Burundi: Civilians pay the price of faltering peace process

Originally published


A Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper
February 2003


A ceasefire signed on December 3, 2002 by the government of Burundi and the rebel movement, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil National pour la Défense de la Democratie-Forces pour la Défense de la Democratie, CNDD-FDD) raised hopes for an end to nine years of war in Burundi. The parties to the conflict re-affirmed their commitment to this agreement in a second document signed January 27, 2003. But after weeks of uncertainty and violations on both sides, the FDD suspended negotiations on February 21 accusing the government of blocking implementation and making decisions without consulting it.

Even while the ceasefire was in effect, combat continued and Burundian civilians suffered from the same deliberate killings, armed attacks, rapes, pillage and destruction of their homes that have been their lot for nearly a decade. As so often in the past, both sides ignored legal obligations to protect civilians in time of war.1

As the peace process has faltered, fears have increased on all sides. Rumors abound about preparations for slaughter, such as the distribution of machetes or the massing of troops on the border, while the leading parties each accuse the other of violating the ceasefire.2

This briefing paper, based on three weeks of investigations by Human Rights Watch researchers, details recent violations of human rights and humanitarian law committed by both sides to the conflict in Burundi and calls for the implementation of the ceasefire and a halt to the violence against civilians.

On January 19, 2003 government troops unlawfully killed at least thirty-two and probably more than eighty civilians at Mwegereza, Gisuru commune, in the eastern province of Ruyigi. They also reportedly deliberately killed civilians in the neighboring communes of Kinyinya and Nyabitsinda. Government soldiers also raped women, both after the combat and more recently. In addition, soldiers burned some 420 houses and pillaged more than 1,000 others. They have prevented local residents, who were forced to flee, from returning to their homes to gather food, harvest their crops, and work in their fields.

Military officers in the region, claiming security concerns, have refused to allow humanitarian aid organizations to enter large areas of Ruyigi province since mid-January, making it impossible for them to assist the sick, the hungry, and the homeless.

The Burundian army has rarely prosecuted soldiers accused of having violated international humanitarian law. In the most egregious recent case of impunity for such crimes, a military court on February 21 acquitted two officers of responsibility for the massacre of 173 civilians at Itaba on September 9, 2002. It found them guilty only of "failure to follow orders," and imposed a sentence of four months, less than the time already served.3

FDD rebels have deliberately killed civilians, raped women and stolen cattle, goats, and other goods in many parts of Burundi, particularly in the central provinces of Gitega and Muramvya as well as in the eastern province of Ruyigi. The FDD has apparently not held its combatants accountable for violations of international humanitarian law.

The nine year old civil war has a strong ethnic component: Tutsi, a minority in the country, dominate the army while the most important rebel group, the FDD, is predominantly Hutu, as is the National Forces of Liberation (Forces Nationales de Liberation, FNL), the one party which has not yet signed any form of agreement with the government.

As the struggle moves from the battlefield to the political arena, the parties that have dominated the government face new challenges. The Front of Burundian Democrats (Front pour la démocratie au Burundi, FRODEBU) has been the major Hutu- led political party in the country but now must contend with the arrival of the more militant CNDD, the political wing of the FDD forces that have played a leading role in the rebellion. Similarly, FRODEBU and even the CNDD may find the FNL a powerful rival, particularly in areas around the capital, should it too decide to accept a ceasefire and enter the political process.

Leaders of two smaller and dissident wings of the CNDD-FDD and FNL returned to Burundi from exile in early February, an event which underlined recent changes in the political context. The CNDD -- once referred to by officials as "the assailants" or the "genocidal terrorists" -- is now to be recognized as a legitimate political party, according to the ceasefire agreement.4

The return of the leaders highlights also the possibility of an imminent political reconfiguration. With several Hutu-led parties struggling for dominance, the Tutsi- led Party for National Unity and Progress (Union pour le Progres National,UPRONA) of President Pierre Buyoya, may find opportunities for new alliances and for playing the Hutu parties off against each other. But UPRONA itself is challenged by the growth of another more radical Tutsi- led group, the Party for National Recovery (Parti pour le Redressement National, PARENA) headed by former president Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, held under house arrest since November 2002.

