The U.N. envoy for Burundi urged the Security Council on Thursday to appeal to all protagonists to take part in a new dialogue aimed at helping end the country’s political crisis.
Michel Kafando told the council Thursday that President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement in June that he will not run for another term and will support the winner of presidential elections in 2020 “offer us an opportunity to make progress in reaching a final settlement of the Burundian question.”
Nkurunziza’s announcement followed a successful referendum on a new constitution that would allow him to stay in power until 2034.
Burundi had been plagued by political violence since April 2015, when Nkurunziza announced he would seek a disputed third term. Nkurunziza won re-election despite widespread protests and the country remained volatile.
A U.N. commission of inquiry said last September that crimes against humanity were being committed in Burundi including killings, torture, sexual violence, enforced disappearances and arbitrary arrests.
Burundi has been bedeviled by the same ethnic conflicts that saw Hutus and Tutsis turn on one another during the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.
War in Burundi — which is overwhelmingly Hutu — started in 1993 when Tutsi paratroopers assassinated the country’s first democratically elected president, a Hutu. Fighting mainly between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-dominated army resulted in the deaths of more than 250,000 people. A cease-fire was declared in 2006, but it took several more years to end the fighting.
Since the recent referendum on the constitution and the president’s announcement, Kafando said “the situation remains calm” with the exception of some protests from the opposition.
“We think that together the government and the Burundi political class should take the opportunity of these new developments to work together to create a new political environment, an environment that would allow for the consolidation of national unity and for peace,” he said.
Kafando said Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, the mediator and facilitator of Burundi negotiations, have committed to restarting a dialogue between the government and opposition “as quickly as possible.”
He said Museveni, Mkapa and the African Union are trying to organize talks “very soon” either in Entebbe, Uganda or Arusha, Tanzania and he urged the Security Council to appeal to the protagonists “to take part sincerely in good faith in the forthcoming dialogues.”
U.S. deputy ambassador Jonathan welcomed regional efforts to convene the next round of the East African Community-led inter-Burundian dialogue in September.
The United States, Britain and France also welcomed Nkurunziza’s announcement but expressed serious concern about the human rights situation in the country.
They echoed Kafando in urging Burundi’s government to complete negotiations on a memorandum with the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights to allow it to operate in the country.
Cohen said Nkurunziza’s act of stepping down “would be a strong step forward for Burundian democracy and would set a positive example for other leaders in the region.”
While welcoming this step, he said, the United States remains “deeply concerned about continuing human rights violations and abuses, including excessive restrictions on civic and political space in Burundi, media restrictions, arbitrary arrests, and unduly harsh sentences for human rights defenders.”
The United States looks to Burundi’s government to take steps to end violence and reopen “political space” for opposition members, independent media and civil society — and ensure that opposition political figures “are fully able to participate in future elections.”
Burundi’s U.N. ambassador, Albert Shingiro, appealed to the council “to have the courage to remove Burundi from its agenda.”
“It’s clear the political situation currently is calm and stable and fully under control. It’s far from a threat to international peace and security which is a purview of the council,” he said.
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