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Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza embraces his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma as he departs after an Africa Union-sponsored dialogue on 27 February 2016. REUTERS/Evrard Ngendakumana
Briefing 122 / Africa

The African Union and the Burundi Crisis: Ambition versus Reality

To reverse Burundi’s slide toward a devastating social and humanitarian emergency – as ethnically-charged rhetoric worsens and refugees flee to neighbouring countries – the African Union needs to overcome its internal divisions, fix a so far incoherent response and facilitate a negotiated settlement between the government and the opposition.

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I. Overview

African leaders’ January 2016 decision not to endorse deployment of a 5,000-strong African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU), as the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) recommended, revealed a wide rift between member states and the AU Commission (AUC) on how to address the crisis. The dispute seriously damaged AU credibility and showed that its ambition to prevent and resolve conflict does not match its capabilities, in part due to uncertainty about the extent of the AUC’s role. It also exposed procedural flaws in the PSC’s decision-making process. The incoherent response illustrates the limits of AUC and PSC freedom to act without the full support of leaders and the lack of coordination between Addis Ababa and the African UN Security Council members (the A3). If the AU is to fulfil its aim of “silencing the guns” on the continent, the AUC and member states must resolve these issues.

Map of Burundi. CRISIS GROUP

The crisis was sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s 2015 decision to seek a third term, which triggered mass protests, an attempted coup, armed opposition attacks and a brutal crackdown that has fuelled a cycle of violence in which as many as 1,115 have already died, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project. The confrontation has settled into low-intensity warfare characterised by targeted assassinations, disappearances and torture and the government’s increasing resort to ethnically-charged rhetoric reminiscent of that preceding the mass atrocities of the 1990s. More than 300,000 have fled to neighbouring countries, and a further 108,000 are estimated to be internally displaced. An estimated 4.6 million of the eleven million population need food aid. With both urban and rural economies slowing and imposition of an austerity budget (an 18 per cent decrease on 2015), Burundi is sliding toward a devastating social and humanitarian emergency.

The AU and international partners have failed to halt the crisis. Nkurunziza has exploited divisions within and between the AU, the UN and the East African Community (EAC), the sub-regional organisation charged to lead the continental response. This enables his government to rebuff lacklustre EAC attempts to bring it to negotiations and has stalled the deployment of AUC-authorised human rights and military observers, as well as UN Security Council-sanctioned police. Lack of a shared analysis of the crisis’s nature fuels disunity.

The AU itself is divided. A majority of member states favour a less confrontational approach than the interventionist-inclined AUC, which together with the PSC, to avoid further embarrassment, has now shifted focus from Burundi, silencing needed warning voices. The crisis is political at its core, and only a negotiated settlement between government and opposition can end it. That requires re-examination of the 2000 Arusha accord, the power-sharing peace agreement of which the AU is a guarantor that ended the twelve-year civil war. Unless the AU, EAC and wider international community act in concert, it is a distant prospect.

To engage the government and opposition in a genuine and inclusive dialogue:

  • The AU, EAC and UN should immediately form a contact group to align positions and inject new impetus into the EAC-led mediation, whose leader, President Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), must become more personally engaged, as requested by the facilitator, Benjamin Mkapa.
     
  • The AU should expedite deployment of the 200 authorised human rights and military observers and work with the UN to quickly agree on and disburse the financial, technical, logistical and other assistance needed for the deployment.
     
  • The AU should immediately implement the decision to impose targeted sanctions, per the 17 October 2015 PSC communiqué, against those blocking negotiations, inciting violence and/or propagating hate speech.
     
  • The AU and European Union (EU) should change financing for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to pay Burundian soldiers directly, rather than permitting the government to keep a portion.

To strengthen AU crisis response capabilities:

  • Member states should meet their financial obligations so the AUC can be staffed adequately to carry out its mandate.
     
  • The PSC should engage consistently in finding political solutions, meeting monthly on Burundi, for example, to evaluate the security situation and discuss observer reports. Member states should engage fully on communiqués and ensure they have ownership of decisions. This requires adequate staffing of Addis Ababa embassies and clear communication channels with them.
     
  • AUC, PSC and A3 should work more closely together – including PSC observer status for the A3 – to ensure common analysis and more coherent responses.

II. The AU in Principle and Practice

A. Member States’ Commitment

Since its 2002 inception, the AU has been increasingly active in preventing and resolving conflict in Africa, due in part to growing recognition the UN cannot manage crises alone and in part to the AU’s desire to lead.[fn]The 2015 UN High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations report highlights the AU, urging intensified collaboration also with its sub-regional partners.Hide Footnote  The organisation’s Constitutive Act set promotion of peace, security and stability on the continent as a founding objective. To help meet it, the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) was created. It asserts AU primacy in peace and security on the continent and devolves jointly to the PSC and AUC chairperson power to “undertake peace-making and peace-building functions to resolve conflicts”.[fn]APSA consists of the PSC, Panel of the Wise, Continental Early Warning System, Africa Standby Force and Africa Peace Fund. Articles 7, 17 of the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the PSC, and the AU and Regional Economic Communities/regional mechanisms Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).Hide Footnote

That ambition to “silence the guns” often outstrips action, however, is not surprising given resource constraints. The Peace and Security Department (PSD), charged with administering the fifteen-member PSC, the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS), the Panel of the Wise and other mediation activity, as well as four peace support operations, has just 64 regular staff positions, 26 of which were filled in 2015.[fn]The peace support operations are AMISOM, the Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the hybrid UN-AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and the Multinational Joint Taskforce for the fight against Boko Haram. “APSA 2014 Assessment Study: Final Report”, AU, 27 April 2015, p. 14.Hide Footnote  Personnel constraints are due to perennial underfunding. Only $169,833,340 of its estimated $416.9 million 2016 budget derives from member-state contributions, the rest from foreign partners, a reliance that compromises AU ownership of its agenda and reflects member states’ lack of commitment.[fn]Decision no.: Assembly/AU/Dec. 577(XXV). The budget does not include peace support operations. Member-state contributions mostly fund operational costs; 92 per cent of the AU’s 2016 program activities are expected to be funded by donors. “APSA 2014”, op. cit., p. 14.Hide Footnote  At the end of 2015, they had paid just 68 per cent of assessed contributions; only nineteen fully met their obligations. In July 2015, leaders pledged to fund 25 per cent of AU peace and security operations. A year later they adopted a mechanism that in theory should generate $400 million per year to help pay for AU missions, but it remains to be seen if it will be honoured.[fn]“2017 Budget Overview Paper”, AUC, 5 March 2016. “Declaration on self-reliance”, Assembly/AU/Decl.5(XXV), 15 July 2015. “The African Union Adopts the AU Peace Fund”, AUC press release, 18 July 2016.Hide Footnote

The uninspiring choices to replace AUC Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is but one sign members may not actually want a strong AU. Their reluctance to cede the chairperson and PSC influence, despite vesting significant formal authority in them at the AU’s founding, is consistent with the Constitutive Act’s emphasis on national sovereignty but severely limits conflict response capacity.[fn]Some member states were dissatisfied with the quality of choices, so no candidate was able to secure the required two-thirds majority. Article 4 sets out the AU’s guiding principles, including 4(g) “non-interference by any Member State in the internal affairs of another”.Hide Footnote

B. The AU’s Principles in the Burundi Context

Beyond its commitment to preventing and resolving conflict, the AU also aspires to promote constitutional democracy and stop mass atrocities. The Burundi crisis challenges both principles, exposing inconsistency in interpreting and enforcing the Constitutive Act. Prohibition of unconstitutional changes of government (Article 4(p)) has origins in the 1990s’ broad shift from one-party and military rule to multi-party democracy. It is the only founding principle backed by a specific penalty: suspension from participation in AU activities.[fn]Articles 4(h) and 4(p) of the Constitutive Act respectively refer to prevention of mass atrocities and prohibition of unconstitutional changes of government. Mulugeta Gebrehiwot and Alex de Waal, “African Politics, African Peace”, The World Peace Foundation, July 2016. Solomon Dersso, “Unconstitutional Changes of Government and Unconstitutional Practices in Africa”, The World Peace Foundation, June 2016.Hide Footnote  The AU usually has condemned and, if asked, provided military support, when faced with coups, as in Mali and Guinea Bissau (2012) and Central African Republic and Egypt (2013).

However, what is unconstitutional change of government is not well defined. It includes an incumbent’s refusal to relinquish power after a free and fair election, but it is not clear if that extends to amendment or manipulation of the constitution to prevent change in government, as arguably in Burundi. Member states, with their respect for national sovereignty and preference for incumbency, tend to err on the side of the status quo. The commission, as guardian of AU norms and principles, tends to lean toward democratic transitions, but its position is not consistent. Ambivalence was further compounded by uncertainty around the circumstances in Burundi: whether Nkurunziza was eligible for a third-term was not cut and dry; the constitutional court, one of whose justices claims was manipulated and intimidated, concluded his first term did not count because he was appointed, not elected, and ruled he could stand again.[fn]The AUC did not condemn Rwanda’s or Congo Brazzaville’s constitutional changes in 2015. Some donors believed Nkurunziza’s case had validity. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomat, April 2015; Judge Sylvere Nimpagaritse, Brussels, May 2016.Hide Footnote

The AU also upholds Article 4(h), “right of the Union to intervene in a Member State … in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”. Member states are historically reluctant to approve military or other action against a government, even if mass atrocities are being committed, as in Darfur (2004-2005) or South Sudan (2013-2014). The unprecedented PSC decision to invoke 4(h) for MAPROBU can be seen as a test of the AU’s graduation from the principle of non-interference, the bedrock of the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, to that of non-indifference.[fn]Paul D. Williams, “The African Union’s Conflict Management Capabilities”, Council on Foreign Relations, October 2011. An AU official said the AUC chairperson viewed the deployment decision as such a test. Crisis Group interview, Addis Ababa, 31 January 2016.Hide Footnote