The international community is anxious to promote stability in the region and, above all, to avoid a genocide like that which killed at least half a million Tutsi and moderate Hutu in neighboring Rwanda. It has consistently -- though not always effectively -- pressured all parties to reach accords. In late December, the European Union took the unusual step of providing food to FDD combatants. This initiative, meant to encourage their further cooperation with the peace process, has not yet achieved the desired result.

Other African nations, including South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda, have facilitated peace negotiations, and South Africa supplied soldiers to provide security to leaders involved in the transitional government established by the August 2000 Arusha Accords. Tunisia, Mozambique, and Ethiopia agreed also to provide observers and a peacekeeping force under the aegis of the African Union. Both parties to the war accepted the presence of the observers and peacekeepers, known as the African Mission, in the early December agreement, but in its February 21 statement, the FDD protested that it had not been consulted on the nations from which troops would be drawn. It rejected the participation of soldiers from Mozambique and Ethiopia and said that they would be seen as "elements who are coming to disturb the peace."5 By late February only a small group of observers had arrived and they had not yet been deployed at the time of writing. Slowness in organizing the African Mission was due in part to the delay in naming a chairperson for the implementation commission, the responsibility of the U.N. Secretary-General. On February 25, Col. El Hadj Alioun Samba arrived to take this post, but only on a temporary basis.6

Attempts to stimulate the peace process by providing material incentives to the FDD forces, delays in positioning the peace-keeping force, and the vagueness of the ceasefire agreement itself have heightened tensions and opened the way to further abuses of civilians such as those which were committed at Mwegereza.

(PDF* format - 74 KB)


1 Burundi is a party to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and to their Protocol Additional relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II). Common article 3 to the Geneva Conventions requires humane treatment for persons not taking part in hostilities and Protocol II explicitly prohibits attacks on civilians. Despite the signing of a ceasefire agreement, international humanitarian law still applies. For example, according to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Tadic, Appeal on Jurisdiction, Case IT-94-1-AR72 (Oct. 2, 1995): "[A]rmed conflict exists wherever there is a resort to armed force between states or protracted armed violence between such groups within a State. International humanitarian law applies from the initiation of such conflicts and extends beyond the cessation of hostilities until a general conclusion is reached; or, in the case of internal armed conflicts, a peaceful settlement is achieved. Until that moment, international humanitarian law continues to apply in, ...in the case of internal conflicts, the whole territory under the control of a party, whether or not actual combat takes place there." For accounts of violations by all sides prior to the ceasefire, see the Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, "Burundi: Escalating Violence Demands Attention," November 2002 (available at http://hrw.org/backgrounder/africa/burundi/burundi1128.pdf).

2 See the UPRONA statement published by Agence Burundaise de Presse, February 24, 2003, and the statement by the CNDD-FDD of February 21, 2003 at its website www.burundi-info.com.

3 Human Rights Watch field notes, February 20 and 21, 2003; for details of the Itaba massacre, see Human Rights Watch, "Burundi: Escalating Violence Demands Attention." A government report at the time said 174 civilians had been killed but in February 2003 the two officers were charged only with killing 173 civilians.

4 Accord du Cessez-le-feu entre le Gouvernement de Transition du Burundi et le Cndd-Fdd, signed at Arusha, December 3, 2002, Annex 1.A. 1.1.17. The text of the agreement is available here.

5 Premy Kibanja, "Burundi Rebels and peace talks," BBC News, February 21, 2003.

6 Human Rights Watch interview, Kigali, February 19, 2003.

Human Rights Watch
© Copyright, Human Rights Watch - 350 Fifth Avenue, 34th Floor New York, NY 10118-3299 USA