And indeed, the situation in Burundi is alarming. After several months of instability including violent protests, a coup attempt, and a contentious election, President Pierre Nkurunziza gave the opposition until last Sunday to disarm. If they did not, he warned, they would be “dealt with as enemies of the nation.” This was not an idle threat. Since April, when Nkurunziza announced that he would seek an unconstitutional third term, more than 240 people have been killed. Human rights groups lay the blame for many of these deaths at the door of the security services. Many civilians are fleeing their homes.
It is clear that the crisis is escalating. But it is not clear that there is anything to be gained from comparisons to Rwanda in 1994. Despite the hype, Burundi is not about to descend into genocide. Genocide is violence inflicted “with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” Burundi has experienced large-scale ethnic violence before – most recently during its civil war. But the current crisis is political, with attacks targeting opponents of the Nkurunziza government, not a specific ethnic or religious group. The risk is therefore of worsening violence against the perceived opposition, with the possibility that such attacks might become widespread or systematic enough to qualify as crimes against humanity.
The distinction matters. Why? Most immediately, clarity about who is at risk of being attacked, and why, is crucial for protection efforts. When threatened atrocities are ethnic in nature, creating humanitarian safe-zones or policing disputed areas may reduce risk. But when violence is based on political allegiance, such interventions are not likely to save lives. Similarly, targeted sanctions against leadership may be useful in discouraging top-down violence, but are unlikely to help when the cause has already been taken up at the grassroots level.
Inaccurate understandings of what’s happening on the ground lead to poorly tailored prevention efforts. And the rush to be seen doing something, anything, to prevent genocide will only exacerbate this issue. In fact, we saw this in Rwanda in 1994, when an ill-designed French intervention to establish “safe areas” was welcomed by the international community. It ultimately facilitated the escape of key Hutu extremist members of the government — a longtime French ally — and arguably prolonged the violence.
Further down the line, misclassifying potential violence in Burundi as genocidal has implications for future crises. There is no hierarchy of crimes in international law. Violence that does not meet the technical, legal criteria for “genocide” may actually be more widespread and severe. That’s because what makes violence genocidal is the motive, not the scale or brutality of the crimes. But popular understandings of genocide as the “ultimate crime” generate obvious incentives for victims and their advocates to invoke the “G word” to rally support for intervention, even when the objective criteria for genocide are not met. Indeed, members of the political opposition in Burundi began invoking the risk of genocide as early as February 2014.
Tying any international action to the idea that it is necessary to prevent genocide suggests that the international community only cares about genocide – and that the victims of other, potentially more severe, forms of mass violence can be ignored. In the case of Burundi, warnings of genocide feel plausible to outsiders because of the country’s history of ethnic violence and its close proximity to and shared ethnic identities with Rwanda, even though the current crisis is, so far, fundamentally political in nature. But when potential victims of atrocities cannot cite a history of ethnically, nationally, racially, or religiously-motivated violence, they won’t be able to hit the genocide panic button and draw attention to their plight.
There are currently nearly 200,000 Burundians seeking safety in neighboring countries. The crisis is undoubtedly a matter of international concern. (And in fact the U.N. Security Council passed a unanimous resolution condemning the violence on Thursday.) But it’s not, nor will it ever be, “another Rwanda.” It’s critical that atrocity prevention efforts take seriously the specific context in which violence is unfolding. Crying “genocide” instead of calling it what it is – political violence, with the possibility of escalating into crimes against humanity – does nobody any favors, least of all the victims.