People light candles during a vigil held to call for an end of the killings in Burundi in Brussels. Image Credit: AFP

Bujumbura, Burundi: The African Union Peace and Security Council on Friday authorised a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force for Burundi, where months of grinding conflict between supporters and opponents of President Pierre Nkurunziza are threatening to explode into a full-blown civil war. Burundi now has 96 hours to signal its acceptance of the mission or else risk that the 54-nation body will invoke a special rule that allows it to deploy an intervention force without the host government’s consent.

“Africa will not allow another genocide to take place on its soil,” the AU’s Peace and Security Council declared as its members convened Thursday for a special session on the crisis in Burundi.

Reached for comment before the agreement had been finalised, Burundian presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe said he was “surprised to hear that the AU can think of sending 5,000 troops to a place like Burundi.” He blamed the European Union for the peacekeeping plan, which he said AU diplomats had circulated under pressure from Brussels. “It is as if Burundi were under fire, as if Burundi were burning,” he said in an interview. “We do believe that this general narrative is brought only to disturb the peace.”

The authorisation of peacekeepers comes just one week after Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital city, saw its worst single day of violence since a bloody 13-year civil war ended in 2005. What began last Friday as a predawn rebel assault on three military installations ended with what witnesses described as dozens of summary executions by uniformed security services, who stormed into opposition neighbourhoods and rounded up suspected dissidents. The government put the official death toll at 87, but watchdog organisations say the number could be much higher. According to the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, 154 people were killed and roughly 150 more are still missing.

“Burundi is at bursting point, on the very cusp of a civil war,” UN human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein said on Thursday.

Political dialogue

Top UN diplomats have been sounding the alarm on the deteriorating situation in Burundi for months, but an international response has been slow to materialise. Earlier this month, UN. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended stepping up the UN’s presence in the country in order to promote political dialogue, but stopped short of advocating for the deployment of blue helmets. An assessment of how best to proceed, led by Jamal Benomar, Ban’s special adviser on Burundi, is expected to wrap up early next month. But no action at the Security Council is expected until then, experts and diplomats said.

With the UN effectively in a holding pattern until early next year, the AU proposal represents the most significant step toward getting a force focused on protecting civilians on the ground. According to the communique, published online Friday, the AU plans to authorise a 5,000-strong force known as the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU) for an initial period of six months. Its military and police regiments would be drawn from the Eastern Africa Standby Force, a regional force created for peace support operations that includes troops from Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda, among others, and is mandated to protect civilians under imminent threat and support political dialogue.

“If you look at debates in New York, the AU can reasonably claim that the UN is lagging behind here,” said Paul D. Williams, an expert on peacekeeping at the George Washington University. “They want to lead on this issue, so with this communique they are taking the lead. And their hope is that the Security Council will follow their lead.”

Crimes against humanity

The AU plan also breaks new ground by recommending that if the Burundian government rejects the proposed deployment, member states invoke Article 4(h) of the African Union’s Constitutive Act, which allows the continental body to force a peacekeeping presence on recalcitrant members in order to prevent “genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.” Article 4(h) has never before been invoked to justify a peacekeeping mission, and all previous AU deployments have been deployed with the consent of the host government. As a result, the AU proposal likely sets the stage for a showdown at the United Nations.

Unless the African Union is prepared to defend its intervention as “illegal but justified,” as Nato defended its intervention in Kosovo, it would need a Chapter VII authorisation at the UN. Security Council. Since China and Russia would likely oppose such a measure — as they have in Syria — the Burundian proposal could be stymied in New York.

Yet US Ambassador to Burundi Dawn Liberi told Foreign Policy that the United States is prepared to fight for a UN Security Council authorisation.

“Moving toward the Eastern Africa Standby Force, the resolution of the African Union is a necessary next step. No one wants to stand by and watch the violence escalate,” Liberi said in an interview on Friday. “This is a position that the United States very much supports in terms of what the African Union has taken and it is something that we would move forward with in terms of our position in the UN. Security Council.”

News of the AU troop authorisation was welcomed by critics of Nkurunziza, who have fled to neighbouring countries in droves since the crisis began in April.

“It is clear that the army is divided and can no longer play its role as protector of the people. So it falls to the international community to intervene to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity,” said Vital Nshimirimana, a lawyer and human rights activist who heads the Forum for Strengthening the Civil Society, a coalition of Burundian civil society organisations. “We are in a situation where acts of crimes against humanity have been committed since April — acts of murder; torture; cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment and imprisonment under circumstances that are detrimental to the dignity of humans.”

But a peacekeeping presence is only part of the solution. The Burundian crisis, which erupted in April when Nkurunziza defied protests to seek a third term in office, is fundamentally political in nature: Opponents of the president claimed that Nkurunziza violated the constitution by standing for re-election; his supporters maintain that he was eligible because he was not popularly elected to his first term. Things came to a head in May, when Nkurunziza cracked down hard against the protesters, many of whom have since taken up arms against the government.

Mediation effort

The president was re-elected in July in a vote that was boycotted by the opposition and condemned by the international community. Since then, the violence has intensified, with efforts to promote dialogue falling by the wayside. The East African Community, a regional trade bloc that includes Burundi, tapped Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to lead a mediation effort. But the septuagenarian leader has seemed distracted with his own re-election bid, delegating many of his duties to his defence minister. In the five months he’s been leading the talks, no serious dialogue has taken place, and regional and Western diplomats alike have grown impatient.

“We have continuously said we support the efforts of Museveni. However, we would like to see the process start and are a bit concerned that it has taken a few months for this process to move forward,” said Liberi. “I can’t urge enough that the timing is really of the essence now. I think that frankly we’ve really run out of time.”

Last weekend’s sudden escalation in violence brings the death toll since April to well over 400, according to the United Nations. Another 200,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries. And while the authorisation of an AU peacekeeping mission comes as welcome news to many, it will be months before troops arrive on the ground, even under the best of circumstances. The AU Assembly, which would have to vote either by consensus or a two-thirds majority to invoke Article 4(h), is not slated to meet again until January. The battle for authorisation at the UN. Security Council looms after that.

“The African Union’s decision is unprecedented, but it’s still too early to say there is going to be 5,000 African peacekeepers arriving in Burundi any time soon,” said Evan Cinq-Mars, an advocacy officer at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. “The government has 96 hours to respond, and the Union’s resolve to prevent further chaos in Burundi could be seriously tested if Nkurunziza does not accept.”