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The UN Peacekeeping Mission for Burundi Is Doomed to Fail

Alarm bells should be going off right now at the UN as the crisis in Burundi enters its second year. But they’ve been ringing for so long that the well-groomed diplomats of 42nd Street must no longer hear them. The BBC has the latest:

The UN Security Council has authorised the deployment of a UN police force to Burundi to try to quell violence and human rights abuses in the country.

The council backed a French-drafted resolution to send up to 228 police for an initial period of a year.

Burundi earlier said it would accept no more than 50 police officers. […]

“Given an increase in violence and tension the Security Council must have eyes and ears on the ground to predict and ensure that the worst does not occur in Burundi,” said French UN Ambassador Francois Delattre.

“This is a strong act of preventative diplomacy,” he added.

Keep in mind that at 228 personnel, this force is roughly 10% the strength of the peacekeeping mission that couldn’t stop the genocide in Rwanda 22 years ago. The proposed peacekeeping mission for Burundi relies on even smaller numbers, and they’re police officers, not soldiers.

Admittedly, President Nkurunziza doesn’t want peacekeepers in his country—as he made clear to the AU back in December. And his supporters demonstrated in the capital yesterday to show that they don’t want them either. But what’s the point in proposing a peacekeeping mission if it’s too big to please a dictator and too small to protect his people?

“Doubtless, doubtless,” mutters the impotent captain Benito Cereno in Melville’s novella of the same name. Melville’s character was responding to leading questions from a well-meaning observer who wanted the captain to better discipline his unruly crew. In the UN’s response to the crisis in Burundi, one can’t help but hear echoes of Benito Cereno.

Doesn’t the conflict in Burundi have a worrying ethnic dimension?

Doubtless, doubtless.

Wouldn’t the peace talks fail without the opposition represented at the negotiating table?

Doubtless, doubtless.

And now, isn’t this pittance of a peacekeeping mission doomed to fail?

Doubtless, doubtless.

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  • Greg Olsen

    The failings of the UN in Burundi recall a classic paper by Edward Luttwak in Foreign Affairs called “Give War a Chance.” The idea is that humanitarian intervention in wars prolong them by forestalling the culmination of violence that will result in a lasting peace (even if it is a peace of the dead) by either exhausting both sides of the conflict or resulting in a decisive victory. The conflict in Burundi is a typical “new war” as defined my Mary Kaldor. It is a war of identity (ethnic and religious) with its own strategic logic (elimination of the other).

    Outside of the settler colonies (e.g., Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, South Africa), the Westphalian state system has never suited Subsaharan Africa, where historically migration has been the normal response to severe weather, climate changes, political instability, environmental degradation, etc. Rigid borders and states (as opposed to fluid empires) create contests for capture of the state. Ethnic conflicts are endemic because ethnic solidarity is the basis of that competition.

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