Issue 8 - Article 9

Burundi (May 1997)

May 1, 1997
Humanitarian Practice Network

Despite the recent ceasefire, aid agencies operating in Burundi face a difficult but increasingly familiar moral dilemma as they seek to strike a balance between responding to acute humanitarian need, manipulation by the authorities, a political vacuum at the international level and upholding human rights.

During the last year, between 250,000 and 500,000 people have been regrouped into camps by the Government of Burundi (GOB) – a policy which, according to the Government, seeks to relocate populations out of conflict areas as a security measure. Since a GOB statement in March, NGOs have come under intense pressure to support populations in these regroupment camps. The statement said that the Government will “coordinate [NGO] activities…and ensure that whole regions are not neglected in favour of others”, adding that “if the work asked of them by the Government does not meet their expectations” then “NGOs are at liberty to withdraw”.

This has brought many of the debates about humanitarianism into sharp focus. On the one hand, in many of the camps a humanitarian crisis is being born: malnutrition and the incidence of disease are on the increase and there is little access to basic social services. On the other hand, the regroupment of populations has taken place amid widespread violence and substantiated human rights abuses. Such evidence suggests that the policy does not fall within the two possible exceptions to article 17 of the Protocol II additional to the Geneva Conventions, (to which Burundi is a party), which prohibits the forced movement of civilians in internal armed conflicts. In light of such an analysis, the international humanitarian community has had little choice but to conclude that this policy is primarily a ‘military strategy’.

Further supporting such a conclusion is the absence of any indication that the regroupement policy is temporary, as claimed by the GOB. There is no evidence to date that any of the regroupement centres have been closed, and one, Karuzi was set up over one year ago, belying Government reassurances that this is a short term security measure. Moreover, GOB assurances that the rebel footholds have been weakened by events in Zaire where they had been receiving support have also been questioned by suggestions that they have now moved their operations to Tanzania.

In addition to the human rights questions this analysis raises for operational agencies, the longer term impact of providing assistance to the camp populations also features in the balance sheet for NGOs deciding whether to comply or not: if they provide short-term assistance and then pull out, what effect will this have on vulnerable populations’ dependence on assistance in the longer term? And if people do not have access to their farms, what impact will this have on their own coping mechanisms – recent WFP reports suggest that the last month’s harvests were considerably below levels hoped for. And what of the difficulties for agencies openly campaigning against such ‘military strategies’ and human rights abuses to be found to be working inside the regroupement centres? These are fundamental policy questions which cannot be addressed solely by those on the ground.

Finally, questions of NGO coordination, security and donor/UN responsibility are again high on the agenda. There is a need for NGOs to adopt a unified approach to the situation to prevent the GOB from playing them off against one another. But equally, whatever NGOs do or seek to do in the situation, even a joint stance will have little effect on the GOB policy unless the respective donors/UN officials/national embassies in discussion with the Government of Burundi are also seen to ‘sing from the same hymn sheet’ and support NGO positions – perhaps going so far as to refuse funding if the GOB is seen to diverge from its stated ‘temporary and voluntary’ regroupement policy. And at what point do agencies decide to withdraw staff facing considerable threats to their security and an uncomfortable choice – risk attacks from the rebels if they comply with the Government’s demands to provide assistance within the camps or refuse, and be forced to leave the country.

Such dilemmas are becoming increasingly familiar for NGOs working in complex emergencies, yet there is no evidence that political solutions are being found any more than they were for Rwanda in 1994 or Zaire in 1996. Agencies are being forced to choose whether they work in the camps, assisting a strategy of military coercion and as virtual accomplices to human rights abuses or abandon the vulnerable, in the hope that other agencies do respond, and leave the country.


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