international attention, the crisis itself is not new.

In April, Nkurunziza, announced his intention to seek a third term as president, despite imposed constitutional term limits. The announcement led to violent protests across the country and the former head of intelligence, Major-General Niyombaré, attempted a coup in mid-May. The failed coup has left the army divided along ethnic lines, fomenting further tensions and stoking fears of the return of ethnic militia groups.

Throughout the summer, the UN has documented a stark increase in extrajudicial killing, including political assassinations. At least 240 people have been killed since the violence began and hundreds of thousands more have fled, many into neighboring Great Lakes countries like Rwanda and Tanzania.

Burundi faces a crisis of inaction. The African Union has deferred security and mediation arrangements to the East African Community. However, the East African Community is deeply divided and already entangled in a crumbling peace accord in South Sudan.

France has drafted a Security Council Resolution calling for an immediate national dialogue “to find a consensual and nationally owned solution” and for options to be presented within 15 days for UN reinforcement on the ground.

Yet, even before an emergency session of the UN Security Council on November 9th, Russia and China stated their opposition to the use of sanctions to enforce any resolution. Both Russia and China have invested heavily in Burundi’s mining sector and, as permanent members of the Security Council, both countries hold veto power which they have previously used to block Security Council efforts in Burundi.

UN Special Rapporteur Pablo de Grieff has already warned that the Security Council has so far proved itself incapable of dealing with the crisis. “It would be a tragedy if the international community proves itself incapable of forestalling a crisis that will affect not only Burundi, but a region with a very complicated history.”

We have seen this crisis coming and thus far failed to act – one of the first items on the agenda of Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board when it was formed in 2012 was the escalating tensions in Burundi. While the United States has been consistently critical of the Burundi government, it has thus far acted alone. The United States suspended military training with the Burundi military in July and removed Burundi from the AGOA trade pact in November.

These actions have not translated into international action. And unilaterally the United States cannot exert enough pressure on the Burundian government. Suspending preferential trade rights may be a bold political stance against the Nkurunziza regime but the United States is not among Burundi’s major trading partners limiting the impact on the country’s economy.

Moving forward, the United States must demand more from the international community as a whole, beginning by working together to articulate a clear, forceful and immediate response on the part of the United Nations to the ongoing violence in Burundi.

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