With great power comes a great Responsibility to Protect (sometimes)

If I asked you what Burundi was significant for, you might make a guess that it was either Steve Irwin’s long-lost daughter or a really awful brand of rum that you tried that one time in Europe. Students of African politics will be shaking their heads in shame, eager to tell you once again that this is yet ANOTHER country you haven’t heard of, or if you have, don’t know the last thing about. I know what you’re thinking, oh God, not more violent conflicts that I haven’t heard of and don’t understand. But, this one’s different! Well, not different in a ‘less-violent’ kind of way (it’s definitely violent), but different in the significance that the situation in Burundi has for our understanding of international law.

So, what on earth is going on?

First thing’s first, where even is Burundi?!

Burundi is located directly south of Rwanda. Again, if you know nothing about Rwanda other than watching ‘Hotel Rwanda’, you’ve at least got some of the key information to begin understanding the complex issues in Burundi. Rwanda has a Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority, with large ethnic violence occurring sporadically since independence and in increased frequency in the years leading up to the genocide. Burundi also has a Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, and surprise surprise, also went through many of these same conflicts. Recent violence has stoked the ever-burning fire of conflict in Burundi, with President Pierre Nkurunziza deciding to ignore constitutional limits on his presidency and run for a third term! Much like when your mate won’t let you on the PS4 for a game of Fifa cause “they’re on a roll”, dictators are just really bad at letting go of their power (*cough* Mugabe *cough*). People were angry, chaos ensued and things have not been looking too great.

More on this later.

OK, by now you’re probably saying, dude, we get it, bad things happen in places we don’t know about, but what the hell does this have to do with international law?

Well, dear reader, let me tell you all about the Responsibility to Protect doctrine (R2P). R2P is based on the premise that sovereignty is only a thing you’re entitled to as long as you’re not killing everyone in your country. If you’re doing things that could generally be defined as crimes against humanity and abuses of human rights, theoretically the international community has the responsibility to step in as a last resort, the key word being theoretically. The Rwandan Genocide is generally regarded as the tragedy that R2P was borne out of. Yet, with Burundi moving dangerously close to becoming ‘another Rwanda’, what is the role of international law in defusing the situation?

To begin with, the R2P doctrine is often criticised as being a Western concept. However, the notion was originally developed by the African Union. In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty released a report on the responsibility to protect, outlining the circumstances in which military intervention is justified, namely:

  1. Just cause
  2. Right intention
  3. Last resort
  4. Proportional means
  5. Reasonable prospects
  6. Right authority

One of the issues that plagues R2P is its role in international law. The controversial nature of the doctrine makes it difficult to place in the category of customary international law, or even that of international norms. Moreover, it acts more as a reaffirmation of already existing norms, such as the use of force as outlined in Article 53 of the UN Charter.

So when it comes to the use of force, if these criteria are met, military intervention for humanitarian reasons is deemed justifiable. But as always, the application of R2P is a bit more complicated than that.

Firstly, R2P does little to change the existing legal framework of international law, leaving it open to influence by political motives. Any authorisation of force is subject to the veto power of the Security Council, meaning that there has been a highly selective application of R2P to its discredit. And we all know that the permanent members of the Security Council aren’t exactly BFFs. While action was taken in Libya in 2011, R2P was not applied in Darfur, or even currently in Syria. R2P’s reliance on the existing international legal framework means that it ultimately cannot guarantee action, even in the most dire of situations.

Second, the requirement of reasonable prospects of success already raises questions about the ability for nations to utilise the R2P doctrine to begin with. Burundi has already rejected calls from the African Union for an intervention on humanitarian grounds, stating such a force would be treated as an “invasion and occupation”. The requirement of having reasonable prospects of success that don’t inflame the conflict makes it difficult to deal with nations who don’t like being invaded, i.e. most of them.

Finally, the implementation of R2P in Libya has left a sour taste in the mouth of both its sceptics and supporters. Many states have voiced concern that Security Council authorisation of R2P interventions will be and has been used for ulterior motives. In Libya for example, NATO has been criticised strongly for having focused heavily on regime change, rather than their R2P mandate. Simultaneously, R2P is viewed as having no practical utility as demonstrated by the failure to act in Syria and Darfur. Paradoxically, R2P goes both too far and not far enough.

So, back to Burundi.

While the discussion of the legitimacy of R2P seems almost an abstract debate, it is far from it for the people on the ground. The United Nations has warned that “a complete breakdown of law and order is just around the corner” in Burundi, with evidence of mass graves, heightened media repression and frequent eruptions of violence in the capital Bujumbura. Furthermore, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has stated, “All the alarm signals – including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis – are flashing red”.

Really fun times as you can see.

For obvious reasons, something needs to be done about the situation in Burundi. Whether or not that happens will raise serious questions about the efficacy of R2P as a doctrine. To end on a more serious note, the legitimacy of R2P has tragic consequences that need to be considered. The world remembers Rwanda and Darfur as catastrophic examples of not acting when they really should have, leaving hundreds of thousands dead.

How about we don’t add Burundi to that list?

Cormac Power is a second-year Political Science & International Relations and Economics student who probably drinks enough tea for it to be classified as an addiction. 

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