BUTARE, Rwanda — The three officers had received blue badges and slipped blue covers over their helmets. They were now U.N. peacekeepers, sent from Burundi to help protect victims of a brutal war in the Central African Republic.
One of the officers had run a military jail where beatings and torture occurred, according to civil-society groups and former prisoners. Another had committed human rights violations when anti-government demonstrations erupted in Burundi last year, U.N. officials would eventually learn. The third had served as the spokesman for the Burundian army, publicly defending an institution accused of abuses.
They set out for the Central African Republic in different U.N. deployments over the past year. In each case, U.N. officials soon determined that the allegations against the soldiers and their units were credible enough to send them home.
The three cases point to a deeper problem: Even as the United Nations' peacekeeping responsibilities grow, it has proven incapable of excluding potential human rights violators from its ranks. The United Nations is managing 16 peacekeeping missions around the globe, with over 100,000 uniformed personnel and an annual $8 billion budget, more than 25 percent of it paid by the United States.
As the world body scrambles to fulfill its commitments, it is recruiting some peacekeepers from militaries that have records of abuse or serve repressive governments. Yet the United Nations does not have an effective system to weed out those with violence-stained backgrounds. That puts the institution at risk of deploying peacekeepers who will tarnish its credibility and even harm the people they were meant to protect.
The United Nations has faced a growing crisis over allegations of sexual abuse by its forces. Since 2008, U.N. troops, police and civilian officials have been accused of more than 700 cases of sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as other crimes, according to its records.
In Burundi, the government has used its security forces — including the military — to punish its political opponents, a U.N.-appointed team of human rights experts warned in September, adding that the forces were committing "gross violations" of human rights. The team recommended that the world body "phase out" its use of Burundian peacekeepers.
A senior U.N. spokesman, Farhan Haq, announced in June that it would not accept more Burundian police as peacekeepers in the Central African Republic after the 280-person contingent finished its tour, "given the current allegations of serious and ongoing human rights violations in Burundi."
However, the United Nations continues to employ more than 800 Burundian soldiers in the Central African Republic, where senior officials say the troops are necessary to keep the peace. The United Nations also supports 5,400 Burundian troops through the African Union’s mission in Somalia. Over the years, those missions have provided millions of dollars to the Burundian government for supplying the troops.
The Washington Post traced the cases of the three Burundian officers — Maj. Pierre Niyonzima, Lt. Col. Alfred Mayuyu and Col. Gaspard Baratuza — through interviews with U.N. officials, human rights groups and former Burundian soldiers and dissidents in that country and in exile. Government and military officials in Burundi did not respond to messages about the cases. Ernest Ndabashinze, Burundi’s ambassador to Washington, defended the professionalism of his country’s peacekeepers and said the accusations against the men were part of a “campaign of misinformation” directed by his country’s political opposition.
Human rights groups say the United Nations’ failure to properly vet its forces undermines its mandate.
“The weakest and most vulnerable around the world rely on the U.N. to protect them, but it won’t be able to fulfill their expectations if its members send protectors who are known abusers back home,” said Akshaya Kumar, deputy U.N. director at Human Rights Watch.
Screening at home
In Burundi, as elsewhere, the United Nations relies on the government that is contributing peacekeepers to screen them.
The United Nations “does not have dedicated resources to carry out human rights screening of individual contingent members, nor do we have the means to assess the records of individuals,” the U.N. spokesman Haq said in an email.
That might not be a problem in most countries — and indeed the Burundian military was once considered a relatively disciplined fighting force. But by the time Niyonzima was dispatched as a U.N. peacekeeper in December 2015, the situation in his country had changed.
Eight months earlier, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza's party had nominated him for a third term, prompting angry demonstrations by citizens who deemed the move unconstitutional. A failed military attempt to overthrow the government in May added to the turmoil.
Security forces opened fire on protesters, killing and injuring scores of people, and cracked down on suspected government foes, arresting hundreds, according to Human Rights Watch and other international groups. Most of the abuses were attributed to the police and government intelligence officers, but news reports cited witnesses as saying some soldiers used live ammunition against demonstrators.
After Niyonzima was deployed, the United Nations learned of allegations that he and two other Burundian peacekeepers had committed abuses in their homeland.
