Trust and Justice In Burundi

Hopes for peace in Burundi have been stymied as the mediation talks scheduled to resume at the beginning of May have once again been postponed. A year after President Pierre Nkurunziza declared he would amend the constitution to run for another term in office, violence continues to plague the country, and hope is dwindling. Why hasn’t Burundi been able to sustain the peace brokered after its civil war when other African countries that suffered similar violence in the 90s and early 2000s have been able to achieve lasting peace? If the government had implemented the transitional justice mechanisms mandated in the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, and had implemented an internationally supported criminal tribunal, Burundi might not be in the midst of the violence it is now. Could transitional justice be the key to stabilizing the country and sustaining peace?

There may be other explanations for the inability of the Burundi government to maintain peace, but the conflict and its devastation was comparable to those in Rwanda, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Rwanda and Burundi have shared much of their political history, and the two experienced casualty numbers and types of brutality remarkably similar to the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia. In the end, all four conflicts ended in peace agreements that set up transitional governments to be supported by peacekeeping forces. Though the conflicts in each of these four countries had important differences, their similarities suggest that transitional justice could have contributed to their ability (or inability) to achieve lasting peace.  

Renewed Violence

The simmering instability plaguing Burundi since the end of its civil war boiled over a year ago when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for an unconstitutional third term in office. Since then, the situation has become dire. UN Agencies report that over 400 people have been killed, and nearly 260,000 refugees have fled the country. At least 31 people were killed this past April alone. Nkurunziza has vowed to fight African Union peacekeeping troops, planned peace talks have yet to come to fruition, and civilians are disappearing daily, while executions and torture are on the rise. Though this time the violence has a distinctly political tone, the episode is re-creating fear that the country won’t be able to stop backsliding into another civil war.

What Does Transitional Justice Have to Do with it?

It’s possible that if a multidimensional transitional justice mechanism had been implemented, including the restorative process mandated by the Arusha agreement, as well as a retributive process, Burundi wouldn’t be in turmoil now. There is increasing evidence that the more broadly governments react to the challenges of coping with the past, the better positioned their societies will be to achieve peace in the future. A forthcoming study by One Earth Future Foundation demonstrates that the more robust a transitional justice approach that governments can implement the better. When two countries that experienced similar conflicts but different combinations of transitional justice—Sierra Leone and Liberia—were compared, Sierra Leone, which had a robust, multidimensional approach, also had faster rates of growth in institutional trust.

Kofi Annan visits the SCSL premises; photo by Mark Garten

Special Court for Sierra LeoneBoth countries had a truth and reconciliation commission, but Sierra Leone also established a judicial system to hold accountable those responsible for the most egregious crimes. The Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) was similar to the tribunals of Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia (ICTR and ICTY), but located in Sierra Leone, staffed by nationals, and supported by donations from the international community. The Court signaled to communities that the government would no longer condone or allow violence, and it demonstrated that the government was a reliable arbiter of disputes. It gave citizens the confidence to vote based on policy, not fear. Sierra Leonean ownership of the Court showed the government’s growing capacity to provide services. In all, the SCSL provided credible signals that the government was on the road to effective democracy.

Trust in Burundi

Burundi citizens protest Nkurunziza's 3rd term; photo from AFP

Burundi protestIn Burundi, grievances haven’t been addressed and people still don’t trust the government. In Transparency International’s 2014 Corruption Perception Index, neighboring Rwanda ranked as 55 of 175 countries globally, while Burundi ranked as only 159 of 175. Though Rwanda has significant issues to overcome, its use of traditional Gacaca courts has been lauded as an admirable alternative to formal justice mechanisms. At the same time, the ICTR signaled a break from the abusive past by prosecuting those who bore responsibility for the atrocities of the mid-90s. 

Human rights activists and political observers have said that the absence of transitional justice has created a culture of impunity in Burundi. The lack of accountability for war crimes opened the door for human rights violations to continue, signaled to leaders that there would be few repercussions for abuse of power, and provided a reason for citizens to choose violence over formal tools to settle disputes. In a 2010 report, Human Rights Watch noted that this impunity has been explicitly supported by the Nkurunziza administration, whose spokesperson commended the public for using mob violence as security and to punish criminals.

Is There a Role for the International Community?

Barbara Walter suggests that a third party broker is key in negotiating peaceful resolution to civil war because they are able to hold parties to their commitments. In terms of transitional justice, it could be useful for the international community to play this role by helping to structure and support transitional justice in Burundi. Specifically, the parties to the Arusha Accord in fact did request help from the UN Security Council to set up a tribunal, but the UNSC failed to respond to the request in any meaningful way. International support could have helped ensure the government carried out its commitment, which would in turn have encouraged citizens to trust the government to carry out other responsibilities.

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza; photo by MONUSCO

President of BurundiImplementing transitional justice mechanisms (with the help of the international community) can facilitate the end of the culture of impunity, can create faith that elections are legitimate, and help to demonstrate that the government will not support policies that provoke violence. Specifically, a hybrid court could hold officials accountable, create a more democratically-inclined administration and imbue trust that those who perpetrated violence are not wielding ultimate power in the country. Though we can’t say for certain that if transitional justice had already been implemented the grievances that led to renewed violence wouldn’t have existed, it can now mitigate some of the pervasive mistrust and impunity fueling the current violence.

If the opposition and government are able to successfully broker another peace agreement, the government may be able to sustain peace by implementing the mandated truth and reconciliation commission and by creating some reliable avenue for justice. However, Burundi likely lacks the resources to achieve such initiatives without the help of the international community, which can offer valuable training and support. If peace talks come to fruition, the international community will be crucial in supporting the Burundi government in providing the citizens with what they didn’t get in the mid-2000s—a justice they can rely on, and democracy they can trust in.

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