III. The Initial Response

Dissent turned to defiance in March 2015 when demonstrators took to the streets in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. In the balance was not just the future of President Nkurunziza, but also the survival of the 2000 Arusha peace agreement, which included detailed power-sharing provisions. Protests increased in scale and frequency in April and May following Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for re-election, leading to violent clashes with security forces.[fn]This briefing focuses on AU and wider international responses to the crisis. For a full evaluation of the internal politics, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°224, Elections in Burundi: Moment of Truth, 17 April 2015; and Briefing N°111, Burundi: Peace Sacrificed, 29 May 2015.Hide Footnote

A. Public Diplomacy

Some praised the AU for its early intervention and strong position as the crisis began, with Dlamini-Zuma setting the tone and direction.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials, Addis Ababa, 29 January 2016; EU officials, Brussels, 29 February 2016; Addis Ababa, 19 April 2016. One official even called the AU’s response up until the 17 December communiqué “a model of AU diplomacy”.Hide Footnote  As tensions rose in March 2015, the AU political affairs commissioner and then the chairperson visited Bujumbura and called on the president to adhere to the constitution and Arusha, as well as for dialogue to ensure a credible election process and resolve disagreements over the third term. At first, the PSC and PSD appeared not to adopt the same tough stance, but as the situation deteriorated, positions began to align, and both the commission and the PSC engaged actively and concertedly.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, Addis Ababa, 23 March 2016; “AU Commission Chairperson concludes Burundi visit with cautious optimism”, press release, AUC, 27 March 2015. The PSC urged stakeholders to respect the pending constitutional court decision on Nkurunziza’s eligibility, while Zuma dismissed the court’s findings. Zuma, Dlamini (DlaminiZuma). “Other than the #Burundi Court, all interpretations of the constitution & #Arusha Agreements are clear that there shouldn't be a third term.” 7 May 2015, 5:43 p.m. Tweet. Crisis Group interview, UN official, Addis Ababa, 15 March 2016. See also AU PSC communiqué, PSC/PR/COMM.(DI), 28 April 2015. Zuma issued nineteen press statements between March and December 2015. The PSC discussed Burundi at least monthly from March 2015.Hide Footnote

The AUC unprecedentedly refused to send a monitoring team because conditions for free and fair elections did not exist.[fn]AU communiqué, 28 June 2015.Hide Footnote  Many usual preventative diplomacy tools – high-level delegations, a special envoy, human rights and military observers, sanctions and investigation into human rights violations – were utilised, but to little effect, in part because without member states’ full political support they were not wholeheartedly deployed. The government was defiant, making concessions but then stalling or reneging on implementation.[fn]The AU has been unable to conclude an MoU with the government for 200 human rights and military observers. Only 42 have been deployed, and they cannot operate freely. In its 17 October 2015 communiqué, the PSC threatened sanctions but the AUC has yet to draw up a list of targets, let alone attempt to enforce them. The government made commitments for inclusive dialogue with the opposition only to go back on them or set unrealistic conditions, including refusing to deal with the opposition Conseil national pour le respect de l’accord d’Arusha pour la paix et la réconciliation au Burundi et de l’Etat de droit (CNARED) coalition. Yolande Bouka, Nanjala Nyabola, “The Crisis in Burundi and the Apathy of International Politics”, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, April 2016.Hide Footnote

In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity that generally governs its cooperation with regional economic communities, the AU ceded primary responsibility for the crisis to the EAC. Initially, they worked closely: Zuma attended EAC summits, and the PSC endorsed EAC decisions, including President Museveni’s appointment as chief negotiator in July 2016.[fn]EAC communiqué, 6 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Engaged in his own contentious election, he delegated responsibility to Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga. As the crisis dragged on, it became clear the EAC-led dialogue was making no headway. But without consent of Museveni or the other regional leaders, the AU was unable to insert itself into the mediation process and had to settle for expressing concern about the slow pace and endorsing the EAC’s lacklustre efforts.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society actor, Addis Ababa, 11 December 2015; UN official, Nairobi, 23 March 2016. Also see PSC communiqué, PSC/PR/COMM.DLI, 17 October 2015.Hide Footnote

B. Private Diplomacy

One reason the AUC’s and PSC’s aggressive public postures have had limited success is that they have not been backed by persistent private diplomacy. Critics suggest they should have both engaged earlier at the lower levels and mobilised a high-level dialogue with interlocutors Nkurunziza trusted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU and UN officials, Addis Ababa, 27-31 January 2016.Hide Footnote  Zuma could have personally engaged more with Nkurunziza and others. Foreign minister when South Africa helped broker Arusha, she arguably has a great stake in the AU’s resolution of the crisis. An official suggested she believed the intervention would demonstrate the organisation’s transition from a position of non-interference to one of non-indifference. Having failed in March 2015 to persuade Nkurunziza against a third term, however, she did not really try again.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU, EU officials, Addis Ababa, 9 December 2015, 31 January 2016. Once President Nkurunziza committed to standing, preventative diplomacy options narrowed.Hide Footnote

The AU also lacked consistent representation in Bujumbura, relying instead on ad hoc deployment of special envoys, high-level delegations and commission figures, including the chairperson. Following the recall of its outspoken special representative for Burundi and the Great Lakes, Boubacar Diarra, in April 2015, it had no emissary for three critical months as the crisis rapidly escalated.[fn]Nkurunziza requested Diarra’s recall because he opposed his third term bid. According to an AU official, the chairperson acquiesced because she hoped it would win favour with the president. Crisis Group interview, AU official, Addis Ababa, 31 January 2016.Hide Footnote

Diarra’s replacement, Ibrahima Fall, a former UN assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and for Political Affairs, as well as special representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for the Great Lakes region, has had a more discrete presence in Bujumbura. While keeping lines of communication open with the government, however, he has been unable to conclude the MoU for the human rights and military observers and has not proactively engaged with influential actors from the country or region. More dynamic representation, backed by international consensus, might have been better able to advance AU decisions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU and UN officials, Addis Ababa, 29-31 January 2016; Western diplomat, Addis Ababa, 15 March 2016.

IV. The 17 December Communiqué and its Aftermath

On 17 December 2015, the PSC issued a communiqué authorising a 5,000-strong African Prevention and Protection Mission (MAPROBU) to prevent deterioration of security, protect civilians and help create conditions needed for a credible inter-Burundian dialogue. It gave the government 96 hours to accept. If rebuffed, the PSC agreed, it would recommend that the Assembly of Heads of State and Government (the AU’s highest decision-making body) invoke Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act, which allows intervention in cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.[fn]AU PSC communiqué, PSC/PR/COMM.(DLVX), 17 December 2015.Hide Footnote  This bold decision broke new ground in two respects: first, an ultimatum to a sitting president; secondly, invocation of Article 4(h). The Nkurunziza government quickly refused to admit foreign troops.[fn]“Burundi: We will not allow foreign troops to enter”, Al Jazeera, 21 December 2015.Hide Footnote

A. The Context for the Decision

Six days before the PSC communiqué, violence in Bujumbura intensified significantly. Reportedly, at least 87 were killed, some summarily executed, in intense fighting sparked by coordinated grenade attacks by armed opposition groups on military installations on 11 December. Observations from an African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) fact-finding mission, AU human rights observers’ reports and social and traditional media accounts directly influenced PSC decisions.[fn]“Burundi: 87 killed in worst violence since April coup attempt”, The Guardian, 12 December 2015. “Report of the Fact Finding Mission of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to Burundi”, ACHPR, May 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Addis Ababa 31 January; Brussels, 29 February 2016.Hide Footnote  There was strong belief in Addis Ababa, driven by the AUC but supported by a few key PSC members, that rapidly deteriorating security and grave human rights abuse warranted decisive action. With the 1994 Rwandan genocide in mind, the PSD hoped to demonstrate the AU would not stand idly by. “The communiqué made it clear that it considered the situation grave; it put Burundi on notice and sent a message to the world that the AU had done what it could”, an AU official said.[fn]Nigeria, Ethiopia, Algeria and to a lesser extent Uganda were strongly in favour of the PSD drafted communiqué. Crisis Group interviews, Addis Ababa, 25-31 January, 14-18 March 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Miscalculations and Missteps

The PSC intended the communiqué to freeze the crisis and force the government to negotiate.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 8 February 2016.Hide Footnote  While it arguably focused international attention, helping to curb the worst security force excesses and spurring Museveni to kick-start the stalled EAC mediation, it failed to engage Nkurunziza in an inclusive political dialogue with the opposition.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU officials, Addis Ababa, 27 January 2016; UN officials, New York, 9 February 2016.Hide Footnote  The government dismissed MAPROBU as an “invasion and occupation force”, shocking some in the AUC, which had been convinced it would grudgingly accept the mission. Burundi watchers said the AU lacked credible situational analysis and misread Nkurunziza’s character.[fn]“Burundi rejects African Union peacekeepers as ‘invasion force’”, Agence France-Presse, 20 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, AU, UN officials, Western diplomats, Addis Ababa, 31 January, 16 March, 19 April 2016.Hide Footnote  AU, UN and Western officials called the PSC’s ultimatum a mistake and an insult.[fn]An official described it as an “extraordinary thing to do to a sovereign government”. The AUC chairperson informed the UN Secretary-General before Nkurunziza. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, New York, 8 February 2016; AU, UN officials, Addis Ababa, 16 March 2016.Hide Footnote  It was, however, just one in a series of AUC and PSC missteps and miscalculations.

Article 4(h) touched a nerve with those member states whose democratic credentials and human rights records were criticised and feared it might one day be applied to them. Invoking that article, which sets a high bar – verification of war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity – raised the stakes considerably, and the PSC left itself no other tool with which to ratchet up pressure on the government. Some PSC delegations did not understand the ramifications of its use or consult sufficiently with capitals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU, UN, EU officials, Western diplomats, Addis Ababa, 25-31 January 2016.Hide Footnote  Shortcomings of PSC working practices were exposed. Unlike the UN Security Council, whose members draft resolutions, with one leading and consulting in varying degrees, the AUC mostly writes PSC communiqués, typically with little or no input from members. Meetings frequently leave scant time to discuss content; often there is no chance to work the outcomes of deliberations into the final text. As a result, the PSC tends not to buy sufficiently into its own resolutions. The 17 December communiqué was no exception.

