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Late Thursday evening, the African Union (AU) authorised a peacekeeping force deployment to the Central African state of Burundi after a steady escalation of conflict and violence threatened to explode. This would mark the first time the AU has sent a force without the consent of the state it was deploying to.
Burundi has seen the escalation of violence over 12 years, emerging after the civil war lasting from 1993 to 2005. Recent tensions have come as a result of President Pierre Nkunrunziza announcing in April his intention to run for a third presidential term, which, under the constitution, is not permissible. Deadly clashes between protestors and armed forces resulted in the deaths of at least 240 people. Since then, the protests have become more militant and have reinforced cultural and ethnic divisions to further manipulate the population, incensed further by Nkurunziza winning his third term in July. Many have reported that judges ruled his victory as constitutionally permissible under intimidation. In November, the Burundi government gave the ultimatum to its opposition to surrender their weapons or risk a crackdown within five days. As many as 87 people were killed on day one and it is estimated that 220,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries since April. This number is expected to rise in the incoming months.
The AU had sent military observers from the Delegation of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to the region to report on the situation. They found evidence of targeted assassinations, arbitrary detentions, and other ongoing human rights violations. Similarly, the UN Human Rights Council has also sent in independent investigators to document possible abuses and measure the threat of ethnic conflict, and they too found evidence of the closure of media organisations, arbitrary killings and arrests. It was with this intelligence that the AU decided to deploy 5,000 peacekeeping troops to the region.
Under the African Union Charter, the AU is able to intervene in a member state ‘in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity’. Even though Burundi has refused the peacekeeping force, the AU is still able to deploy forces without the country’s consent. Burundi has said that any troops sent by the AU without the government’s consent would be considered an ‘attack’.
Approval from the United Nations Security Council to deploy forces is pending. The Council did adopt Resolution 2248 in November expressing its intention to consider additional measures against ‘all Burundian actors whose actions and statements contribute to the perpetuation of violence and impede the search for a peaceful solution’. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, called for ‘robust, decisive’ action and urged a response from the UN Security Council – ‘While the future of the country is in the hands of Burundian leaders, this Council has a clear responsibility to do all in its power to prevent the worst from materialising in Burundi in the coming days’.