The European Union will host Tuesday (8 December) a high-level, last-ditch meeting of Burundian leaders, the UN, the African Union and others, in a attempt to halt the slide into violence which many fear may descend into civil war.
The land-locked East African state has been plunged into civil strife which has seen some 240 people killed, and 250,000 flee their homes for neighbouring countries, since incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza controversially won a third term in power.
A 20-strong delegation from Burundi will face a team of EU officials in Brussels, having been accused of breaking a string of agreements on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
The meeting comes after the EU last month already evacuated families and non-key staff from the country, which saw 300,000 killed in a 12-year civil war which only ended in 2005.
That civil war pitted rebels of the Hutu majority against the Tutsi-led army. The same ethnic divide fuelled the genocide next door in Rwanda, in which 800,000 mostly Tutsis and Hutus were butchered.
President Nkurunziza declared that a court ruling allowed his bid for a third term, and went on to win a disputed election in July.
Tuesday’s meeting will see teams invited from the United Nations, the African Union, the East African Community, the ACP (African, Caribbean and Pacific) states and be overseen by the Dutch foreign minister.
Asked if there were fears that the country could fall into civil war, a senior EU diplomat told EurActiv “that [fear] is something that is there, and has continued to be there for some time.”
The EU has already spent some €2 billion on development in Burundi since 2000.
If Tuesday’s meeting fails to come to a common conclusion, at stake are another €432 million due to be spent between now and 2020, plus possibly sanctions. Some grants are already on hold in the wake of the violence.
That sum is largely due to be spent on health, nutrition and rural development, according to another EU official.
Technically, Burundi stands accused in being in breach of Article 8 of the Cotonou Agreement, which governs aid and development spending in return for compliance with the International Criminal Court.
The EU official said, “Tomorrow is not a ‘political’ meeting – we are asking how to remedy media and press freedoms, space and security for human rights defenders, raising judicial cases in very particular cases of torture and extra-judicial executions, the freeing of those arrested, and the disarmament of all armed groups.”
Burundi’s crisis has till now largely followed political lines, with a mix of ethnic groups in both camps. But experts say inflammatory language by some officials risks reviving ethnic rifts. The government denies using ethnically divisive language
Last month EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini called on Burundi’s government and opposition to meet outside the strife-torn country in a bid to stop the succession of killings and massive displacement.
Speaking at the Valletta migration summit in Malta, Mogherini joined forces with United Nations and African Union to appeal for the peace talks, fearing what she called a “deep regional crisis”.
According to Amnesty International, there are daily reports of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests and torture.
Unrest erupted in Burundi end of April against a bid by president Pierre Nkurunziza to cling to power for a third term.
The president, a former rebel leader and born-again Christian, has been in power since 2005. Opposition figures and rights groups say his attempt to stay put goes against the constitution, as well as the peace deal that ended a civil war in 2006.
The violence has plunged the nation into its worst crisis since the end of the civil war that pitted rebels from the majority Hutu ethnic group against minority Tutsis, who once led the army. The military is now a mixed force.
The police crackdown on protests has provoked Western rebukes of a nation which relies on aid to meet half its budget. The European Union and Belgium individually halted aid earmarked for supporting elections, saying that the conditions were not right for a fair vote.
European states are the biggest contributors to the budget, while the United States provides support to the army.