The heavy PSC workload stretches often under-staffed Addis Ababa missions. Most ambassadors did not use the 24-hour silence period to clear the communiqué at home. Blindsided, some governments were unwilling to give wholehearted support. The AUC also neglected to confirm that Council members had briefed their governments in advance.[fn]An official said only about a third of member states sent the communiqué to capitals in the silence period. Crisis Group interview, Addis Ababa, 17 March 2016. South Africa’s international relations and cooperation department issued a statement on Burundi with no MAPROBU mention. Asked to clarify the stance, spokesperson Clayson Monyela said, “we support the AU position yes”. “South Africa expresses concern over the situation in Burundi”, press release, 18 December 2015; Monyela, Clayson (ClaysonMonyela). "@geoffreyyork We support the AU position yes.", 20 Dec 2015, 18:29 UTC. Tweet, @Clayson Monyela, 10.29am 20 December 2015. After dismissing use of force, Tanzanian Foreign Minister Augustine Mahiga announced MAPROBU support only in January. “Mahiga calls for talks to end the bloodshed”, The Citizen, 20 December 2015. “Consultations between [AUC] and Tanzania on the situation in Burundi”, AU press release, 8 January 2016. Crisis Group interviews, AU officials, Addis Ababa, 31 January, 16-17 March 2016.Hide Footnote  It had hoped the communiqué would spur bolder action, but the response was cautious. A sense of urgency and misplaced belief that others, including the UN, would follow the AU lead led to failure to give advance word to those called upon to endorse and assist MAPROBU. The absence of planning – no concept of operations or commitments from troop contributing countries – and Burundi’s rejection of an AU force, made it hard for the Security Council to give the anticipated backing.[fn]“We [the AU] can’t always back it up with action, but we can enable others”. Crisis Group interview, AU official, 9 December 2016. The Security Council merely “took note with interest” of the communiqué. Press statement, 19 December 2015. An AU official said the AUC subsequently believed the Council was the obstacle to deployment. Crisis Group interview, 29 January 2016; interviews, UN officials and Western diplomats, New York, 8-9 February 2016.Hide Footnote

C. Force Preparedness

The AUC did not intend to deploy MAPROBU immediately. Regardless of official statements, the East African Standby Force (EASF), expected to provide forces, was not ready, and without Burundi’s consent, the AU needed Security Council approval.[fn]In January 2015, the EASF was officially declared able to deploy within fourteen days with 90 days of supplies, but a Western diplomat estimated it would take at least six months to set up operation systems for a Burundi mission. Crisis Group interview, Addis Ababa, 26 January 2016. Use of force against a sovereign state is permitted only in self-defence or UN Charter Chapter VII authorisation. The AU communiqué requested such a Security Council resolution for MAPROBU. Paul D Williams, “The African Union’s Coercive Diplomacy in Burundi”, International Peace Institute Special Report, 18 December 2015.Hide Footnote  Finally, the AUC acknowledged that MAPROBU required considerable foreign financial and logistical support. It had been conceived primarily as a threat with which to push Nkurunziza into a genuine dialogue, rather than a tangible rapid reaction force, and he called the AU’s bluff.[fn]PSC Communiqué, op. cit. The AUC may also have wanted to use MAPROBU to push automatic use of UN assessed contributions to finance AU-led peace support missions. Crisis Group interviews, AU, UN, EU officials, Addis Ababa, 26-29 January 2016; New York, 8 February 2016.Hide Footnote

D. The AU Summit and the Decision Not to Deploy MAPROBU

The government’s refusal to accept MAPROBU meant the future of the stabilisation force rested with African heads of states due to meet at the biannual AU summit in Addis Ababa, 30-31 January 2016. Invoking Article 4(h) left the door open for unprecedented forcible deployment, if two thirds agreed the security situation was sufficiently grave. By then, violence had receded, but the AUC pressed on with a bruising approval process, exposing deep fault lines with member states concerned that the mission would violate Burundi’s sovereignty and impede dialogue. The AUC might have persuaded them to pressure Burundi to accept a more limited intervention force, but understaffed and underfunded, it lacked capacity for the political work needed to build consensus around deployment; some were unaware that was needed or naively confident a pared-down version would be endorsed. Nkurunziza’s emissaries travelled the continent, arguing the crisis was a case of relatively mild post-electoral violence now under control.[fn]The government and opposition dialled back confrontation prior to the summit. Crisis Group interviews, AU, UN officials, Addis Ababa, 16 March 2016. Solomon Dersso, “To intervene or not to intervene? An inside view of the AU’s decision-making on Article 4(h) and Burundi”, World Peace Foundation, February 2016. Crisis Group interviews, AU, EU officials, Western diplomat, Addis Ababa, 30-31 January, 17 March 2016. “Burundi reaffirms dialogue commitment”, Daily News, 16 January 2016; “SA presence in Burundi talks welcomed”, African News Agency, 22 January 2016.Hide Footnote

E. The AU High-level Delegation

Trying to keep MAPROBU alive, Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui recommended the assembly send a senior delegation to Bujumbura to consult. This again laid bare divisions between member states and the AUC, which insisted deliberations focus solely on an inclusive intra-Burundian dialogue.[fn]Dersso, “To intervene?”, op. cit. The high-level delegation – presidents of Senegal, Gabon, Mauritania and South Africa, prime minister of Ethiopia – was in Burundi 25-26 February. The 29 January 2016 PSC communiqué limited the mission’s discussions to dialogue, PSC/AHG/COMM.3(DLXXI). A subsequent AUC statement widened the mandate to include MAPROBU. “The African Union appoints High-Level Delegation to Burundi”, 4 February 2016.Hide Footnote  It also revealed member-state disagreements. South African President Jacob Zuma, the delegation head, dominated proceedings and set the agenda. Pretoria was pivotal in mediation and peacekeeping during the civil war, and close ties between the African National Congress and Burundian National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), meant the president was sympathetic to Nkurunziza. Separate, contradictory communiqués, the first unilaterally released by Zuma, the second by the AUC with delegation-member support, reinforced an appearance of disarray.[fn]Crisis Group interview, African diplomat, Addis Ababa, 20 April 2016; “AU High Level Delegation to Burundi conclusion statement”, South African presidency, 27 February 2016; “Communiqué of the visit of the [AU] high level delegation to Burundi”, AU, 29 February 2016.Hide Footnote  The AU lost a major opportunity to insert itself into the mediation process.

F. The Fallout

Leaders’ failure to endorse MAPROBU severely damaged AU credibility, revealing the gap between ambition and capabilities. The 17 December communiqué was called “unrealistic” and “un-strategic”, and the military force row distracted from dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Addis Ababa, 25-31 January; New York, 8-9 February; Nairobi 23-24 March 2016. “The Burundi Intervention that Wasn’t”, Foreign Policy (online), 2 February 2016; “Intervention that Never Was”, Africa Confidential, 5 February 2016. “African Union diplomacy fails to take off in Burundi. Literally and metaphorically”, UN Dispatch, 29 February 2016; African Union goes backwards on Burundi”, Daily Maverick, 31 January 2016.
Hide Footnote
 Invoking Article 4(h) divided member states. Some were adamant sovereignty trumps human rights; others did not share AUC analysis that Burundi was near to catastrophic violence. The AUC was seen to have over-stepped: one of its senior officials said, “we have embarrassed the continent”. Some member states, notably Egypt, dislike AUC influence over PSC decision-making, and many predict a push for member states to draft future measures. The AU lost any authority in Bujumbura and is marginalised in efforts to resolve the crisis.[fn]Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, for example, was clearly opposed to the use of force without consent; Tanzanian Foreign Minister Mahiga did not believe military intervention was warranted. Derrso, “To intervene or not?”, op. cit. Crisis Group interviews, AU, EU officials, African diplomats, Addis Ababa, 25-31 January, 17 March 2016; New York, 8 February 2016.Hide Footnote  Embarrassed by the failure of MAPROBU and other diplomatic attempts and faced with member-state indifference, the AUC and PSC appear to have lost impetus. Failing to act decisively, the AU sacrificed its moral authority to speak out about incumbents manipulating or eliminating constitutional term limits.

V. The Wider International Response

The AU response has been disappointing, but neither regional powers nor the UN fared better. Domestic considerations, power politics and historic allegiances, as well as antagonisms, have shaped Burundi’s neighbours’ hesitant response. At the UN, the divergent policies of Security Council members and divisions within and between the Council and Secretariat have thwarted attempts to find a solution. Institutional rivalries, coupled with the absence of a shared analysis, prevented a coordinated approach. The government exploited this disunity, playing the main actors – the AU, EAC and UN – off against one another.

A. Regional Dynamics

At the beginning of the crisis, a key concern was the legitimacy of Nkurunziza’s re-election attempt. Two allies, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete and South Africa’s President Zuma, cautioned him against standing. However, the EAC did not condemn the third-term bid – it would have been difficult for it to do so following the failed May 2015 coup attempt.[fn]Nina Wilén, “The rationales behind the EAC members’ response to the Burundi Crisis”, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Volume 17, Number 1, Winter/Spring 2016. “Tanzania’s Kikwete says Burundi should heed president term limit; risks regional tensions”, Mail & Guardian, 20 March 2016; “Zuma calls for Nkurunziza not to stand for a third term”, video, SABC Digital News, May 8 2015. A 31 May 2015 EAC communiqué stopped short of calling for Nkurunziza not to stand, insisting instead on postponing elections.Hide Footnote  For others, it was never a consideration. Uganda’s Museveni, in power for 29 years and having amended presidential term limits in 2005, was seeking a fifth mandate. President José Eduardo dos Santos has ruled Angola since 1979. Next door in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila has been preparing his own attempt to extend his stay in office.

