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The African Union Tried and Failed on Burundi. Now It’s Time to Try Again
The African Union Tried and Failed on Burundi. Now It’s Time to Try Again
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking
Op-Ed / Africa

The African Union Tried and Failed on Burundi. Now It’s Time to Try Again

Originally published in African Arguments

Unless regional and international organisations act in concert and inject new life into the mediation process, Burundi risks igniting a wider crisis.

In its report released late last month, the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi paints a bleak portrait of a country that has been in political turmoil since May 2015. It describes a regime that is increasingly repressive, intolerant of dissent, and closed to the outside world. The investigators suggest that human rights violations committed by the government and its associates could amount to crimes against humanity.

In the capital Bujumbura, protesters were quick to denounce the report, claiming it to be biased. “I will continue to protest because the international community wants to invade Burundi”, one activist told Iwacu news.

However, the reality of the international community’s role in Burundi is far more complex. In fact, international attention has shifted away from the country, even as it slides further towards a humanitarian emergency. So far, 300,000 people have fled the country, a further 108,000 are estimated to be internally displaced, and 4.6 million – out of a population of 11 million – are in need of food aid.

The current crisis was sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision in May 2015 to seek a third term in office. This move was widely considered to be unconstitutional, and the following months saw mass protests, an attempted coup, armed uprisings and a brutal crackdown.

Since the violence reached its peak around December, the confrontation has settled into low-intensity warfare characterised by targeted assassinations, disappearances and torture, and the increasing use of ethnically-charged rhetoric.

African Disunion

Amongst others, the International Crisis Group has called for urgent measures to prevent the situation from becoming an ethnic conflict and wider emergency. But the international community has signally failed to halt the crisis, though not for the want of trying.

The African Union (AU) intervened early and took a strong position from the outset, with AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma setting the tone and direction. The AU Peace and Security Commission (PSC) met on an almost monthly basis, issuing communiqués and statements that gradually ratcheted up the pressure on the government.

The AU refused to send an election observation mission to Burundi in July 2015, saying the conditions for free and fair polls did not exist. And, as violence spiked following armed opposition attacks on military installations on 11 December 2015, the PSC authorised a 5,000-strong protection force (MAPROBU).

In doing this, the Commission took the unprecedented step of invoking Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act, which allows the AU to intervene in a member state in cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Nkurunziza was given 96 hours to accept the force.

The PSC had hoped this bold move would freeze the crisis and force the government to negotiate. And its actions arguably did focus international attention, help curb the worst security forces excesses, and spur efforts to revive the stalled regional mediation led by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. However, it failed to force Nkurunziza into a more inclusive, externally-mediated dialogue. Burundi’s government dismissed MAPROBU as an “invasion and occupation force”.

At the same time, African leaders declined to endorse the mission. This revealed a wide rift between the more interventionist AU Commission and member states who, for the most part, favoured a less confrontational approach to the crisis. The reference to Article 4(h) touched a raw nerve amongst governments with questionable democratic credentials and human rights records themselves. The AUC and PSC were seen to have over-stepped their bounds. As one senior official told Crisis Group, “we have embarrassed the continent”.

This debacle seriously damaged the AU’s 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 and PSC’s authority to act.

It also exposed procedural flaws in the PSC’s decision making process, which, unlike the UN Security Council, is driven by the Commission rather than member states themselves. The AU lost any authority it may have had in Bujumbura and has largely been marginalised in further attempts to resolve the crisis. Embarrassed by the failure of MAPROBU and faced with member-state indifference, the AUC and PSC appear to have lost impetus, silencing a much-needed voice of warning.

On The Same Page

The AU’s response has thus been disappointing, but neither the sub-region nor the UN have fared any better.

The international community’s inability to resolve the crisis in Burundi is partly due to divisions within and between the principal actors – the African Union, the East African Community (EAC) and the UN. Domestic considerations, power politics and historical allegiances and antagonisms, have shaped the hesitant response of Burundi’s neighbours. Meanwhile at the UN, disunity within the Security Council has thwarted its efforts.

Institutional rivalries and the lack of a shared analysis of the conflict’s nature and the situation on the ground have also prevented a coordinated approach, allowing Nkurunziza’s administration to play one side off against each other. As a result, the Burundian government has managed to rebuff the EAC’s lacklustre attempts to bring it to negotiations and stalled the deployment of both the AU-authorised human rights and military observers and the UN Security Council-sanctioned police force.

At its heart, Burundi’s crisis is political and only a negotiated settlement between the government and opposition can end it. But positions are entrenched and both sides are playing for time as the crisis deepens and the death toll steadily rises.

Little will change unless key members of the international community act in concert. As an immediate practical step, the AU, EAC and UN should form a contact group to align positions and inject new life into the EAC-led mediation process. Regional leaders, especially the designated EAC mediator President Museveni, should become more personally engaged, as requested by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, the dialogue facilitator. Having agreed to mediate, Museveni must accept the responsibilities and, as a minimum, set out his vision for the way forward.

Now is the time for the AU and its international and regional partners to push harder for a settlement. Postponing firmer, more unified action would leave the country at best in a permanent state of low-intensity conflict, and at worst in danger of igniting a regional crisis.

