It is a rare day indeed when the leaders of Africa outshine the UN Security Council as a model for a global norm.
On Thursday the 54-member African Union authorized a special military force to restore peace in Burundi – over Burundi’s objections. The move was the first time the AU has invoked a rule to intervene in a country without its consent in order to prevent a mass atrocity. This rule, known as “the responsibility to protect,” was adopted by the United Nations itself a decade ago.
Burundi, a central African country with a population of10 million, has seen hundreds killed and a quarter million people forced into exile since April, when a contest for power erupted between military factions. In recent days, the violence has become worse. President, Pierre Nkurunziza, for example, has warned opponents they could “be sprayed like cockroaches.” Diplomats warn the violence might erupt into the kind of ethnic genocide allowed to take place in Rwanda two decades ago by the international community.
Now contrast the African Union’s humanitarian courage with a vote by the UN Security Council on Friday.
After four years of war in Syria, in which more than 220,000 have been killed – many with chemical weapons – the council endorsed a plan not to intervene to prevent further slaughter but simply to encourage President Bashar al-Assad to negotiate with non-terrorist rebel groups on a possible ceasefire and elections.
While a negotiated resolution is certainly preferable for Syria, the UN plan falls far short of the kind of intervention recommended by Hillary Clinton, a few Republican presidential candidates, and many others: the creation of a no-fly zone and humanitarian corridor in Syria to protect civilians from bombardments by the Assad regime.
By comparison, the AU threat to send 5,000 troops into Burundi has already forced the warring factions to be more open for mediation. On Dec. 28, Uganda will host 14 groups representing various interests of Burundian society for negotiations. If the talks fail, the AU will then seek Security Council authority to override Burundi’s national sovereignty by sending in its multinational troops.
Since 2005, the Security Council has mentioned the doctrine of “responsibility to protect” nearly 40 times in resolutions. The most significant use of the doctrine was UN approval for NATO to strike Libya in 2011 to prevent an attack on a city by then-dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Since then Russia and China have become reluctant to again grant such authority, thus tying the hands of the world body to abide by its stated values in Syria.
In announcing its decision, the AU made this comment on Twitter: ‘’Africa will NOT allow another Genocide to take place on its soil.” For a continent long encouraged by the West to show better governance, that was quite an assertion of a shared commitment to a now-common virtue. Perhaps it will persuade the Security Council to live up to its own obligations in Syria.