Zuma Calls for Nkurunziza Not to Stand for Third Term

YouTube/SABC Digital News

Once Nkurunziza won the election, the third term became moot in the region and much of Africa. For many African leaders, especially those who fought long liberation struggles, incumbency is paramount. Factor in the special relationships of Nkurunziza and his party with many of them and their parties, and it is easy to see why he has not come under serious pressure.[fn]After the July 2015 summit, and aside from a half-hearted attempt to kick-start the inter-Burundian dialogue in December. EAC leaders did little and did not meet until March. For the U.S. and other Western countries, the third term remains a concern (see also Section V.B.). Sheltered by Tanzania during the civil war, the ruling CNDD-FDD has links to its security services. Zuma and Museveni assisted the settlement that ended the war and brought Nkurunziza to power. Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, Addis Ababa, 29 January, 15 March 2016.Hide Footnote  Rwanda is the exception, consistently calling for him to step down. It argues not that term extensions are inherently bad – President Kagame pushed through a constitutional change that allows him to keep office until 2034 – but that Burundi has not prospered under his rule. It is also alarmed by the rise of anti-Tutsi hate speech, similar to that used prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and fears the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda could gain a foothold. The UN and U.S., among others, have accused Rwanda of supporting Burundian armed opposition groups to weaken Nkurunziza. Distrust of Rwanda’s perceived destabilisation of the region, and its alleged assistance to the armed insurrection, have shaped the response of other neighbours and contribute to EAC paralysis.[fn]Kagame told a University College (London) economist the crisis was about performance, not third terms. “Rwanda’s President Kagame tell Burundi’s Nkurunziza to step down”, Kenya Today, 11 May 2015. “Rwanda aids Burundi rebels, North Korea arms Congo – UN experts”, Reuters, 12 May 2016; US accuses Rwanda of stoking violence in Burundi”, Agence France-Presse, 11 February 2016. Yolande Bouka, “Missing the Target: The African Union’s Mediating Efforts in Burundi”, Egmont Royal Institute of International Relations, June 2016.Hide Footnote

Former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa’s appointment as facilitator in March 2016 signalled increased Tanzanian engagement and revived optimism in the EAC process. However, negotiation delays, interference from the new EAC secretary general, Libérat Mfumukeko (an Nkurunziza loyalist), and the government’s refusal to sit down with the Conseil national pour le respect de l’accord d’Arusha pour la paix et la réconciliation au Burundi et de l’Etat de droit (CNARED), the opposition coalition, during the first round of talks on 21 May, sparked criticism of him. His decision to meet with exiled opponents separately in Brussels somewhat allayed fears, but the discussions collapsed in July, amid government walkouts and opposition boycotts.[fn]“Violence increases as Burundi talks delayed”, Voice of America, 2 May 2016; and “Burundi peace talks open in Tanzania with opposition criticism”, Reuters, 21 May 2016. “Burundi: pour le Cnared, la rencontre avec Mkapa est déjà une ‘victoire’”, Radio France Internationale (RFI), 10 June 2016; “Burundi: peace talks collapse in Arusha”, The East African, 16 July 2016.Hide Footnote

B. The UN’s Role

The UN has been actively involved. There have been two Security Council visits and another from the Secretary-General (February 2016), plus Council meetings resulting in three resolutions, two presidential statements and a series of press releases. However, these have borne little fruit. Two reasons stand out. First, disagreements over how to mitigate and resolve the crisis stymied decisive response. Secondly, the Council tried to follow the African lead, but the continent has rarely spoken with a single voice. The Council’s slow response, despite warnings by the Secretariat, also illustrates its declining influence in Burundi. This was particularly evident in the withdrawal, under pressure, of the UN’s special political mission and its replacement in January 2015 by an electoral observation mission, with a significantly narrower mandate.[fn]For example, in January 2015, the Secretariat warned that the elections could “either consolidate or unravel the peace consolidation efforts undertaken since the Arusha accords” and pointed to the eroding spirit of the accords, shrinking of political space, intimidation of opposition supporters and limitations on free assembly and expression. “Report on the United Nations Office in Burundi”, UNSC S/2015/36, 19 January 2015. “Burundi briefing and consultations”, What’s in Blue (www.whatsinblue.org), 27 January 2014. See also, Crisis Group Africa Report N°192, Burundi: Bye-bye Arusha?, 25 October 2012.Hide Footnote

As the 2015 elections approached, some Western governments focused statements on opposition to Nkurunziza’s third term. A number of non-permanent Security Council members and Secretariat officials argue that emphasising this, rather than the risk of violence and importance of dialogue, complicated consensus efforts in a Council whose divisions over other crises were starting to seep into its response. Its first visit to Burundi in March 2015 was of limited value, as members had not agreed on a clear message or possible leverage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, New York, December 2015, February 2016. Whether a different focus would have made consensus easier is unclear, given already acrimonious relations over Ukraine and Syria. Some also argue that the insistence Nkurunziza stand down also made the opposition less likely to compromise. Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, New York, July 2015.Hide Footnote

An idea that gained traction after the second, January 2016 visit, was police deployment. Some Western permanent members initially wanted an armed international presence to protect civilians in the event of widespread violence following increasingly sharp anti-Tutsi rhetoric.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN and member state officials, New York, February 2016.Hide Footnote  Subsequently, as the Council perceived an immediate genocide threat subsiding, proponents argued police could increase monitoring and so deter continuing human rights abuse by authorities.

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In April 2016, the Secretariat presented the Council three deployment options: light (twenty-50 unarmed police to work with Burundian forces); middle (228 unarmed police); and a 3,000-strong force.[fn]Angola, China, Egypt, Russia and Venezuela favoured the light option, largely toeing Burundi’s line. France, the penholder, considered the middle course most viable given Council dynamics. The U.S. initially backed the most robust option, with formed police units to patrol visibly and report regularly. Crisis Group interviews, member-state officials, New York, April-August 2016. “Burundi: briefing on options for police deployment”, What’s in Blue, 26 April 2016.Hide Footnote  After months of intermittent discussion, the Council authorised deployment of up to 228 to monitor the security situation and support the office of the high commissioner for human rights in monitoring human rights abuses. Russia, which initially wanted the lighter option, voted in favour, but abstentions from Angola, China, Egypt, and Venezuela, all citing Bujumbura’s opposition to a large police presence, dampened any sense of Council unity. The Burundian government swiftly rejected the resolution.[fn]Resolution 2303, which authorised the police, also asked the Secretariat to report on how the UN could facilitate deployment of AU observers and for proposals on how the UN police component could cooperate with them. It did not specify whether police would be armed, but Council members generally assumed they would not be, per the Secretariat’s second option. UNSC S/RES/2303, 29 July 2016. Crisis Group interviews, New York. “Government reaction following the adoption by the UN Security Council of the Resolution 2303 (2016)”, 2 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Some Council members have privately urged the UN Secretariat to liaise with Nkurunziza to soften his position on the police, and some have engaged bilaterally with Burundi.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, New York, September 2016.Hide Footnote  But the Council has taken no further collective action on its resolution – and has not even formally discussed the Burundi situation since July – further illustrating the degree to which divisions undermine its effectiveness.

As Russia and China tend to take their cue on regional crises from African members, it further complicates the Council’s role that the A3 have not spoken with one voice or followed AU policy. During discussions in November 2015, Angola counselled against using language directly from earlier PSC communiqués. Russia and China supported its position until the AUC persuaded them to withdraw their objections. Since joining the Council in January 2016, Egypt has taken a strong pro-government, anti-interventionist stand on many crises, joining Angola, China, Russia and Venezuela to resist robust UN action in Burundi.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU and UN officials, Addis Ababa, 9 December 2015, 29 January 2016. Cairo wants to uphold the principle of non-interference, support a fellow Nile Basin country and exact payback for the AUC’s suspension of its participation following the 2013 ousting of President Mohamed Morsi. Egypt also became a member of the AU PSC in April 2016. Crisis Group interviews, AU official, Western diplomats, Addis Ababa, 25 January, 16 March 2016.Hide Footnote

C. International Discord and Disunity

Institutional rivalries, coupled with the absence of shared analysis, have prevented coordinated approaches.[fn]While strategic coordination has been limited, cooperation between the AU and UN at a working-level in Burundi has been more effective.Hide Footnote  Early attempts at collective action, such as initial cooperation between the AU and EAC and formation of the Joint International Facilitation Team (representing the EAC, AU, International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and UN), were short lived, leaving each appearing to defend its own role or trying to carve out space at the expense of a competitor.[fn]The joint team, created at a June 2015 PSC summit, apparently met just once, after which it called for election postponement to 30 July. “Statement by the Joint International Facilitation Team on Burundi”, 26 June 2015.Hide Footnote

Though its mediation stalled, the EAC was unwilling to allow the AU to engage further. The AUC has bristled at the UN’s enhanced role after MAPROBU’s failure, fearing that the Security Council’s proposed police contingent would steal the mandate and draw financial support away from its human rights and military observers. Nkurunziza has been quick to exploit UN-AUC tension, at times courting the former while giving the cold shoulder to the latter and lobbying Council members not to support the AU’s observer mission.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN official, 15 March 2016; AU officials, Addis Ababa, 31 January, 22 March 2016; UN officials and African diplomats, New York, 25-26 May 2016.Hide Footnote  Mkapa, like his predecessor, has been slow to accept UN help, relying instead on the EAC secretariat, headed by a Burundian diplomat, despite its limited mediation experience.

The international community missed a number of other opportunities to demonstrate joint commitment to resolving the crisis, such as could have been done if the PSC and AUC chairperson had joined UN counterparts’ Burundi visits, assuming positions and messaging were aligned in advance and then relayed clearly to Nkurunziza.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU and UN officials, Addis Ababa, 29 January 2016.Hide Footnote  They should take up further chances for collaboration.

VI. Moving Forward

The crisis is at an impasse, and genuine inclusive dialogue between government and opposition seems a remote possibility. Positions are entrenched, and both are playing for time as the toll rises.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°235, Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term, 20 May 2016; commentary, “Insights from the Burundian Crisis (III): Back to Arusha and the Politics of Dialogue”, 7 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Despite widespread censure, the government has proven it can resist international pressure. The EAC-led mediation under Museveni has made little progress but is currently the only mechanism for dialogue, so the AU, UN and others should provide logistical, financial and political support. More crucially, the AU, UN and EAC need to build consensus and coordinate better. A contact group would be an important step toward aligning positions and could inject new life into negotiations. As requested by Mkapa, Museveni (and other EAC leaders) must become more personally engaged. Having agreed to mediate, he should shoulder the responsibilities and, as a minimum, set out his vision for the way forward.

