Preventive diplomacy in Burundi: a conversation with Normand Beaudet

Normand Beaudet is coordinator of activities at the Centre de Ressources sur la Non-Violence in Montreal

By Metta Spencer (interviewer)

Metta Spencer: I hear you've been to Burundi.

Normand Beaudet: Yes, our centre was contacted by the Geneva office of the United Nations regarding the Boutros-Ghali peace agenda, to help, I assume, with the first preventive diplomacy after the publication of An Agenda for Peace. The Burundi situation was perceived as a test case for that. The request came originally from the Secretary-General's office. Our mission was to assist his representatives.

Here's the picture. In June of 1993 the Hutu majority of Burundi had been able to elect a Hutu president, after a long-term Tutsi regime. This new president, Melchior Ndadaye, was able to form an interesting, representative government that looked well accepted. However, he had not had time to transform the governmental and military structure, which remained largely Tutsi. In October, before he could make those changes, a coup d'etat attempt by a small faction of the Tutsi-dominated army killed him and all the other leaders who were constitutionally in line after him. Three other people were killed besides President Ndadaye. The whole legal system (the courts and so on) was composed largely of Tutsis, but one of the main issues that led to the coup was the policy of the new president that the army should be multi-ethnic. What followed was an outburst of violence leading to the massacre of between 50,000 and 100,000 people in Burundi in November, December, and January.

The only constitutional solution was to have another election. However, the coup plotters did not succeed in taking power because, with all the unrest, it was almost impossible to carry out such a new election. The Hutu, who kept power in some way, asked the Organization of Africa Unity to come in. I was asked to go into Burundi in the second week of January to assist the U.N. in organizing and defining the main theme for a major National Unity Conference in Bujumbura. By the time I got there, a new president had been named, even if they could not do it constitutionally. This new president was not accepted by opposition parties, who are mostly Tutsi. The final goal of the process that the U.N. tried to establish was the stabilization of the political situation around the democratically elected Hutu government.

Spencer: That's not preventive diplomacy! That's going into the middle of it-a little late!

Beaudet: Yes, it was well under way but it was still an internal conflict. The Secretary-General defines preventive diplomacy as acts of diplomacy done before a conflict becomes international.

Spencer: I see. They expected Rwanda to get into it?

Beaudet: There was a serious danger because a lot of Hutu leaders had been killed and the Rwanda government was also Hutu. In the past there have been talks about the impact of the Rwanda policy on Burundi. When you are in Burundi and also in Rwanda, they are talking to you about the "hills." It seems that both of those countries are subdivided into hills, each with a kind of communal leadership. The politicians have to negotiate with them. Most of the politicians felt trapped and no one was willing to do anything while massacres were going on throughout the country. The feeling was that without some kind of minimal protection provided by the Organization of African Unity, there wouldn't be any possibility of gaining control over the situation. And the U.N. sent people to delay the use of force in that country as some kind of a test.

Spencer: So, in addition to troops, they sent you?

Beaudet: No, the U.N. sent no troops. The preventive diplomacy was to delay or avoid the use of the troops. There was already a representative of the General Secretary working in the country with a staff of three people. The whole idea was to bring together almost all the representatives of the different parties and begin mediating and negotiating a settlement. One of the key events was a conference, an international seminar on government and democracy. They wanted to get everyone-not just the political leadership, but the other important social organizations as well-into the same seminar. The people with whom I was working were quite good. The conference that took place in January was representative of the diversity of the country and, I would say, a success. Unfortunately, they had just had time to start when the events of April happened in Rwanda, which was a dictatorship. The presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi were Hutu and they were both killed when their plane was shot down.

Spencer: The newspapers say it crashed, implying between the lines that it was probably shot down. But do they know that it was shot?

Beaudet: I'm convinced that they know that it was shot. Who shot it, we don't know. The President of Rwanda was in the process of negotiating a peace settlement. A lot of people-even the Hutu-were unhappy with that settlement.

Spencer: And the Tutsi were even more unhappy.

Beaudet: Yes. The most radical Tutsi were very unhappy, so, it's hard to say who killed him. The fact that both presidents were in the same plane is curious in terms of security. Why have two Hutu presidents landing on a small airport, in a small plane-two Hutu presidents in a city surrounded by Tutsi guerilla troops? It was dumb. In the report we submitted to the U.N. by the first week of February, it was obvious to us that the first thing to be concerned about was the security of the President of Burundi. Everything should have been done to ensure his security so another coup killing doesn't pull the country back into the massacres they had in the past. That was one of the first basic measures that should have been implemented.

Spencer: How long were you there?

Beaudet: Two weeks.

