I am not generous with my use of the term “genocide” in public discourse. There are plenty of reasons for this. A large number of nations today will always find dark pages in the history of other nations – principally neighbouring ones – that they are willing to qualify as genocides.
A great many historians, civil society representatives and human rights activists can also abuse the term. Further, a past genocide can be the excuse par excellence to legitimise present crimes by previous victims. Victimisation has always given a platform to future violence against those who might be conceived as an ideal enemy.
People would go as far as committing the most atrocious of crimes in their conviction that, in so doing, they are defending themselves against an equally (or even more) atrocious crime that their victims will commit in the future, should they not be stopped. Accordingly, genocides acquire a “preventive” character: “We exterminate you before you exterminate us.”
The term “genocide” arose after World War II and has colonised the past ever since, contributing in part to the grave complexities and confusion of today. Many “massacres” of the 1920s became “genocides” after the fact in the 1970s. The national descendants of such events are not too willing to compromise with the idea that their nation-building narrative was founded, among others, on extreme violence.
Yet, by saying so, it is indeed clear that genocides have been committed in the past and genocides will be committed in the future, unless we prevent them. Being suspicious of the abuse of the term “genocide” does not mean genocide denial. It means critical reflection vis-à-vis the different discursive expediencies of different states. That is why striking the balance between a discourse based on genocidal omnipresence and denial of genocide is so difficult.
What happens then, if you conduct an inquiry in a country and encounter what you consider to be a risk of genocide? An escalation of political tension, massive human rights violations, criminal mobilisation of state authorities, killings by para-state militias and the ethnicisation of political division. What happens when the internal enemy is no longer a single political dissident but a whole ethnicity, which is threatened as such?
What happens if state authorities ask civil servants to reveal their ethnic origin? What happens in a country closing in on itself, in an already devastated economy, where diseases such as malaria ravage through half the population? A nation that, when it looks back on its history, sees an ultra-violent civil war responsible for the death of 300 000 people out of a total number of 10-million. This is Burundi.
There are two alternatives here. The first is to assure yourself simply that “that’s life” and then sleep in peace. You might keep an eye on the problem but it will not trouble you too much. Our world is full of conflict, after all. Why Burundi? This is the “wait and see” strategy. When the worst scenario starts to unfold, you mobilise, but it is too late. Evil has already settled in.
The other option is to raise awareness to prevent the worst case scenario: a genocide. This is what the International Federation for Human Rights did, issuing its latest report on Burundi under the title From Repression to Genocidal Dynamics and launching a social media campaign called “Stop this movie”.
When we were about to launch this campaign and present our report, my main concern as president of the federation, was to arm ourselves for possible allegations from our interlocutors in the United Nations Security Council and other UN agencies that we are launching a false alarm. Yet, surprisingly for me, this has not been their reaction. Nobody has told us, “you are wrong” or “you are going too far”. The message was: “We know things are going from bad to worse, we know that the worst-case scenario is possible, yet the political division within the Security Council or the immobility within the African Union does not allow us to take action.”
We challenge this fatalist message. In Burundi, the highest spheres of power are ready to employ all possible means to implement their political plan to dismantle the progress made by the Arusha Accords, including by instrumentalising ethnic antagonism and instigating fear, mistrust and resentment among the population.
Is the population ready to yield to this manipulation? This remains uncertain. What is certain, however, is that the state apparatus is relentlessly pursuing this goal. As days go by, the country is closing in on itself, and its leader(s) are just trying to gain time in their relations with the outside world. We must admit that they have proven highly skilled in doing so.
In Burundi, it is no longer African politics as usual. The size and apparent insignificance of the country in international affairs have so far made it extremely easy for the president to implement repressive policies.
On the other hand, due to its very modest size and significance, Burundi is not a country that the traditional anti-interventionist countries of the UN Security Council would willingly risk a veto of a resolution by putting serious pressure on its authorities.
In the end, the sooner we act, the less we act. The other scenario – acting after the damage is done – is always more painful, particularly for those who defend state sovereignty. Believe it or not, I am among them. Yet defence of state sovereignty is not unconditional.
Dimitris Christopoulos is president of the International Federation for Human Rights