Two key leverage points have not yet been fully utilised: targeted sanctions and denying Burundi’s financially advantageous participation in AU and UN peacekeeping operations. Implementation of limited sanctions has been haphazard and half-hearted.[fn]For example, in October 2015, the EU sanctioned four government members; two months later the U.S. sanctioned a slightly different group.  But with government revenue falling and further GDP decline forecast, the government is vulnerable to economic pressure. UN sanctions are unlikely given Security Council divisions, but the AU should implement the PSC’s October 2015 decision to impose targeted sanctions. Despite the difficulty of ensuring full adherence in a region generally supportive of Nkurunziza, that would send an important signal and add further pressure on the government. The EU and the U.S., whose special Great Lakes region envoy has already condemned the use of inflammatory rhetoric, should expand their existing sanctions to include those propagating hate speech. Removal of sanctions should be clearly benchmarked to reducing violence, ending impunity and starting dialogue.[fn]“Burundi braces for more violence”, Deutsche Welle, 7 November 2015. Crisis Group Statement, “Burundi: Time for Tough Messages”, 24 February 2016.

Funds from the army’s contribution to the AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the UN mission in the Central African Republic are a vital lifeline for the government. Removal could force it to change its dangerous trajectory. The EU and AU should finalise changes so that AMISOM money is paid directly to the soldiers. The AU and its partners should also solicit other troop contributors to replace Burundian soldiers within AMISOM eventually, so as to pressure the authorities to begin an open, genuine dialogue.[fn] “EU takes aim where it hurts Burundi – peacekeeper funding”, Reuters, 29 March 2016. Crisis Group Report, Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term, op. cit. A UN Human Rights Council-mandated investigation that found widespread, systematic human rights violations in Burundi has urged the UN and AU to “phase out the use of Burundian troops in peacekeeping operations while the crisis continues”. “Report of the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi (UNIIB) established pursuant to Human Rights Council Resolution S-24/1*”, UN HRC A/HRC/33/37, 20 September 2016, p. 23. The Burundian government rejected the findings as “politically exaggerated”. Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe, UN General Assembly speech, 24 September 2016. 

VII. Conclusion

Attention and interest has shifted away from the Burundi crisis. The government appears to have realised that keeping casualties to a minimum limits scrutiny and is forging ahead with plans to change the constitution and abolish presidential term limits. Discussions about this could begin at October’s parliamentary session. Though the 2020 election cycle seems far off, international actors should press harder for a political settlement. Postponing firmer, more unified action would leave the country at best in a permanent state of low intensity violence. Despite internal divisions, the AU should not disengage but rather insist on deployment of its human rights and military observers. Institutional rivalries between the AU, EAC and UN must not block the concerted international action needed to secure a negotiated solution and prevent a deeper decent into civil war.

Addis Ababa/Nairobi/Brussels, 28 September 2016

VIII. Glossary

A3 The collective name for the three rotating African members of the UN Security Council, currently Angola, Egypt and Senegal.

ACHPR The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights oversees and interprets the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, an international instrument designed to promote and protect human rights and basic freedoms on the continent.

AMISO African Union Mission in Somalia.

APSA The African Peace and Security Architecture, the umbrella term for the AU’s mechanisms for promoting peace, security and stability in Africa. It consists of the Peace and Security Council, the Panel of the Wise, the Continental Early Warning System, the Africa Standby Force and the Peace Fund.

AU African Union.

AUC The African Union Commission is the AU’s secretariat. Headquartered in Addis Ababa, it is led by the Chairperson (currently Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma) and supported by a deputy chairperson and eight commissioners.

CEWS The Continental Early Warning System gathers information about potential conflicts or threats to the security of AU member states. It is housed in the Peace and Security Department’s Conflict Prevention and Early Warning Division.

CNARED The National Council for the Restoration of the Arusha Agreement and the Rule of Law is a coalition of the main exiled Burundian opposition movements, as well as two former presidents, members of civil society and CNDD-FDD dissidents.

CNDD-FDD The National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy is Burundi’s ruling party. During the civil war (1993-2005) it was a significant rebel group.

DRC Democratic Republic of Congo.

EAC The East African Community is an inter-governmental organisation with six members: Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

EASF The Eastern Africa Standby Force is one of the five regional multidimensional forces that make up the African Standby Force. It members are Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.

EU European Union.

MAPROBU African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi.

PSC The Peace and Security Council, the AU’s decision-making organ for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict, is a standing committee of fifteen members elected according to regional representation and rotation.

PSD The AUC’s Peace and Security Department supports the PSC and Commission in activities related to the promotion of peace, security and stability in Africa.

MoU Memorandum of understanding.

RECs The Regional Economic Communities are groupings of African states formed to facilitate economic integration between member states. They are increasingly involved in coordinating AU member states’ interests in areas such as peace and security, development and governance. The AU recognises eight RECs.

RMs The regional coordinating mechanisms of the regional standby forces of Eastern and Northern Africa.

A Shiite Huthi rebel fighter stands guard during a rally marking the third anniversary of the Saudi-led coalition's intervention in Yemen, in the capital Sanaa on March 26, 2018. A Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen on March 26, 2015 to rest Mohammed HUWAIS / AFP

Watch List 2018 – First Update

Crisis Group’s first update to our Watch List 2018 includes entries on Burundi’s dangerous referendum, militant Buddhists and anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka, the impact of the Venezuelan crisis on the region, and the situation in Yemen. This annual early-warning report identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace.

Crisis Group Watch List 2018 (First Update)

The Watch List identifies conflict situations in which prompt action by the European Union and its member states would generate stronger prospects for peace. Giuseppe Fama, EU Relations Manager, explains the conflicts included in this update. Crisis Group

Burundi’s Dangerous Referendum

On 17 May, Burundians will vote on constitutional amendments that would allow President Pierre Nkurunziza to prolong his stay in power. Those new provisions also could start to dismantle the carefully negotiated Hutu-Tutsi ethnic balance, defined in the 2000 Arusha agreement that helped end Burundi’s civil war. A major outbreak of violence in the country does not appear likely around the vote, despite a deadly attack on a village on 12 May; the status quo could even drag on for years. But the regime’s repression, the potential demise of power sharing in Burundian institutions and the crumbling economy are harbingers of instability.

Although the European Union (EU) has lost leverage over Nkurunziza’s government in recent years, it retains a strong interest in preventing such instability. The EU and its member states should closely watch developments before, during and after the referendum, and continue to explore channels for pressuring the government while supporting the population. These include encouraging African leaders and the African Union (AU) to renew mediation attempts between the regime and the opposition, while keeping Burundi in the international spotlight. As the Burundian economy collapses, the EU, which suspended direct budgetary support to the Burundian government in 2016, should also take steps to ensure that the aid it now channels through the implementing agencies of the UN, EU member states and international non-governmental organisations helps Burundians as best possible.

Increasing Repression as the Referendum Approaches

The regime has designed the constitutional changes primarily to remove any obstacle to its control of the state apparatus.

The government’s main intention with the forthcoming referendum is to lengthen presidential mandates from five to seven years. This change would restart the clock on the two-term limit – rather than annulling it – potentially giving President Nkurunziza a further fourteen years in power. The new draft constitution also stipulates that ethnic quotas in parliament, government and public bodies be reviewed over the next five years. These quotas, intended to protect the Tutsi minority by guaranteeing the Tutsi 40-50 per cent representation in different state institutions, including the army, were a key part of the Arusha agreement.

The regime has designed the constitutional changes primarily to remove any obstacle to its control of the state apparatus. But in the process it may also be laying the groundwork for reversing ethnic checks and balances. The same is true of the draft constitution’s provisions to reduce the number of vice presidents (currently there are two, one Tutsi and one Hutu) to one and to replace the two-thirds majority requirement for parliament to pass particularly significant legislation with a simple majority.

The regime, including the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, has carried out a campaign of intimidation against anyone who opposes the referendum or calls for a No vote. It is using threats of violence to push Burundians to register for the vote in hopes of minimising abstention, and identifying people in campaign meetings. The government has banned Western media outlets – the BBC and Voice of America – from radio broadcasting for the duration of the campaign, while its own propaganda machine is in full swing. It has forced citizens to make financial contributions that it claims will support forthcoming elections.

The forced march to the referendum has further accentuated divisions among President Nkurunziza’s opponents, despite opposition factions making a renewed attempt to align their positions at the start of 2018. The Amizero y’Abarundi coalition and the Sahwanya-Frodebu party, which remain in Burundi, have both declared they intend to campaign for a No vote. The exiled opposition, under the umbrella of the Conseil national pour le respect de l’accord d’Arusha (CNARED), is calling for a boycott. The divide over the referendum exacerbates the historical divisions over strategy and personal rivalries within the opposition.

If the frequency of armed clashes between the army and insurgents has declined since 2016, human rights abuses continue.

Significant violence around the referendum appears unlikely, despite a 12 May attack on a village near the Democratic Republic of Congo border in which 26 people were reported killed by unidentified assailants. This attack comes after a relative absence of major security incidents since 2016, as armed opposition groups have suffered several setbacks. Some of their members were arrested by the Tanzanian government in 2017, sent back to Burundi, and have since disappeared. Those attacks that have taken place, which were launched from South Kivu in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo, have failed to inflict significant losses on Burundian security forces or generate local support. But if the frequency of armed clashes between the army and insurgents has declined since 2016, human rights abuses continue. According to the human rights organisation la Ligue Iteka, 456 people were assassinated, 283 tortured and 2,338 arbitrarily arrested in 2017, the vast majority by the government.

President Nkurunziza and his party are developing a doctrine that mixes personality cult, religion and historical mythology to justify his prolonged stay in power. The president is now referred to as “supreme traditional leader”. The president and his wife, both active in new Pentecostal churches and prayer crusades, adhere to a theocratic vision that blends traditional Burundian signs of power with divine attribution; tellingly, the government is planning to build a large prayer centre in Gitega where ruling party members will be required to attend lengthy retreats. More broadly, this emerging doctrine presents a Manichean view of history wherein a harmonious pre-colonial Burundi was later spoiled by the machinations of external powers, in particular Belgium, though language pointing the finger at foreigners also tends to contain veiled references to the role played by their supposed Tutsi allies.