Spencer: And you left before this plane was shot down?

Beaudet: Yes. Our main role was to help out in the good flow of the seminar and to introduce some ideas about nonviolence in dealing with those situations.

Spencer: What kind of things did you suggest?

Beaudet: What I perceived as necessary was to develop communications between Burundi and the outside. It was unbelievable that you could have 60,000 to 100,000 people killed in three months without anybody in the world paying attention to it. Any nonviolent measures would need to be supported by efficient communication with the outside world. So this was one of our first recommendations.

Spencer: What was wrong? Was there no press coverage or didn't they have the technology?

Beaudet: It takes three days to get in touch with Geneva by fax, even from the capital. The phone system is really basic. To international representatives in the country, that was the first necessity, even in terms of personal safety. But the budget of that mission was just ridiculous for preventive action. It was something around $150,000 to $200,000 for a year. Our second recommendation was to ensure a minimal level of safety to the leaders of the country. That could have been done by nonviolent escorts.

Spencer: Even on that plane?

Beaudet: No, but simple logic would have ruled out sending those two presidents on the same plane at the Kigali airport. That was a recipe for disaster.

Spencer: So you would have provided nonviolent escorts for all the top political leaders?

Beaudet: Yes. That could have led people to start talking in the open. There is a tradition in Burundi of not killing foreigners.

Spencer: They seem to have wiped out quite a few in Rwanda.

Beaudet: Yes, but mainly they have attacked Belgian troops and foreigners who were associated with the former colonial powers. The feeling I was given by Belgians in Burundi was that they felt immune from the conflict between the two African groups. While I was there it was within the range of possibility to provide a minimal escort.

Spencer: What were they fighting about? Was it just power or were there real sore issues?

Beaudet: Both. Power in Burundi doesn't mean much. You have to negotiate with a lot of local leaders within the community and there are possibilities of controlling a budget, but it's very limited. There are major problems. This region is one of the most densely populated areas in Africa. The peasants live in a state of marginality.

Spencer: Hunger?

Beaudet: Not necessarily hunger. Environmentally, the country has a good natural base on which to survive. Density of the population is an important factor, but also distribution of agricultural land is probably as important. Any change in the supply of resources or local markets for their products is perceived as a life and death threat.

Spencer: Tad Homer-Dixon had an article in the Globe recently, continuing a long debate. He's the guy who argues that much of the coming conflict in the world will be over resources as a result of over-population in areas where they've hit the limit of the resource base. He cites Rwanda and Burundi as examples of that kind of conflict.

Beaudet: In Burundi the coffee industry is well established and utilizes a lot of land, so resources are behind but structures of power are also behind. You can't distinguish which factor is responsible for the situation.

Spencer: It seems to me that tribalism-enmity between two ethnic populations-is one of the most discouraging things because it seems intractable.

Beaudet: No, I don't think so. There is no magic recipe but you have ground to work on if you enable the leadership to speak out, negotiate, without having to fear being killed within minutes. Coups d'etat have been one of the major problems in Burundi. There have been about ten or twelve coups since the 1950s. But some measures can make it difficult to achieve the goal of a coup d'etat, which is normalization and rapid acceptance of the new imposed leadership. The best approach seems to be nonviolent resistance by the population. Specify clear steps that the people can use efficiently to delay the stabilizing of the situation. If only a few people are able to make the coup, then the risk of being caught is a lot lower than if they have to talk to many different people at many different points within the society to make sure that the coup d'etat succeeds.

Also, a violent reaction by the population after a coup seems to be linked to frustration over the inability to do anything efficient against the unwanted change that just happened. So if you give people very clear, precise guidelines on how to behave after such a coup, you could have them behave in an efficient way instead of taking up their machetes and killing their neighbors in a state of frustration. So it seems to me that preventing coups d'etat could reduce the sense of hopelessness that leads to large scale massacres and some coup plotters could also be deterred from proceeding with their plans if they knew the people were organized to keep the coup from happening.

Spencer: Were your ideas received well by the people you were trying to influence?

Beaudet: All I know is that, after I left, the conference participants gave feedback and suggested the content of other such meetings. I was asked to suggest somebody else who knows how to control political unrest with nonviolent means. So Mitchell Goldberg, of our centre, is going to attend the next conference, to be held in Nairobi, Kenya at the beginning of June.

Spencer: How has the situation been affected by the massacres in Rwanda?

Beaudet: Hard to say. There is almost no news coming out of Burundi. The Hutu army in Rwanda has entered Burundi and the Tutsi Burundi army has tried to intervene in those situations. I have no evidence yet that it became open armed conflict between the two countries, but I am still in contact with two students in Burundi, a Tutsi and Hutu, who listen to short-wave radio and collect information.