The U.N. human rights office "has raised serious concerns about alleged human rights violations committed by the officers during the violent demonstrations which started in Burundi since April 2015," said a memo obtained by The Post dated Feb. 5, 2016, and issued by Lt. Gen. Maqsood Ahmed of the U.N. peacekeeping office in New York. The memo, which ordered the repatriation of Niyonzima and the two other men, was first disclosed by New York-based Inner City Press.
“The U.N. did a background check that revealed allegations of his [Niyonzima’s] direct implication in serious human rights violations” in Burundi, a senior U.N. peacekeeping official in New York said in an email. He spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the case.
The official did not provide details. But two former military officers who broke with the government, and are now refugees in Rwanda, said members of Niyonzima’s unit had fired into a crowd of unarmed protesters in the capital in May 2015.
“And this is the guy they send?” asked one of the men, a 32-year-old former army captain, in an interview in Butare, Rwanda, near the border with Burundi.
The former captain and another ex-officer claimed that, in the same month, they saw Niyonzima among a group of soldiers and police who stormed a hospital in the capital where wounded coup supporters were being treated. Media reports after the attack on the Bumerec hospital showed bullet marks in the walls and blood on the floors. The security forces exchanged gunfire with people inside the hospital before detaining two wounded soldiers and one of their colleagues, according to Human Rights Watch.
Like several other witnesses and government critics who spoke to The Post, the former officers who provided the accounts spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing concerns about their security and the safety of relatives still in Burundi.
Niyonzima did not respond to emails from The Post seeking comment. Ndabashinze, the ambassador, said the allegations against the Burundian military and the soldiers it nominates as peacekeepers “are part of a strategy of manipulating the international community.”
He also said that Burundi vets its prospective peacekeeping troops.
“The results are there,” he said. “When they are deployed, they do their jobs in a professional manner.”
Burundi’s military isn’t the only one that supplies peacekeepers despite a widely criticized human rights record.
Congo sent 850 peacekeepers to the Central African Republic as part of an A.U. mission that in 2014 was absorbed by the United Nations. For years, Congo's military has been accused by human rights groups of raping and killing civilians during a civil war.
The United Nations announced in January that it was ending Congo's role in the mission in the Central African Republic, after finding that incoming troops failed to meet U.N. standards for vetting, training and equipment. U.N. officials said privately that the move was also in response to abuse allegations against the Congolese peacekeepers. At least 21 of them have been accused of raping or exploiting women and children during their assignments in the Central African Republic, according to the United Nations.
In many developing countries, peacekeeping assignments are considered a reward. In Burundi, a lieutenant makes about $500 per year but can earn more than $12,000 as a U.N. peacekeeper, according to interviews with eight former Burundian soldiers.
Current and former soldiers said the Burundian government frequently reserved the coveted peacekeeping nominations for loyalists.
“You have no chance unless you’re seen as protecting the regime,” said one army captain who fled Burundi
after the coup attempt.
Mayuyu was a government loyalist, an officer who had run a military detention center in Bujumbura where military and civilian dissidents were sent after the coup attempt, according to Burundian civil-society groups and eight men, interviewed separately, who spent time in the prison.
In August, a journalist asked at a U.N. news briefing in New York whether Mayuyu was being deployed as a peacekeeper, adding that the soldier had been linked to a unit "that was involved in torture and other abuse" in Burundi. The response was no.
Then, weeks later, Stéphane Dujarric, the U.N. secretary general's spokesman, acknowledged to reporters that Mayuyu had been serving as a U.N. military observer in the Central African Republic since July, but added that he was being "repatriated with immediate effect."
According to U.N. officials, Mayuyu had failed to disclose his role in the military police in his paperwork.
“He had served in one of the units implicated in human rights abuses, but he had omitted that information,” said the U.N. official in New York, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He did not elaborate.
Four of the former prisoners said they had been tortured or beaten in Mayuyu’s jail. One, a 28-year-old former military officer, said that during an interrogation, soldiers tied his arms behind his back and placed a wrench on his testicles. As he was questioned, the soldiers twisted the wrench, he said. Mayuyu wasn’t one of the torturers, he said, but he was responsible for the detention center.
Another prisoner, a 29-year-old former army captain, said interrogators stabbed him in the thigh with a steak knife as he sat in a chair, his hands tied behind his back.
“Over and over,” he said, adding that Mayuyu did not administer the torture and was not present at the time. The two prisoners, who have been convicted of supporting the coup attempt, spoke by phone from a different jail in central Burundi.