Economy and Development in the Doldrums

The Burundian economy has been severely hit by the loss of overseas aid since 2015, and by the flight of human and financial capital. Gains made in health and education since the early 2000s – notably drops in infant mortality and increasing numbers of Burundian children in school – have stalled. Shortages of currency and fuel have afflicted all sectors. Some 430,000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring countries, principally Tanzania.

Though many Burundians already struggle to make ends meet, the government is introducing new taxes and ad hoc levies. As its relations with Western governments have worsened, it has turned to Turkey, China and Russia for aid. But while these countries might afford the government political support and some financial respite, they are unlikely to offer the sort of budgetary or technical help that Western donors provided. Meanwhile, the impact of private investment in the mineral sector on the wider economy is unlikely to be significant, at least in the short term.

The regime has cracked down on civil society groups that have worked with international donors, including by imprisoning NGO members on spurious charges.

After negotiations with the government under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement, the EU and its member states decided in March 2016 to suspend cooperation due to Burundi’s rights abuses. Instead, it now channels development aid through international NGOs, the implementing agencies of EU member states and UN agencies. The president and his top officials paint European aid policy and sanctions (which target a handful of those officials) as deliberately aimed at hurting the Burundian people. In some cases, the regime has cracked down on civil society groups that have worked with international donors, including by imprisoning NGO members on spurious charges.

Mitigating Conflict Risk through Continued Support to the Population

The EU and its member states should take steps to help check Burundi’s repressive authoritarianism and alleviate deteriorating living conditions for its people.

On the former, Nkurunziza’s government has brushed off sporadic pressure from Western donors and actors such as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to open space for its opponents. Nor have mediation efforts of the sub-regional body, the East African Community (EAC), made progress. Indeed, some African leaders appear inclined to believe the government’s argument that there is no crisis to mediate.

That argument is flawed. The regime probably can keep dissent under wraps for some time. But the consolidation of its rule and dismantling of the Arusha power-sharing provisions augur ill for the country’s stability over time. The EU and its member states should press African powers and the AU to renew mediation attempts between the regime and the exiled opposition, with the aim of ensuring a credible election in 2020. They should strive to maintain international attention on Burundi, with EU member states on the UN Security Council pressing to keep Burundi on the council’s agenda. The EU also should uphold its position that conditions in the country do not allow for a free and fair referendum.

In light of its 2016 suspension of direct support to the government, the EU needs to redouble efforts to find ways to ensure its aid supports the population. In addition to the support it channels through international NGOs, it should continue pursuing its plan to directly support local NGOs, but with particular caution not to expose them to risk. This could mean providing them with adequate funding to reinforce their own management and legal capacity in case the government continues to harass them through the courts. The EU should also reinforce its delegation in Bujumbura and strengthen the tracking mechanisms with its implementing partners to prevent any misuse of its funds.

Militant Buddhists and Anti-Muslim Violence in Sri Lanka

Late February and early March 2018 saw Sri Lanka’s most serious and widespread incidents of anti-Muslim violence since gaining independence in 1948. Police failed to contain Sinhala Buddhist mobs in central Kandy district; the rioting appeared close to spinning out of control before President Maithripala Sirisena declared a state of emergency on 6 March. Within 48 hours of army and other military units being deployed, order was restored, but not before more than two dozen mosques had been destroyed, hundreds of houses and businesses vandalised, and two people killed. The episode shredded the ruling coalition’s already tattered reformist credentials and hurt chances for post-war reconciliation across ethnic and religious boundaries. It revealed the depth of mistrust and fear between Sri Lanka’s Buddhists and Muslims, and underscored the risk of more violence to come.

The European Union, its member states and other international partners should support efforts by the Sri Lankan officials, religious leaders and civil society groups to prevent further violence and address the underlying mutual misunderstanding between communities. It can do so by:

  • sending strong messages to the government, through all available channels, that it supports the strict enforcement of laws against hate speech and religious violence, including through criminal prosecutions;
     
  • offering financial and technical support to efforts by the government, civil society or media organisations to rapidly fact-check and counter rumours on social and traditional media; and by
     
  • supporting efforts to strengthen local-level inter-religious committees, in particular by assessing the effectiveness of past initiatives and sharing lessons learned to help redesign such bodies in innovative ways.

Anti-Muslim Sentiment and the Recent Bloodshed

Buddhist activists feed on Sinhala perceptions that over recent decades the country’s Muslims have grown more publicly and devoutly religious, and thus alien.

Discussions of Sri Lanka’s long, bloody history of conflict tend to focus on the military campaign to crush the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and earlier leftist uprisings. Yet anti-Muslim violence is an enduring feature of modern Sri Lankan history and grew worse after the LTTE’s 2009 defeat. Many Sinhalese, including influential monks, have long feared that Sri Lanka’s foundational Buddhist and Sinhala character was under threat, with weak politicians incapable of protecting it. Whereas, before 2009, Sinhala nationalist insecurity centred on Tamil separatism, today nationalists point to Muslim “extremism” as the primary threat. Militant Sinhalese accuse Muslims of using clandestine means to suppress the Sinhala Buddhist population and gain economic and demographic dominance. Drawing in part on global Islamophobic discourse and events in Myanmar, Buddhist activists feed on Sinhala perceptions that over recent decades the country’s Muslims have grown more publicly and devoutly religious, and thus alien. Muslims make up under 10 per cent of the population, Sinhala Buddhists 70 per cent.

The deadly train of recent events began in the south-eastern town of Ampara, where Sinhala mobs attacked Muslim shops and a mosque on the night of 26-27 February. The violence was sparked by unfounded claims, spread through social media and backed by a video recording of an apparent “confession”, that staff in a Muslim-owned restaurant had placed a “sterilisation pill” in the food of Sinhala customers. Police were slow to react or make arrests and quickly released the alleged rioters on bail.

Activists and Muslim ministers had warned the prime minister and other senior officials that violence was brewing elsewhere. The police’s lax response in Ampara appeared to encourage militant Buddhist networks to strike again. Following appeals by Mahasohon Balakaya, an anti-Muslim group based in Kandy, and prominent monks, crowds turned out in Kandy on 5 March, angry at an earlier murder of a Sinhala Buddhist man by four Muslim men (there was no evidence the crime was communally motivated and all four attackers were promptly jailed). Over the next three days, Sinhala Buddhist mobs moved systematically from village to village burning and vandalising Muslim shops, houses and mosques. Police were again slow to respond, and in at least two cases, members of the Special Task Force – the elite police paramilitary unit – attacked Muslims, possibly in an attempt to falsely implicate them in the riots.

A Return to Hardline Nationalist Politics

The violence came at a moment of confusion and weakness for the ruling coalition, weeks after a stinging defeat in local elections at the hands of former President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s newly formed Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP, Sri Lanka People’s Front), which ran a strongly nationalist campaign, including warnings of alleged abuses by Muslims. The changing political climate reinforces sympathy for ultra-nationalist agendas in the overwhelmingly Sinhala and Buddhist bureaucracy. It deepens the reluctance of police, bureaucrats and politicians to take action that could be seen as supporting Muslims.

Although President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe campaigned on a promise to crack down on militant groups, their coalition government has overseen not a single prosecution for previous religious violence.

In 2013 and 2014, under Rajapaksa and his powerful brother, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who headed the police and military, security agencies were accused of supporting militant Buddhist groups. Among these, the most prominent was Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force, or BBS), which incited deadly anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in June 2014. State support reportedly included facilitating large BBS rallies, allowing its cadres to publicly harass and intimidate critics with impunity, and intervening in criminal cases against militant Buddhists, including by pressuring victims to withdraw legal complaints – or not to file them at all. However, after January 2015, when Mahinda Rajapaksa was voted out, violent anti-Muslim campaigns were supposed to be a thing of the past.

Yet, although President Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe campaigned on a promise to crack down on militant groups, their coalition government has overseen not a single prosecution for previous religious violence. Militant Buddhist protests and attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses have continued, albeit at a lesser intensity. Online hate campaigns and militant organising have also proceeded apace, and fear and mistrust of Muslims remain as high as ever. Indeed, since coming to power, Sirisena himself and a senior cabinet member have met numerous times with BBS chief Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara and other militant monks. While officials claim the meetings were to encourage dialogue, most observers believe they aimed at shoring up the government’s credibility with Buddhist nationalists. Other ministers have called for BBS leaders to be prosecuted.

The government is running out of time to develop a strategy or build the political will to address two central issues underlying recent violence: Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and its politically powerful mix of entitlement and insecurity; and impunity for violence done in the name of protecting Sinhala and Buddhist dominance.

Preventing Violence against Muslims

The current high tensions and suspicions are deeply rooted and cannot be resolved quickly. Nonetheless, much can be done by the government and other actors to address misconceptions and rebuild trust. The EU can support these efforts in a variety of ways, as suggested below, but it must do so with discretion, taking its cues from supporters of reform in the government and civil society, and recognising Sinhala sensitivities about foreign involvement.

The EU should send strong messages to the government that it supports criminal prosecutions for religious violence.

Most important is for the government to conduct a quick, impartial investigation into the March violence and to speed up prosecutions for past actions. An expeditious inquiry would send a signal to those who might be tempted to commit violent acts in the future, and strengthen forces of reform in the judiciary, police and other state institutions. Some militant Buddhist leaders have been arrested for their role in organising the violence in Kandy. That is a positive first step, but it will bear fruit only if indictments and prosecutions follow. Ongoing cases against Gnanasara – for contempt of court and assault, among other charges – and other militant monks should be allowed to proceed to indictment or otherwise be concluded. The government should insist the police apply Sri Lanka’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act, which has tougher penalties for hate speech and anti-minority violence than the regular criminal code.