Op-Ed / Global

Remembering Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s “Piecemeal” Approach to UN Peacemaking

Originally published in World Politics Review

Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, the former Secretary-General of the United Nations, died this week.  In this piece, originally published in World Politics Review in February, our UN Director assesses his legacy.

When Javier Pérez de Cuéllar turned 100 in January, his current successor as Secretary-General, António Guterres, sent a congratulatory message stating that “I have often reflected on your example and experience for inspiration and guidance.” This sounds like a standard diplomatic pleasantry, but there may have been a more to it than that.

As UN chief from 1982 to 1991, Pérez de Cuéllar, a former Peruvian diplomat, was intimately involved in ending Cold War conflicts from Afghanistan to Central America. Guterres, since his appointment in 2017, has warned that the U.S., China and Russia risk starting a “new Cold War” if they do not rein in their current tensions. Senior UN officials, who have spent recent decades focusing on ending violence in the developing world, wonder if and how the international organization can work in a new era of great-power competition.

This February, Guterres warned that a “wind of madness is sweeping the globe” as governments fuel conflict and ignore climate change. “Security Council resolutions,” he added, “are being disrespected even before the ink is dry.” Perhaps unintentionally, he echoed Pérez de Cuéllar, who told the UN General Assembly in 1982—when the Cold War was still very much a reality—that “we are perilously near to a new international anarchy” in which Security Council resolutions were “increasingly defied or ignored by those who feel strong enough to do so.”

Most secretaries-general have lamented the state of the world in similar terms at one time or another. But Pérez de Cuéllar remains an interesting case study in UN leadership because, rather than simply complain about the state of the world, he made a real contribution to resolving crises involving its biggest powers, earning their respect along the way. His efforts included backchannel diplomacy with Russia and China over Afghanistan and Cambodia, and a drawn-out but ultimately successful effort to persuade the five permanent members of the Security Council to find common ground on ending the Iran-Iraq War. His tenure culminated with successful UN mediation in the Cold War proxy conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Pérez de Cuéllar was even able to engage directly in mediating disputes involving the permanent Security Council members, something that had stymied his immediate predecessors, U Thant and Kurt Waldheim. Thant had, for example, alienated Washington by trying to play a diplomatic role in Vietnam. In his first year in office, Pérez de Cuéllar attempted to broker a deal between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands, or Islas Malvinas, after Buenos Aires captured the disputed archipelago. While that outreach failed, Christopher Mallaby, a British diplomat involved in the talks, recalls that the British government was impressed by the “able and impressive” secretary-general.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises.

In 1986, he arbitrated talks between France and New Zealand after French intelligence operatives sank the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, which had been monitoring a French nuclear test in the Pacific, while it was moored in Auckland. The French government ultimately agreed to pay New Zealand $7 million in reparations. It is hard to imagine any of the permanent Security Council members acceding to such arbitration now.

Why was Pérez de Cuéllar able to pull off such diplomatic feats? In part, he was lucky. Contrary to his bleak assessment in 1982, rapprochement between the Western and Soviet blocs created more space for the UN to help resolve conflicts that all sides wanted to end.

But as Alvaro de Soto, a close adviser to Pérez de Cuéllar, noted in a recent chapter on his former boss in a history of successive secretaries-general and the Security Council, he also brought important character traits to Turtle Bay. De Soto highlights Pérez de Cuéllar’s absolute commitment to impartiality in dealing with the U.S., Soviet Union and other powers, and his extreme discretion in quietly handling problems like Afghanistan. He also knew when to pick his battles. Rather than throw himself into addressing every conflict at once, he tended to step in only after other diplomatic actors had exhausted themselves. In the case of Central America, for example, he waited for regional diplomacy to lose steam before pushing UN mediation.

Overall, de Soto notes, Pérez de Cuéllar handled Cold War crises “piecemeal” instead of trying to resolve the core differences between Washington and Moscow, “relying on the judicious choice of individual conflicts that might lend themselves to practical solutions… in the expectation that they would lead in the long term to the return of some degree of largely absent cooperation.”

What guidance and inspiration might Guterres and his team take from these lessons today? It is important, of course, not to overstate current similarities or parallels to the late Cold War. Pérez de Cuéllar worked in the shadow of a nuclear standoff, but had the good fortune to cooperate with global powers that were in the process of building bridges and wanted to settle their differences—although, as de Soto notes, the trajectory of this process was hardly clear at the time. Guterres, by contrast, finds himself navigating a very fluid environment in which the major players at the UN are increasingly unwilling to compromise, creating fewer opportunities for peacemaking, even though the specter of major conflict among them remains relatively remote.

Pérez de Cuéllar’s “piecemeal” approach to peacemaking remains a useful point of reference for the UN at a time when it appears incapable of resolving major geopolitical crises like the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria. But the UN may still have openings to address other challenges, such as cementing peace in Colombia, where the landmark peace deal with FARC rebels has yet to deliver on all of its promises, or supporting the current transition to civilian rule in Sudan, where the interests of the U.S., Russia and China may diverge but are not irreconcilably far apart.

The UN cannot solve all the world’s problems, but it can fix some of them as opportunities arise. That is a realistic but nonetheless important lesson to learn from Javier Pérez de Cuéllar’s stewardship of the organisation in a new era of global tensions.