Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Genocidal Violence in Burundi: Should International Law Prohibit Domestic Humanitarian Intervention?

Academic journal article Albany Law Review

Genocidal Violence in Burundi: Should International Law Prohibit Domestic Humanitarian Intervention?

Article excerpt

Nowhere else in Africa has so much violence killed so many people

on so many occasions in so small a space as in Burundi during the

years following independence.(1)

On July 25, 1996, leaders of the Burundian Army, which is comprised almost entirely of members of the Tutsi tribe, announced that they had staged a successful coup, ending the democratically established coalition government headed by a member of the Hutu tribe, and had installed a Tutsi, Major Pierre Buyoya, as the head of state.(2) Major Buyoya, who had been widely regarded in the West(3) and by the leadership of the United Nations(4) as a moderate committed to democratic institutions in Burundi,(5) immediately announced that the purpose of the coup and of his assumption of power was to stem, if not eliminate, the escalating genocidal violence between the Tutsi and Hutu, something the ousted coalition government had proved unable to do.(6) In Major Buyoya's words, the coup "was not a change of regime through ambition, glory or anything else. What happened today was an action of salvation."(7)

The reaction of members of the international community clearly demonstrated widely divergent views on both the proper response to the coup and the developing genocide that was offered as its justification.(8) First to react were Burundi's neighbors in the Lake region of East Africa. These nations, Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Zaire, under the leadership of former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, had in the months before the coup offered everything from "good offices"(9) to a regional peacekeeping force(10) to assist the Burundian coalition government in its efforts to control tribal violence. When the coup occurred, these nations, which landlock Burundi, immediately announced a total trade embargo against Burundi.(11) These nations intended the embargo to last until Major Buyoya and the Army restored the Parliament and sat down at the negotiating table with the major Hutu political party and Hutu rebels.(12)

Perhaps because "[o]utsiders have often criticized African governments for doing little to halt disasters in their midst, such as the large-scale massacres in Rwanda and Burundi, let alone to oppose military coups and support democracy,"(13) the embargo caught Western diplomats and the United Nations by surprise.(14) The decision is understandable, however, given recent events in Africa, some hopeful, some horrific. Although it has not been the subject of major political or media attention outside Africa, the last five years have seen a shift toward democracy in many of the nations now engaged in the embargo. Kenya and Tanzania held their first multi-party elections, Uganda held its first presidential election, and the long-time dictator of Zaire has planned democratic elections for next year.(15) These elections, while not flawless exercises in democracy, have nonetheless "given leaders in the region what they see as a democratic mandate . . . and so they can no longer so easily accept coups meant to cancel out the voters' wishes."(16)

The event in East Africa that most influenced these nations, and that did command international attention, was the genocide that left at least 500,000 dead in Rwanda in 1994 and created a refugee problem that has itself exacerbated the ethnic tensions in Burundi.(17) In President Nyerere's opinion, hindsight has led many of the region's leaders to believe that they should have intervened in Rwanda, rather than having stood on the sidelines with most of the world.(18)

If the African nations surprised the West by their reaction to the Burundi coup, the African nations were no less surprised by the tepid reaction of the West and the United Nations. The reaction of the international organization and most of its members has been characterized by hesitation and caution. Although Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali condemned the coup saying that "the international community will on no account accept a change of government by force or other illegitimate means in Burundi,"(19) he had kind words for Major Buyoya, noting that he knew the man well. …

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