The EU should send strong messages to the government that it supports criminal prosecutions for religious violence, including through the ongoing human rights monitoring process that accompanies EU Generalised Scheme of Preferences (GSP+) trade benefits, and in its regular dialogues with the government, including the meeting of the Working Group on Governance, Rule of Law and Human Rights in June 2018 and the EU-Sri Lanka Joint Commission meeting in fall 2018. Such prosecutions would be best framed as combatting not only anti-Muslim attacks, but also the larger phenomenon of impunity that has harmed all communities and places all citizens at risk of arbitrary violence.

The government can take other relatively easy, low-cost measures to develop a comprehensive and well-resourced information strategy to counter myths and misperceptions about Muslims. It could straight away establish an office tasked with rapidly fact-checking and countering rumours on social media, which, as the March incidents and earlier episodes have shown, are powerful sources of incitement. The office should liaise closely with the police and aim for quick distribution through all forms of state and private media, including social media. The EU and member states could offer financial and technical support to efforts by the government, civil society or media organisations on fact-checking.

The EU could also support existing projects by Muslim leaders to reach out to Buddhists, including monks, to explain and demystify Muslim teachings and practices.

In parallel, the government should strengthen existing district-level inter-religious committees to act more effectively as early-warning and mediation mechanisms. The committees should include police, influential monks, local government officials and local politicians, as well as Muslim representatives, and should report directly to the president and prime minister in emergencies to ensure that effective interventions are authorised when they are needed. Government-sponsored committees will need to coordinate better with civil society-led inter-religious groups, which have had limited impact over the years in part because they are often delinked from government and Buddhist religious authorities. The EU should support such committees, in particular by assessing the effectiveness of current and past initiatives and sharing lessons learned to help redesign such bodies.

The EU could also support existing projects by Muslim leaders to reach out to Buddhists, including monks, to explain and demystify Muslim teachings and practices, and familiarise them with what happens in mosques. Initial outreach programs have reportedly been well received by the monks involved. One option for EU support would be funding for European religious and community leaders and officials to share with leaders of all communities their experiences and lessons learned from their own inter-religious community work.

Venezuela: The Region Feels the Impact

International efforts to broker a solution to Venezuela’s implosion so far have not borne fruit. The crisis is spilling across Venezuela’s borders, with some 1.5 million Venezuelans fleeing the country over the past year and a half. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government is unable or unwilling to reverse the economic and social collapse brought on by its misguided policies. It frustrated the last round of talks between it and opposition representatives by unexpectedly calling an early presidential election, even as those negotiators discussed reforms to help level the playing field. That vote, now scheduled for 20 May, is more likely to aggravate than resolve the crisis, as the EU’s April declaration on the situation in Venezuela identified. Most opposition leaders call for a boycott, arguing that Maduro’s re-election is predetermined. Latin American governments in the ad hoc Lima Group, as well as those of the United States, Canada and Spain, have declared they will not recognise the result should the elections proceed as planned. The European Parliament endorsed the same stance in a resolution adopted at the start of May.

The EU, U.S. and other Western governments have imposed targeted sanctions on dozens of government officials, including the president and vice president. The U.S. has also banned most loans to Venezuela and is considering some form of oil embargo. A solution to the crisis can only come through a negotiated transition, which will require new talks between the government and opposition and additional pressure on the government. Ideally, Lima Group members would use the threat of their own targeted sanctions – such sanctions from Latin American governments would be almost unprecedented – to help push the government back to the negotiating table. To contribute to such a strategy, the EU and its member states, should:

  • Agree with Lima Group governments and the U.S. on clearly delineated steps the government should take to have Western sanctions lifted and avert Latin American sanctions.
     
  • Caution against the oil embargo floated by the U.S. and called for by some opposition hardliners, which would worsen the humanitarian emergency.
     
  • Encourage China, during engagements with Chinese officials, to help nudge Maduro to accept talks.

At the same time, efforts to contain the humanitarian crisis should continue. To this end, the EU and its member states should:

  • Reinforce their support for migrants and refugees along Venezuela’s borders.
     
  • Continue to seek out opportunities for delivering aid inside the country.

Particularly for the latter efforts, the EU will need to maintain a strict separation between the provision of humanitarian assistance and political demands on the government.

Humanitarian Emergency

Over eight million Venezuelans cannot afford three meals a day. Protein has disappeared from many of their diets. Essential medicines are lacking.

Venezuela is sinking ever deeper into a profound economic and social crisis. Annual inflation could reach upwards of 300,000 per cent by year’s end. Despite a government plan to strike three zeroes off Venezuela’s currency, cash is almost impossible to obtain, hitting the poor, many of whom have no other means of payment, particularly hard. Over eight million Venezuelans cannot afford three meals a day. Protein has disappeared from many of their diets. Essential medicines are lacking: for some such medicines only 20 per cent of the quantity needed is available; others have entirely run out. Many of those suffering chronic diseases like cancer, HIV/AIDS or haemophilia are dying for lack of treatment.

Most public hospitals cannot guarantee running water or working lifts, let alone equipment such as X-ray machines. Patients are forced to provide their own medical and surgical supplies. Many operations are cancelled because blood banks lack reagents to ensure transfusions are safe. Long-controlled diseases like measles and diphtheria are making a comeback. Parts of the country are in the throes of a malaria epidemic. Yet the Venezuelan government denies the humanitarian crisis exists, portraying any coverage of the crisis as misinformation designed to undermine its rule. It also rejects much humanitarian aid, arguing that such efforts are part of a foreign plot to oust it.

As many as 1.5 million people have left the country in the past eighteen months, and a similar number may leave in the course of this year. The exodus has placed public services in neighbouring countries under strain, with governments in countries as far away as Chile having to adapt immigration regulations accordingly. Temporary shelters and soup kitchens catering to Venezuelans have been set up in Colombian and Brazilian border towns. UN agencies and the EU are now beginning to provide international aid in those locations.

Political Deadlock

A presidential election is scheduled for 20 May, but is unlikely to provide a way out of the crisis. In February, the government brought forward the election by more than six months, thus sabotaging internationally facilitated talks with the opposition over electoral reforms that were underway at the time. Most opposition parties are boycotting the poll, but beyond that do not offer a coherent strategy for pressuring the government.

Parliament has been rendered largely powerless, especially after a new Constituent Assembly, dominated by ruling party loyalists, was elected last year in a vote the opposition also shunned.

Former state Governor Henri Falcón of the Avanzada Progresista party, with the backing of two other small parties, is contesting the presidency. To do so, he has broken with the Democratic Unity (MUD) opposition coalition, which includes most of the more moderate opposition parties that had been negotiating with the government and are now planning to boycott the polls. The opposition’s harder-line wing, now represented by the Soy Venezuela movement, is calling for a “humanitarian intervention” – for the U.S. to intervene militarily, in other words – and for President Maduro to be impeached and tried for crimes against humanity. On 17 April, parliament, in which opposition politicians, mostly from parties in the MUD, hold a majority, voted overwhelmingly to approve Maduro’s trial for corruption by an ad hoc “Supreme Court in exile” – composed of judges appointed to the Supreme Court by the parliament and later forced into exile. But this initiative will have little practical effect. Parliament has been rendered largely powerless, especially after a new Constituent Assembly, dominated by ruling party loyalists, was elected last year in a vote the opposition also shunned.

Polls indicate that most opposition voters will abstain on 20 May, offering Maduro a clear chance of victory despite popularity ratings below 30 per cent. Even if Falcón were to win, the government’s control of electoral authorities, the Supreme Court – which has the final word on electoral disputes – and the security forces means it would have the power to block his victory. The absence of credible international observer organisations, which declined to deploy observers given the conditions in which the vote is being held, also gives Maduro a free hand.

Dozens of military officers, including commanders of key units such as the armoured Ayala battalion in Caracas, have been detained for allegedly plotting against the government. Their arrests lend credence to widespread accounts of unrest in the barracks. With the exception of a minority of mostly top military leaders, who are accused of benefiting from corruption and other criminal activities, members of the armed forces suffer the same deterioration in living standards as other Venezuelans. Military canteens often provide little or nothing to eat. That said, a coup attempt, while impossible to rule out, would be hard to pull off: the armed forces are fractured and extensively penetrated by counter-intelligence.

International Reaction

Venezuela’s international isolation has intensified markedly over the past year, with regional governments in particular turning their back on Maduro, especially after the breakdown of talks in February. Further sanctions are likely unless the president postpones the vote and takes measures to level the playing field. That said, exactly how the threat by Latin American and other governments to “not recognise the results” would be put into practice is unclear. Many governments already have withdrawn ambassadors from Caracas. But entirely severing diplomatic relations could reinforce the government’s siege mentality and backfire.

The Lima Group issued a fresh statement at the mid-April Summit of the Americas, which the summit’s host, Peru, barred Venezuela from attending. That statement called for free and fair elections and the restoration of democracy. The group also emphasised the need for humanitarian assistance, both within Venezuela and in neighbouring countries hosting Venezuelans that have left. Meanwhile, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK, together with several Latin American governments, Canada, Japan and the U.S., have backed a joint initiative to locate and seize those assets of Venezuelan officials that they have reason to suspect have been acquired through corruption.

Recommendations to the European Union and its Member States

Venezuela’s crisis is now a grave threat not only for its own people, but also for the wider region. A lasting solution requires a negotiated transition. It also requires comprehensive economic reform, which can only be carried out by a government that enjoys international political and financial support. The starting point must be a return to negotiations between the government and opposition leaders.

Thus far, the threat of economic collapse has not persuaded the group around Maduro to participate in such talks, which would, in essence, be aimed at negotiating the end of one-party rule and the restoration of democracy. Top officials perceive potential exit costs as extremely high, and fear they would risk prosecution for alleged corruption, drug trafficking and human rights violations were they to lose power. For its part, the opposition is split into three main factions, each frequently adopting tactics that contradict those of the other two. Calls for military intervention by the harder-line Soy Venezuela faction are particularly counterproductive, fuelling the government’s accusations that humanitarian aid is a foreign plot.

To encourage a negotiated solution to the crisis, the EU and its member states should work closely with the Lima Group, the U.S. and other concerned governments to present a united front.