Spencer: There are lots of Rwandan refugees in Burundi. Is that the main place they go?

Beaudet: No, Zaire is the main place, but following the killing of Ndadaye, at least 200,000 Burundis went out of the country. A lot of them went to Rwanda.

Spencer: So some of the people fleeing Rwanda now may not be Rwandans.

Beaudet: Right. They may be Burundis who have gone back to their country because of the massacres in Rwanda. A lot of the refugee camps on the southern border of Rwanda are composed mainly of Burundis.

Spencer: Is there any reasonable hope that the kind of interventions you were involved in could succeed?

Beaudet: There is hope if the international will is there. However, the international community is not acting under humanitarian guidelines but in terms of political and economic interests. In Burundi the scale of massacres was in the range of 50,000 to 100,000 people dead in three months, which calls for a strict and rapid action by the international community, but --

Spencer: What kind of action would you have taken while the massacres were going on? Assume that instead of $200,000, you had $200 million to work with. What would you do?

Beaudet: Many things. If I had been there in January and had a lot of resources, the first thing I would have done was to begin an education process on how to prevent other coups.

Spencer: But you're not talking about a coup d'etat then. You're talking about bloodshed from door to door.

Beaudet: Yes, but it is led by the feeling that there is nothing else to be done because if you don't kill your neighbor he is going to come and kill you. That is related to a feeling that we have to avenge those people who were killed in previous massacres. I have killed some of his buddies so he is going to come and kill me. For years he has been making me feel guilty for the killings that I have done before, so I have to kill him because he is responsible for my emotional problem.

There needs to be compensation for what has been done, once the killing stops. This is fundamental in convincing people to stop killing each other. People need to know that the relatives of those who are killed will be compensated in some way (you can never compensate fully), but the problem is that in those countries, because of the scale of the massacre, amnesty has been the general policy. You can't put all of those people in jail or judge them, so you don't do anything. You just amnesty everyone and that's it. So one of the key issues in controlling a situation of massacre or a potential massacre, is how quickly and credibly you are organized to implement social and economic compensation and penalties. I would invest that $200 million into developing a credible body for that. A lot of money can be invested immediately in studying the traditional communication measures-gathering people who are trying to prevent further massacres, training them, giving them advice, planning the whole compensation system according to the local tradition.

Spencer: What compensation? Would you have trials?

Beaudet: Not necessarily. There would have to be people trained to listen and collect information. And you need to guarantee that the system will be implemented so people will come out and speak. This approach is just now being thought through. I met some human rights organizations composed mainly of young people who were willing to do anything to bring the situation under control but they were not willing to take weapons because they knew that for many years there had been people trying to fight their way to a political solution in Burundi, without success. Those young people were willing to go listen to people-even people who had been killing others if they are willing to admit it. There could be a large victim-offender process of mediation.

Spencer: Interesting. I never heard that discussed before.

Beaudet: I know. I haven't either. The diplomats were reluctant to accept the means that I was proposing because it involved going into a country and threatening the sovereignty of the government. But the problem is, we don't have a choice any more between intervention and nonintervention. We have to decide what level of intervention is acceptable, knowing that if we wait too long it is going to lead to military intervention.

Spencer: If you were in charge of stopping a massacre, you wouldn't go in with the military?

Beaudet: That would not solve anything. What could you do in Rwanda with military?

Spencer: Oh, you presumably could go kill the people who are doing the killing, and perhaps that would put a stop to it.

Beaudet: There are thousands of young drunk people with machetes doing that. How will that solve the situation?

Spencer: What do you say to people who want to send troops to protect Sarajevo?

Beaudet: I think we have to use the whole European communication system to beam information to de-escalate war propaganda. It is imperative to reduce the political power that the international media systemgives to the people fighting and then we have to beam media attention toward other initiatives. Many people in that area are fighting against the war and they deserve to have the world pay attention and eventually assist them in building up their political power.

Remember, there is no conflict where one initiative will lead to a solution. Conflicts are resolved through a combination of initiatives aiming at neutralizing a cycle of violence. De-escalating a conflict can be done through various actions: taking over communication, supporting initiatives of opposition to war, rendering individuals responsible for illegitimate transfer and use of weapons, organizing victims of the war and other deterring and intimidating initiatives.

It may seem idealistic, but that is the only way to go. Leaders of military institutions pretending that their power will deter warring parties and resolve conflicts are naive. They will need to implement some of these measures.

Spencer: The political leaders would see that as threatening.

Beaudet: Obviously, because it is nonviolent intervention in the affairs of the country.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1994, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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