No30 May 1998.4
Does it make sense to speak of human rights in poor countries, especially in those subject to incessant fratricidal strife? The question needs to be asked as soldiers and rebels fight it out and take each other hostage. An African proverb says, "When elephants fight, it is the grass that gets trampled on."
In Burundi the number of victims continues to grow by the thousand. Since independence in 1962, and especially in the seventies and eighties, there have been hundreds of thousands of deaths. More recently, in the summer of 1997 fighting between rival Hutu groups in the north-west of the country caused some 600 deaths. There was fighting around Bujumbura airport on 1 January 1998, and rebel attacks provoked a violent reaction from the Burundian army which did not hesitate to use heavy weapons. Apart from the deaths among the soldiers and rebels, more than three hundred unarmed civilians, most of them children and elderly people unable to flee, died during the attacks and the reprisals. On 6 January 1998 the Health Centre at Muramvya was sacked and about eighty-seven civilians were injured.
It might be argued that mutual hatred between armed belligerents is bound to lead to fighting. We might even be tempted to say that these modern gladiators, all equally armed, have only themselves to blame for the hurts they inflict on each other. But the fact is that it is the weak ones who are the principal victims of all the violence. It is much less dangerous, and much easier, to aim at people who have no way of defending themselves. The special United Nations investigator, the Brazilian Paolo Pinheiro, recently declared that most of the victims in Burundi are unarmed civilians, especially women, children and the elderly, who cannot run fast enough to escape from the rebels and the soldiers. They are being shot and bayonetted, hacked and bludgeoned to death.
When human beings are reduced to the level of beasts, it makes no sense to speak of human rights. The only law is that of the strongest, the law of the jungle. And those responsible for these massacres are the so-called "educated people". We speak of development, but the only real area of development is in military tactics. People are certainly learning, but what they are learning are the best ways of eliminating their enemies. If complaints are made about innocent victims, the reply comes pat: you cannot make omelettes without breaking eggs. As for humanitarian considerations, these are for elderly, overfed Westerners. The Kalashnikov-toting, Rambo-type youths in battle-dress swaggering about African capitals and hurling insults at often listless spectators are acting out a real tragi-comedy. If the spectators applaud, it is out of fear rather than approval.
And what about ourselves? Are we too not in danger of becoming passive spectators, weary of watching these endless battles? Do we feel anyway that there is nothing we can do? What in truth can we do?
There is in the first place the international community. It imposes sanctions, initially with the aim of bringing to order those who refuse to respect human rights. The embargo placed on Burundi by the OAU after the coup d'état which brought Major Pierre Buyoya to power in 1996 was renewed at the summit meeting of nine states in Kampala, Uganda, on 21 February 1998. The communiqué declared that the economic sanctions had been renewed because Burundi "had not made significant progress towards holding peace talks in the country". Amnesty International has published alarming reports on arbitrary arrests, mock trials, torture, disappearances and summary executions. Where attempts have been made to conduct independent enquiries, the authorities have shown no interest in establishing the truth.
The sanctions were inspired by good intentions, but they have only succeeded in producing great misery for the population. The international community wished to make a statement: If you do not instal a genuine democracy, we will cut off your supplies. But the people who are crushed by the sanctions are precisely those whom they were meant to protect. As usual, it is the poor who suffer. The refugee camps, divided between tribes, lack essential supplies, and the little that does arrive is often inequitably distributed.
Last year the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, FAO, estimated that food production in Burundi had fallen by 20%. If more food is not brought into the country, there will be widespread starvation. The economic sanctions only make the situation worse. According to the estimates of the World Food Organization, the reserves of cereals, oil, salt, milk and sugar are only sufficient for two or three months. Meanwhile Caritas deplores the deaths of twenty people a day in the Murago Refugee Camp, in the province of Bururi, from disease and under-nourishment.
The rulers themselves have long ago secured their future in Swiss bank accounts and experience none of the hardships endured by the poor. These are not only the principal but often the only victims of sanctions. As Mr Pinheiro declared, "Sanctions must not have as their aim the punishment of a whole people. I issue an urgent appeal to the members of the Commission and to the wider international community to bring to an end at once this diplomatic isolation."
What can we do?
After the United Nations Security Council and other bodies have voted for the imposition of sanctions, there must be regular evaluations to assess their effects.
As regards governments and NGO's, support should be sought from international human rights organizations like Amnesty International, the Association of Christians for the Abolition of Torture, Development and Peace, the Centre for Justice and Peace, the Council of Churches for Criminology, Human Rights Watch, etc.
As for the Church, it claims to have made a preferential option for the poor, and it must have the courage to speak out in favour of the voiceless. In some 2,500 dioceses there are active Commissions for Justice and Peace. The Holy Father himself could issue pleas through the Vatican Press Office. This Office in fact did recently issue a statement to the effect that "the Holy See will continue to take an interest in the lifting of sanctions."
Such moral pressure is essential if there is to be any effective action. There are also the Bishops of the country, who have several times asked for the embargo to be lifted on the grounds that it is harming the most vulnerable sections of the community. This demand was accompanied by an appeal to the political leaders of Burundi and outside countries to search for ways of restoring peace and agreement through a sincere and constructive dialogue.
We can all play our part by taking an interest in what is happening in Burundi, and indeed elsewhere in the world. It is essential that we should feel ourselves responsible, for if we do not carry people in our hearts we shall soon find that we are carrying them on our backs. Love of neighbour knows no frontiers and has nothing to do with distance. We must all give our support to organisms which are fighting for justice and fairness. We can do this by financial contributions, by signing letters of protest, by taking part in demonstration marches. More precisely we can subscribe to:
- Energetic condemnations of the latest acts of violence, reminding all the parties concerned of their human rights obligations.
- Campaigns to punish irresponsible rulers by freezing their personal and corporate assets and those of their associates, and by restricting their freedom of movement outside their country.
- Efforts to renew the mandate of special envoys like Paulo Pinheiro for Burundi.
- Campaigns aimed at putting a stop to the judicial harassment of the opposition.
- Concrete and relevant steps to bring about immediately a cease-fire between the conflicting parties, leading to a real dialogue for establishing a just political organization.
- Invitations to all the international actors involved, particularly those with special historical ties in the Region, to ensure the conclusion of current mediation efforts. There might also be a campaign to hold a meeting in Arusha, Tanzania.
- Efforts to insist that all the countries concerned put an end to the arms trade with the countries of the Third World, especially Burundi and the other countries of the Great Lakes Region. At present arms are on open sale in Bujumbura market. You can buy a grenade for fifty cents.
We invite all to bring their brick to the peace building. Best wishes and thanks to all who are concerned about justice and peace in the world. Have courage, truth and goodness will prevail!
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.