Burundi: A Troubled Country
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CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The Clinton administration was sufficiently worried about the growing ethnic tensions and violence in Burundi that it sent a high-level mission there last week. The delegation was headed by the President’s National Security Adviser Anthony Lake. Mr. Lake’s deputy for African affairs, Susan Rice, was part of the mission, and she joins us now. Thank you. Why did the administration send such a high-level delegation to Burundi?
SUSAN RICE, National Security Council Staff: Well, Charlayne, we’re very very concerned about the situation in Burundi at the moment. Hundreds of people, we estimate, are dying each week. There are assassinations of government officials on almost a daily basis. There are refugee flows into neighboring countries, and we feel we’re on the brink of a potential disaster there. We don’t think it’s too late, but we think it’s definitely on the edge.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Your boss and colleague, Tony Lake, described it as past the brink of chaos. Can you elaborate on that.
SUSAN RICE: Yes. I think what he meant is that the killing is at such a level already that it is already a disaster. We can’t minimize the significance of what’s already happened, but we also realize that it could get a great deal worse. And it’s almost as if we’ve fallen over the cliff and we–the Burundian people can still reach back and grab a branch and pull themselves back over the edge to safety but they have to do it quickly, and they have to do it with the assistance of the international community.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Okay. I want to talk about that in a minute, but as you look at the situation today, if it continues as it is, could we see another genocide, as we saw in neighboring Rwanda, which used to be a part of Burundi?
SUSAN RICE: Well, in fact, Rwanda and Burundi are actually quite different circumstances, but, yes, in a worst case scenario, umm, precipitated by coup or, umm, by the insurgents attacking the capital, we could see a very dangerous situation that spirals into potentially tens of thousands being killed and perhaps hundreds of thousands of refugees.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is the cause?
SUSAN RICE: Well, the cause is–goes back to the history with the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsi, uh, engaged in a conflict for power, essentially a struggle over scarce resources, and the conflict is driven by a tremendous amount of fear. The Tutsis fear, as the minority, that they may be exterminated by the Hutus, and the Hutus, who have been kept out of power, fear that they will continue to be disenfranchised. So that is the root cause of the conflict. What we’re seeing now is yet another round of fighting. Really, this is arguably the sixth round of serious killing that we’ve seen in Burundi over the last couple of decades.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How did it get to this point? Because people in the international community, activists, academics, scholars have been screaming ever since Rwanda that Burundi was going to be next unless something was done.
SUSAN RICE: Well, in fact, a great deal has been done by the United States, by the international community, by the Burundian people. The fact that we have not had yet another genocide, despite the fact that Burundi’s president was also on the plane that got shot down that precipitated the Rwandan genocide is a tribute not only to the people of Burundi and their leadership, umm, but to the efforts of the international community aimed at preventive diplomacy. So the purpose of our trip was to advance those preventive diplomacy efforts to indicate that the international community is watching what is going on in Burundi and that those who might try to come to power by force would be held accountable and isolated by the international community.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Do you have any evidence that your message was heard?
SUSAN RICE: Yes. I believe it was. We had constructive meetings with leaders of all types inside of Burundi with Hutu leaders, Tutsi leaders, army leaders and others, all of whom are tremendously fearful at the moment. They were receptive to our presence. They viewed us as their shoring up what is the moderate government center, trying to hold the line against the extremists on the other side, and I think they find reassurance, we’ve found over time, in such high-level visits, and this was one that came at a crucial time in the political equation.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So what specifically can be done now, and what are you trying to prevent?
SUSAN RICE: We’re trying to work with the Burundians to prevent a humanitarian crisis. Obviously at the end of the day, it’s for the Burundian people to decide their own fate, but what we can do is several things. We can shore up the moderate center, encourage those who want peace to stay in power, and to persevere.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you do that?
SUSAN RICE: Umm, by showing that they are supported, by providing material assistance, diplomatic assistance, and by indicating to the extremists, who are, in fact, their enemies on either side that there’s no future for them if they come to power by force. They will be isolated, they will be sanctioned. Umm, the other thing we can do, and we are doing is to work with countries in the region. Neighboring countries, particularly Zaire, could play a far more constructive role in stopping the arms flow into Burundi and ceasing their territory being used for extremists waging attacks into Burundi, and we’re working very hard on that side of the ledger as well.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So you’re calling for an arms embargo?
SUSAN RICE: We’re calling for countries in the region to stop the arms flow. An arms embargo is one way to do it, but in and of itself, it’s not necessarily enforceable.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You visited with President Chirac of France on your way back. What do you want France to do?
SUSAN RICE: Well, France has a long history in this region, and we feel very strongly that it’s important that the United States work with countries like France and Belgium and others in the international community to bring collective pressure to bear on the situation in Burundi and to show that, that the consequences of a crisis will be, umm, noticed by the world at large, not simply by one country or the countries in the region.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I mean, do you want France to commit troops? I mean, is there any talk of any kind of international intervention force? Because I read in the wires that privately France was complaining that the U.S. was trying to get them to commit troops for an intervention force, and the U.S. didn’t want to commit any. Is there anything to that?
SUSAN RICE: Well, France has made very clear that it’s not prepared to put its ground troops into Burundi. And we understand that. That’s essentially our view, but we believe there’s a great deal that we can do to prepare for the possibility that our preventive diplomacy efforts fail and that there needs to be an international humanitarian intervention. The United States has taken the lead going back a year ago to begin contingency planning in the context of the United Nations encouraging other countries to come together with us so there is a plan, so we can recruit countries to participate in a force. And the United States–
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But you said a humanitarian force.
SUSAN RICE: A humanitarian force.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You mean just to deal with the refugees, not to prevent the fighting.
SUSAN RICE: Not to prevent the conflict but to respond in the event that there is a conflict and to protect civilians who become at risk as a result. And the United States can play a crucial role, umm, logistically by providing strategic airlift, flying forces in rapidly, which no other country in the world can do.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Does a Burundi dissent beyond the chaos that it’s already in threaten the U.S. interest or affect U.S. interests in any way?
SUSAN RICE: Well, clearly, we have a humanitarian interest in preventing a repeat of the situation in Rwanda. We all remember it too well, and we don’t want to see it again. We also obviously have an interest in the region as a hole. This is a region that involves Zaire, Uganda, other countries with whom we have economic and political interests, so we have a definite interest in regional stability and preventing refugee flows, as well as our humanitarian interest.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Ms. Rice, thank you for joining us.
SUSAN RICE: Thank you very much.