WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following statement on the Senate floor regarding the political crisis in Burundi. A video of his remarks can be downloaded here.
“Mr. President, I rise to call for urgent action to prevent widespread violence and mass atrocities in Burundi.
“We are at a critical juncture. I call on the Burundian government and opposition to respect the spirit of the 2000 Arusha Agreement and immediately stop all violence, disarm militias including youth militia aligned with the government, and urge all legitimate stakeholders to agree to participate in an inclusive dialogue to determine a path forward for their country.
“As my colleagues may know, the country has been in turmoil since April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term. His decision, which many feel violated the spirit of the very agreement that ended Burundi’s twelve year civil war—and the Burundian constitution itself—has led to widespread violence.
“An attempted coup d’état in May revealed an alarming split in the military ranks, and I came to the floor in June to discuss my concern that the situation could escalate. It has. At that time, 90,000 people had fled the country. Now there are over 200,000 refugees. In June, an estimated 21 people had died during protests. The UN now estimates that nearly 250 people have been killed since April, some at the hands of security forces and others in a series of tit for tat targeted assassinations and killings.
“The violence has taken on troubling overtones. Bodies of those who are clearly victims of execution-style killings are found daily in the streets of Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. Some of the bodies are mutilated. The families of political opponents are now being targeted and killed. Government officials have been murdered.
“In November, Burundian officials engaged in alarming rhetoric reminiscent of language used to incite and carry out the genocide in Rwanda. The government was forced to issue a letter which claimed the statements made by the President and the President of the Senate were not intended to foment such actions. Intended or not, such comments are deeply disturbing.
“The international community has engaged, but I fear our efforts may not be enough. I was very pleased to see the African Union Peace and Security Council’s October 17 Communique, which urged dialogue, called for the deployment of additional human rights monitors, and threatened targeted sanctions against those who contribute to the perpetuation of violence and act as spoilers to a political solution. It sent a strong message to all parties that continued violence would not be tolerated, and that an inclusive dialogue—one that includes Burundian opposition that has taken refuge outside the country—is the only way to restore stability.
“And the United Nations Security Council took a much needed step, approving a resolution in late November.
“The European Union has been forward leaning, imposing sanctions on government officials, and requesting a dialogue with the government to discuss the current situation under provisions of the Cotonou Agreement related to democracy and human rights.
“The United States has been actively engaged in preventive actions and diplomacy for some time. On November 23rd, President Obama issued an Executive Order sanctioning four individuals whose actions have threatened the peace and security of Burundi. He also announced that as of January, Burundi will no longer be eligible for preferential trade benefits under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Our Special Envoy for the Great Lakes, Tom Perriello, has been in the region numerous times. High-ranking officials including our United Nations Ambassador and the Secretary of State have raised Burundi with our international partners on numerous occasions. Ambassador Power has traveled there herself. I applaud the administration’s consistent attention.
“However the violence continues. We must redouble our efforts to support a political solution to the current crisis. Let me be clear: there is no substitute for the commitment of Burundians themselves when it comes to finding a way forward. They themselves must choose the path of peace. But I firmly believe we, in cooperation with our international partners, can incentivize them to do so. And we can take other meaningful actions in pursuit of an agreement.
“First, we must help the African Union finalize contingency plans for an African-led mission to prevent widespread violence in the country. Second, I call upon the AU to convene a meeting with Special Envoys from the United Nations, African Union, United States, the European Union and Belgium, as well as representatives from the East African Community, to discuss coordination between donors, the UN and AU on the Secretary General’s recommendations, and to identify ways that international actors can support the increased number of human rights monitors and military observers authorized by the AU in October. Third, it is imperative that we help put in place mechanisms for accountability for those who have engaged in extrajudicial killings during this period of unrest.
“The United States has made a promise to actively prevent the commission of mass atrocities. As the unrest continues people are suffering in refugee camps, or living in fear in their homes, afraid to go out at night. Violence is on the rise, the economy is on a downward spiral, and civic space is closed. Every day that goes by without a political solution, the probability of atrocities increases. Preventing widespread violence and mass atrocities is everyone’s business. Diplomatic engagement to prevent political violence, that has the potential to become ethnically-based killing, is exactly what we and the rest of the international community must be focused on addressing.
“I submit to you that acting to prevent this from happening is all of our collective business, and I urge continued action to do so. I yield the floor.”