The AU's challenged responsibility to protect in Burundi

Has the AU played its last card in Burundi? Deploying AU troops to halt human rights abuses raises more questions than answers.

In mid-December 2015 the Peace and Security Council (PSC) took its boldest actions to date to halt the spiralling crisis in Burundi. In its communiqué of 17 December, the PSC authorised the deployment of a 5 000-strong African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU, from the French Mission Africaine de Prevention et de Protection au Burundi) for six months (renewable).

The mandate of MAPROBU includes ‘to prevent any deterioration of the security situation, [to] monitor its evolution and report developments on the ground [and] to contribute, within its capacity and in its areas of deployment, to the protection of civilian populations under imminent threat’.

After giving the Burundian government 96 hours to approve the deployment the PSC expressed its determination by invoking Article 4(h) of the African Union (AU) Constitutive Act. This provision allows the AU – following a decision of the AU Assembly of Heads of State – to intervene in a country ‘in grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity’. The PSC therefore recommended such an intervention to the Assembly, which ultimately decides on the deployment.

The PSC expressed its determination by invoking the AU Constitutive Act
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The PSC’s resolve has not wavered despite the Burundian government’s rejection of any African deployment. A presidential spokesperson stated: ‘If AU troops came without the government’s approval, it would be an invasion and occupation force, and the Burundi government would reserve the right to act accordingly.’

Challenges to the responsibility to protect

The deployment of MAPROBU and the invocation of Article 4(h) raise more questions than answers. Firstly, one could question why the PSC needed to ask for Burundi’s consent to deploy. Since Burundi has signed and ratified the protocol creating the PSC, it is legally bound to accept and implement any decision of this body.

From the AU’s perspective, it is customary in peacekeeping operations to request the explicit consent of the host country. Since the Brahimi Report in 2000, international organisations have insisted on obtaining the consent of key parties on the ground, prior to any deployment. From the Burundian government’s perspective, this request was highly politicised. The government thus rejected not only MAPROBU but also the legality of the PSC’s decision, arguing that a United Nations (UN) Security Council resolution should authorise it.

Secondly, the pan-African organisation did not react forcefully to the Burundian government’s decision to reject the mission. Instead of demonstrating the same resolve shown in the PSC’s decision, the AU Commission’s (AUC) chairperson stated its willingness ‘to devise the best ways and means of facilitating the deployment mission, in a spirit of mutual understanding and cooperation’. To emphasise the urgency of the situation, the AU could have convened an extraordinary summit to authorise the deployment of MAPROBU. It seems, however, that the Burundian government will be given more time – until the 26th ordinary session of the AU Assembly, due on 30–31 January.

One could question why the PSC needed to ask for Burundi’s consent
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Past AU experience in Darfur, where it faced a hostile Sudanese government, showed that being flexible on the terms of a deployment aimed at protecting civilians ultimately hampers the effectiveness of the mission. 

In Darfur, UN Security Council resolutions were considered as the basis for negotiations between the AU and the Sudanese government rather than as a final decision per se.

This conciliatory attitude did not result in the government’s showing a friendlier attitude to the joint UN–AU mission. There is a similar risk in Burundi, where the regional mediator would be amenable to requests from the Burundian government without positive outcomes for the deployment of MAPROBU.

Consequences of a hostile deployment

The heart of the matter is the implementation of Article 4(h). Once a genuine principle, its practicability is less evident. The consequences of an AU deployment in Burundi against the will of the government are uncertain: Is the AU ready to assume tutelage of a whole country? Would the responsibility to protect necessarily imply regime change, in order to protect civilians? Neither the Constitutive Act nor the protocol creating the PSC is explicit about the political implications of this provision. These considerations need to be addressed ahead of the Assembly of Heads of State if the AUC chairperson invokes Article 4(h).

The AU could have convened an extraordinary summit to authorise the deployment
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Another obstacle is the institutional capacity of the AU to deploy MAPROBU over the short term. As of yet, the deployment of 100 military experts and human rights observers – decided in June 2015 – is yet to be achieved. The absence of an agreement about the memorandum of understanding between the government and the AU and the lack of funding have prevented further deployment of the observers.

There is also uncertainty around force generation for MAPROBU. If the East African Standby Force (EASF) has troops available for such a mission, many relevant countries are unlikely to contribute for political reasons (Rwanda); because their military capacities are overstretched (Uganda?); or because they are not supportive (Tanzania). That means the planning operation will likely have to involve troops from other regions.

A critical factor for potential troop contributors is the lack of funding. The AU’s reliance on external support is endangered by the budgetary crisis affecting several donor countries, especially European Union member states that are dealing with various domestic crises.

Has the AU played its last card in Burundi?

A critical factor for troop contributors is the lack of funding
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The creation of MAPROBU is an illustration of the PSC’s proactive approach to a crisis, focused on protecting civilians and preventing a deterioration of the situation.

In a way, MAPROBU is the joker in the hand of the PSC and AU. The organisation has deployed most of its instruments in this crisis, but with mixed results.

The AUC chairperson has sent a special envoy; a regional mechanism will support the intervention; and political actors face targeted sanctions. Over the past year, the issue has been less the nature of the political instruments than the momentum of their use and the ability of the AU to demonstrate consistent boldness and resolution.

Responsibility to protect is a complex task. Its implementation requires close coordination between the political process and the military operation. Consequently, the AU should be more directly involved in the inter-Burundian dialogue to ensure that it tackles the issue at the heart of the crisis, namely the legitimacy of the current government. MAPROBU can only be effective if the talks between the warring parties are inclusive and cohere with the shared commitment to save the Arusha Agreement.

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