Ius Gentium

University of Baltimore School of Law's Center for International and Comparative Law Fellows discuss international and comparative legal issues


Burundi: All the Makings of Genocide

John Rizos

Walking through a cornfield you come across a corpse with the heart removed. Further down, by the outskirts of the city, you notice a body in the drainage canal. It appears to have been there for a few days. This is not an episode of “The Twilight Zone”, but rather some of the sights in Burundi, a place where the term genocide is gaining more traction in describing the situation [1]. The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as, “any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.”[2]

On Monday, March 14, 2016, the European Union (EU) decided to suspend aid to Burundi’s government following a political crisis, which has resulted in more than 400 deaths and 240,000 refugees to neighboring countries within the last year. The crisis stems from the illegal third term of Burundi’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza[3].

JR_Blog2 Photo1

Pierre Nkurunziza is a former Hutu rebel leader and is the current the leader of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD). He was voted into office by parliamentarians in 2005 and was reelected in 2010. Since then, he has shown signs of authoritarianism by planning attacks on opposition and placing pressures on media[5]. In July 2015, he was reelected for a third term amidst suspicions of poll fraud[6]. Burundi’s Constitutional Court ruled in Nkuruziza’s favor and stated that his first term did not count because he was elected by the country’s parliament, and not directly by citizens. In response to the reelection and the Court’s decision, attacks by rebel groups and protests have increased in the last six months[7]. The government has responded with systematic violence, torture, and imprisonment.

Although the EU has promised to cut financial aid, it will not put a stop on humanitarian aid. Figures from 2014 indicate that the last installment of financial aid was around $68Bn, of which an approximate $16Bn went directly to the government[8]. However, the EU promised to maintain funding projects for basic services and emergency assistance[9].

The EU is keen on upholding the terms in the Cotonou Agreement with Burundi. The agreement was made to safeguard and promote human rights, democratic principles, and the rule of law between the European Community and the African, Caribbean, and Pacific Group[10]. Article 96 of the agreement outlines a consultation proviso with procedures for solving human rights issues covered by the agreement. The EU and Burundi began consultations in December 2015[11]. The consultations resulted in a stalemate as the government of Burundi showed insufficient measures in addressing the state’s violation and securing a progressive plan[12]. The EU Foreign Policy Chief stated that the bloc would resume direct aid once concrete measures were taken by the government[13]. The EU also demands Burundi to release more than 2,000 prisoners, to lift social media restrictions, and to allow the UN to investigate political violence[14].


Further, the government has been labeling protesters as terrorists and instructing the police to use all force necessary to quell protests. Security forces have been staging execution-style killings of citizens and sending anonymous threats to families of those suspected of protesting against the government[15].Yet, the government has denied any sign of systematic violence. One of Nkurunziza’s spokespeople has accused the opposition of killing innocent people in order to garner international sympathy and attract attention to overthrow the government[16]. However, satellite images indicate five possible locations of mass graves,[17] which, based on Amnesty International, are likely the result of “…deliberate effort by authorities to cover the extent of killings by their security forces…”[18]

Both, the EU and Burundi’s government, have reacted by not calling the situation, “genocide.” The EU, as the main proponent and signatory of the Cotonou Agreement, has not rushed to label the situation genocide. If the EU were to call it genocide, it would force the member states to take action in attempting to prevent or further investigate the situation[19]. Yet, although killings may seem systematic, it is likely too soon to make the call for genocide and there are is insufficient evidence of the government targeting one specific group. Alternative diplomatic methods are preferred before actual interference; suspending financial aid is one such method. However, we see the “teeth” that the European Union is able to exhibit. The EU can suspend financial aid at once, while still fund and create projects without the government’s consent. It can trump sovereignty while abiding by humanitarian principles.

JR Blog2_Photo2

Nkurunziza’s administration has acted strategically in order to avoid the situation being branded as “genocide.” Although the government’s actions are likely to be deemed systematic and illegal, the killings have been spread out, limited to smaller settings, and have been done indiscriminately against alleged protesters. However, in recent trends, large-scale violations are not needed for the international community to intervene, especially if assessments/investigations show early warning signs of genocide[21]. IGOs and NGOs have been able to intervene in every facet of life and can raise awareness about any topic through improved methods. Actions by the Burundian government have been noticed internationally and officials have compared them to the Rwanda Genocide[22]. Even a Senior Burundian Political Analyst has recognized that the EU’s “muscle” coupled with unprecedented NGO involvement will bring the demise of Nkurunziza by stating, “The President has no chance. He knows human rights groups are recording all the extrajudicial killings, assassinations, torture. He knows he’ll be arrested in the end by an international tribunal so he wants to achieve as much as he can.”[23] Although the process of handling genocide may seem slow, such assurance, by a native analyst nonetheless, shows that the EU and the UN have greatly improved genocide prevention methods and persecution of responsible criminal officials within the last 20 years.

John Rizos is a 2L at the University of Baltimore School of Law. He has an interest in human rights and international criminal law. In addition to being a CICL Fellow, he is the Secretary for Phi Alpha Delta. He graduated with honors from Towson University with a BA in International Studies (2013). He has interned at the Press Office of the Greek Embassy in Washington, D.C. and the International Civil Advocacy Network (ICAN), a non-profit organization advocating for women’s rights in the Middle East.

[1] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/burundi-election-president-pierre-nkurunzizas-victory-has-reignited-fears-of-genocide-like-that-a6734026.html

[2] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CrimeOfGenocide.aspx

[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/world/africa/european-union-suspends-aid-to-burundi-over-political-crisis.html

[4] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13085065

[5] http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13085065

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/world/africa/european-union-suspends-aid-to-burundi-over-political-crisis.html

[9] http://www.dw.com/en/eu-cuts-financial-aid-to-burundi-government/a-19115523

[10] http://www.europarl.europa.eu/document/activities/cont/201306/20130605ATT67340/20130605ATT67340EN.pdf

[11] http://reliefweb.int/report/burundi/burundi-eu-closes-consultations-under-article-96-cotonou-agreement

[12] Id.

[13] http://www.dw.com/en/eu-cuts-financial-aid-to-burundi-government/a-19115523

[14] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/15/world/africa/european-union-suspends-aid-to-burundi-over-political-crisis.html

[15] Id.

[16] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/burundi-election-president-pierre-nkurunzizas-victory-has-reignited-fears-of-genocide-like-that-a6734026.html

[17] http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/burundi-govt-58-people-buried-notifying-families-37547395

[18] Id.

[19] http://www.eurojust.europa.eu/Practitioners/Genocide-Network/Pages/Genocide-Network.aspx

[20] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/burundi-election-president-pierre-nkurunzizas-victory-has-reignited-fears-of-genocide-like-that-a6734026.html

[21] http://www.un.org/en/preventgenocide/adviser/responsibility.shtml

[22] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/burundi-election-president-pierre-nkurunzizas-victory-has-reignited-fears-of-genocide-like-that-a6734026.html

[23] Id.