With no political solution in sight, the EU and its member states should continue and expand their critical humanitarian assistance along the lines described by the European commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management after a visit in March to the Venezuela-Colombia border area. Their efforts should include helping neighbouring countries cope with the burden on welfare services due to unprecedented migrant and refugee flows. The EU shall continue providing assistance to those affected and seek additional ways to deliver support to the population, which requires working around the government’s refusal to acknowledge the crisis, particularly by clearly separating political from humanitarian demands on the government, while strengthening Venezuelan civil society groups and foreign non-governmental organisations able to deliver food and medical aid to vulnerable populations. The EU and its members also should use their influence in multilateral bodies, including the UN, to ensure those bodies do all they can to alleviate suffering, including ensuring adequate funding and providing accurate information on humanitarian conditions in Venezuela.

To encourage a negotiated solution to the crisis, the EU and its member states should work closely with the Lima Group, the U.S. and other concerned governments to present a united front. All should coordinate their sanctions policy and diplomatic initiatives designed to bring about negotiations. This means agreeing on a set of measures that the government would have to take to have those Western sanctions that already exist lifted and avoid further sanctions, including from Latin American governments. The EU and its member states, however, should argue against wide-ranging economic sanctions, including an oil embargo. If the elections take place on 20 May, EU member states could use the opportunity presented by the 28 foreign ministers’ meeting scheduled shortly thereafter to coordinate their response.

A clear list of demands would allow sanctions against individuals, like those the EU introduced against seven top officials in January, to be gradually lifted if the government moves in the right direction. The EU should continue using its existing channels with the opposition to encourage them to unite around a credible strategy.

China, which thus far has played an important role propping up the Maduro government but shows some signs of tiring of its economic mismanagement, could contribute to a solution. The EU, together with Western and Latin American governments, should advise Chinese officials of the importance of nudging Maduro to accept talks, and thereby promote a stable and prosperous Venezuela. China also should participate in plans for a major economic and financial rescue package in the event of a transition agreement.

Prospect of Talks and Threat of Escalation Both Rise in Yemen

As the Yemen war enters its fourth year, prospects for military escalation and greater regional spillover are growing. The Saudi-led coalition’s military campaign along the Red Sea coast and in the Huthis’ home governorate of Saada, coupled with intermittent missile barrages fired by the Huthis at Saudi Arabia, threaten to quash the opportunity to revive the political process presented by the appointment of a new UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths. Military escalation could trigger direct confrontation between Saudi Arabia and its allies, particularly the United States, and Iran, which Riyadh accuses of assisting the Huthis in developing their missile program.

In this environment, the EU and its member states should:

  • As an urgent priority, help prevent the looming Saudi-led coalition invasion of the Red Sea port of Hodeida, which would compound the already acute humanitarian crisis and could spark a wider war; such efforts would involve diplomatic engagement with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, ideally in coordination with the United States; and publicly opposing such an invasion, while condemning and pressing the Huthis to end their missile attacks against Saudi Arabia. Quiet outreach to Tehran could help, urging Iran to use what influence it has with the Huthis to discourage such missile attacks.
     
  • Assist the UN envoy in reviving a political process that is more inclusive and realistic. EU member states on the UN Security Council (France, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom) could promote a new Security Council resolution that better supports the UN envoy’s efforts than the April 2015 Resolution 2216, which is outdated and places unrealistic demands on the Huthis. The EU delegation to Yemen is well placed to assist the new envoy if talks materialise, notably by encouraging the Huthis’ cooperation.
     
  • Adopt a clear, public policy line on south Yemen, where separatist sentiment is increasing; such a line would oppose a unilateral move toward independence but recognise southern Yemenis’ grievances and the importance of revisiting the question of state structure and decentralisation.
     
  • Continue urgent efforts to alleviate the war’s humanitarian fallout, including by demanding from the coalition unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to all seaports, including Hodeida, as well as the Sanaa airport.

Risks of Escalation and an Opening for Diplomacy

On 4 December 2017, the Huthis killed their former partner, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Since then, the Saudi-led coalition and its Yemeni allies have acted as if the military and political tides have shifted in their favour. They have tried to pull former Saleh supporters to their side, encouraged rifts within the Huthi movement, stepped up efforts to target the group’s leadership and pressed the Huthis on a number of war fronts.

After killing Saleh, the Huthis are simultaneously more open to diplomacy and more willing to up the military ante in response to coalition offensives.

In these endeavours they have had some success. Between December 2017 and February 2018 the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and aligned Yemeni fighters won important tactical victories in Hodeida and Taiz provinces. Since then coalition-aligned forces have made small but steady gains, though not enough to shift the overall military balance. As in the past, the coalition has overestimated its ability to harm the Huthis in their northern highland strongholds. On 19 April, a coalition airstrike killed the head of the Huthi Supreme Political Council, Saleh Sammad, the de-facto president of the north and the highest-ranking Huthi killed thus far. Known as a moderate within the movement who could work with the late President Saleh’s party, his death is unlikely to reap significant military gains for the Saudi-led coalition but is a blow to peace prospects. Internal divisions within the anti-Huthi front continue to be its Achilles heel: some pro-Saleh fighters have joined the war against the Huthis, but many refuse to support President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and his partners in Islah, an Islamist party. Islah and Hadi affiliates are at particular odds with UAE-aligned groups in areas such as Taiz and in south Yemen, which was an independent state prior to 1990.

After killing Saleh, the Huthis are simultaneously more open to diplomacy and more willing to up the military ante in response to coalition offensives. They have stated publicly and privately that they are ready to negotiate with Saudi Arabia over security concerns and to re-engage with the UN process under the new envoy. It is unclear if this readiness is a product of military pressure or an increased sense of security, as in the past the Huthis had cause to worry that Saleh would strike a deal behind their backs. Either way, their increased interest in talks offers hope of a political breakthrough.

That said, 2018 has seen an unprecedented uptick in Huthi missile attacks on Saudi Arabia. There is growing evidence of Iranian supply of Huthi weapons, including missile and drone technologies. For the Huthis, coalition attacks on Hodeida, the main port in the territories they control, and Saada, their home governorate, represent existential threats. Hodeida in particular is a red line. The coalition’s blockade, ostensibly to prevent weapons smuggling to the Huthis, has made the port a chokepoint for goods entering the north; prolonged fighting there could compound Yemen’s humanitarian disaster manifold. The Huthis have proclaimed they are willing to sink commercial ships to deter an attack. In April, Saudi Arabia accused the Huthis of firing on a Saudi-flagged oil tanker in the Red Sea, the first attack of its kind.

Recommendations for the EU and its Member States

To avoid this scenario and the regional escalation it could trigger, the EU should take a clear public position against a coalition attack on Hodeida for both humanitarian and political reasons, and engage in vigorous diplomacy, in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi and Washington, to help prevent it. Diplomatic efforts also should be directed toward encouraging both sides to de-escalate the conflict ahead of a possible resumption of talks. This could include the Huthis halting missile strikes at Saudi Arabia and ships in the Red Sea in return for the Saudi-led coalition stopping their offensive moves into Saada and along the Red Sea coast in Hodeida and Taiz provinces. The new UN envoy, with the help of the EU delegation and member states, could broker such an agreement.

As a non-belligerent in the Yemen war, the EU has access to all sides, including the Huthis.

If military escalation can be held at bay, the envoy will have a chance to revive negotiations over a cessation of hostilities and a return to an internal Yemeni political process. To be successful, these efforts will need a new framework that improves the one set forth in UN Security Council Resolution 2216. That resolution sets out a bilateral structure for talks between the Hadi government and the Huthi-Saleh bloc, which has become outdated and which never represented the range of Yemeni forces with influence on the ground. It also places unrealistic preconditions for a political settlement on the Huthis, including requiring them to withdraw from territories gained and hand over weapons. The EU, and in particular Security Council members France, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom – the latter being the penholder on the Yemen crisis – should press for a new resolution that would support the UN envoy’s efforts based on his plan for reviving the political process, which he will present in June 2018.

The EU delegation is uniquely placed to assist the UN envoy in improving the structure and substance of potential negotiations. As a non-belligerent in the Yemen war, the EU has access to all sides, including the Huthis. The delegation could assist in communicating with and encouraging Huthi cooperation at the various stages of talks. Information and lessons from EU-sponsored Track II events during the course of the war, particularly with local security stakeholders, could help guide the process of improving intra-Yemeni negotiations. The EU and its member states should work with the UN envoy to produce a negotiating framework that more effectively includes women and other civil society representatives in decision-making roles early in the process, a deficiency during the last three rounds of UN-sponsored talks.

The EU and member states should continue to demand unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to all seaports, including Hodeida, as well as Sanaa airport.

South Yemen, where separatist sentiment is strong and the UAE is supporting separatist-leaning groups, is a critical flashpoint. In effect, the south is moving toward independence, but not all southern stakeholders support the idea. Nor do Yemenis in the north. The EU and its member states should have a clear, public policy line that opposes a unilateral move toward independence but recognises southern Yemenis’ grievances and the need to revisit the question of state structure and decentralisation, which remained unresolved in Yemen’s 2014 National Dialogue Conference. The EU delegation and member state representatives should also prioritise engaging with the UAE-supported Southern Transition Council and other southern political groups, and support their inclusion in intra-Yemeni negotiations.

Finally, ameliorating the war’s humanitarian impact should remain a top priority. The numbers are staggering. Over 22 million Yemenis – three quarters of the population – need humanitarian assistance. Of those, 8.4 million are at risk of starvation. Three million are internally displaced, mostly women and children.

The EU and member states should continue to demand unhindered humanitarian and commercial access to all seaports, including Hodeida, as well as Sanaa airport. To assist in their full opening, the EU is well placed to offer assistance to the UN in negotiating and possibly implementing security checks that address the Saudi-led coalition’s legitimate concerns regarding arms smuggling. They should also press the Huthis to allow unhindered humanitarian access to areas they control and to ease restrictions on aid workers operating in these areas. Beyond physical access, the EU should work with the Yemeni Central Bank to stabilise the value of the Yemeni riyal and promote a political compromise by which the Hadi government pays salaries to all civil servants nationwide, including in Huthi-controlled territories.