It was not possible to independently confirm their accounts.
Reached by phone, Mayuyu said he was sent home “based on rumors” and denied the allegations of torture. He acknowledged that he commanded the military police unit but said there was no prison on his base. He said he didn’t think it was relevant to list his unit on his U.N. forms.
Acts of violence
The United Nations and human rights groups have become increasingly alarmed about the Burundian security forces' role in the violence in their country. In January, Amnesty International said it had found evidence of what appeared to be five mass graves near the Burundian capital, suggesting "a deliberate effort by the authorities to cover up the extent of the killings by their security forces." In a report that month, the United Nations accused Burundian security forces of raping women in neighborhoods sympathetic to the opposition.
Willy Nyamitwe, the Burundian government spokesman, said in September that criticism of the country's human rights record consisted of "gratuitous assertions based on flying rumors and gossip."
Every month, the United Nations pays Burundi $1,300 for each soldier deployed to a peacekeeping mission, and the government keeps about $200, using the rest for the individual’s salary, according to interviews with seven current and former Burundian troops. The United Nations permits such a practice, and a number of other countries do something similar.
But Burundian human rights groups have expressed concern that the funds are benefiting the financially troubled government.
In addition to its 800-member military contingent in the Central African Republic, Burundi has 5,400 troops in Somalia. They are attached to an A.U. mission, which is responsible for vetting the soldiers. The mission, however, is supported financially and logistically by the United Nations, United States and European Union. The E.U. is planning to start paying the Burundian troops in Somalia directly, to avoid funding their government, according to a senior E.U. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity for diplomatic reasons.
“It is inconceivable that the United Nations and African Union want to protect peace in Somalia and other parts of the world by funding the repression in Burundi and rewarding criminals,” said Pacifique Nininahazwe, the president of the Forum for Awareness and Development, a Burundian human rights organization.
The United Nations has struggled to find countries willing to send their troops to violent, remote regions, including some in sub-Saharan Africa.
“It’s so hard to generate troops to go to CAR that we can’t afford to lose the Burundians,” said a second U.N. peacekeeping official in New York.
Haq, the U.N. spokesman, said that removing the Burundian troops, who are based near the Central African Republic’s capital and close to an area controlled by armed groups, would create a “security vacuum” in a “strategically sensitive location.” As for U.N. money benefiting the Burundian government, “we do not have the means by which to control the use by a government of reimbursements made to it,” the spokesman said. But he added that the deployment of the Burundians was “under constant review.”
As more Burundian troops have served in the Central African Republic, more complaints against them have emerged. In July, a soldier was accused of sexually abusing a 12-year-old girl in Kemo prefecture. Another allegedly raped and impregnated a 13-year-old in the capital, Bangui. This month, the United Nations announced that it had identified 25 Burundian peacekeepers in the Central African Republic who were "possible perpetrators" of sexual abuse against women and girls in the past two years in Kemo. It has not released the names of the accused.
“They are sending us guys who shouldn’t be here,” said one senior U.N. official in the country, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.
In theory, if the United Nations has doubts about a country’s vetting procedures, it can conduct its own background checks. But in Burundi, such checks rarely occur, according to U.N. officials, because the U.N. agencies and watchdog organizations that would normally gather such information have been prevented from working.
Perhaps the most jarring illustration of the feeble U.N. vetting system was the case of Baratuza. In mid-December 2015, he set out for the Central African Republic, chosen by his country to serve as the new spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission. Burundian civic activists erupted in outrage, launching a Twitter campaign with the hashtag #SendBaratuzaBack.
A simple Internet search would have shown that Baratuza had defended aggressive Burundian military operations while serving as army spokesman. What especially infuriated the activists was his comment that 79 "enemies" had been killed by government forces on Dec. 11, 2015, after attacks by armed men on several military installations in Bujumbura. Amnesty International reported that the deaths occurred as security forces raided neighborhoods sympathetic to the political opposition, dragging young men from their homes and executing them.
Dujarric, the U.N. spokesman, told a media briefing on Dec. 17, 2015, that Baratuza's deployment had been "suspended." He was repatriated even before arriving in the Central African Republic, during a stopover in Uganda, officials said. He did not respond to messages from The Post.
The United Nations did not comment publicly on what went wrong. But privately, the senior U.N. peacekeeping official in New York called the episode a significant error and “a demonstration of the limitation of our recruitment and screening.”