Archive for the 'Comment' Category

Guardian, December 28th 2007

December 28, 2007


December 28 is the seventh anniversary of the Titanic Express bus massacre, in which my sister Charlotte was killed, along with her fiance and 19 others, close to the Burundian capital, Bujumbura. Despite the restoration of democracy in 2005, the militia group Palipehutu-FNL, continues to recruit child soldiers, extort money from civilians, and kill those within its own ranks who favour peace. Amid an ongoing climate of near-total impunity, abuses by the Burundian security forces have also continued. Human rights groups argue that ending this impunity is essential if peace is to be achieved.


‘B’ is for ‘Bad journalism’… Homily from Sacramento on Burundi’s vicious war is a catalogue of error and omission

December 4, 2007

Open letter to the Public Editor of the Sacramento Bee

Dear Mr. Acuna,

I am writing to raise concerns about a recent article in the Sacramento Bee, “Lessons in how to escape perpetual retribution”, by Robert Krueger. The article was brought to my attention by a Burundian friend who has lost both friends and family in the vicious conflict to which the article refers. The piece was published on November 26th, and is reproduced on the internet here:

I am the brother of Charlotte Wilson, a British aid worker who was murdered (along with her Burundian fiancé and 19 others) in a massacre by Burundian Hutu-extremists in December 2000. I am also the author of the book “Titanic Express”, which details my family’s efforts to get to the truth about my sister’s death, and understand the wider context in which she was killed. For the past seven years, I have been in regular contact with survivors of this attack, with relatives of the other victims, and with the international human rights groups working to help end the cycle of violence.   

I am particularly concerned when I read articles which appear to distort the truth about the situation in Burundi – especially when it comes to the issue of justice, and the views of victims.

The essence of the author’s argument is that none of those Burundians responsible for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity should be prosecuted, because any such prosecution would undermine the prospects for reconciliation. 

In support of this view, he cites the example of South Africa, where he says that “reconciliation was achieved”, even though “no person was sent to trial”.

But this claim is at best an oversimplification. While South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” did grant amnesty to many of those deemed to have given a full and honest account of their misdeeds, there were also cases where prosecutions were successfully brought, and amnesty denied – for example, the case of Eugene de Kock:

More recently, there have been moves, supported by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former chair of the TRC, to bring prosecutions against a number of those implicated in Apartheid era abuses and not granted amnesty by the TRC, eg:

On the question of “reconciliation”, the picture is again far more complex than the author would have us believe. What he fails to mention is that in many cases – including that of the murdered anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko – victims’ families opposed amnesty, with many feeling that communal reconciliation was undermined, not advanced, by the lack of justice.

A detailed survey of several hundred victims by South Africa’s Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation found that some victims felt that “false reconciliation” had been imposed upon them, and that “there remains a strong feeling amongst victims/survivors that justice should be done and that this is necessary if we are to create a new society”

From the CSVR’s work it is clear that many South Africans – especially those most closely involved with the TRC, do not believe that reconciliation has yet been achieved.

In an interview with a Burundian journalist, David Gakunzi, the CSVR’s Hugo van der Merwe commented that “In terms of exporting some of the these lessons to other societies, it is very difficult because people have made superficial judgments, heaping praise on the TRC and jumping to the conclusion that other countries need a similar process.”

Another concern over Mr. Krueger’s article is the issue of “selection bias”. While South Africa’s TRC – with all its flaws – is still widely viewed as the most successful of such experiments, what the author fails to mention is that (as detailed here by Human Rights Watch: similar exercises elsewhere in the world have been far less successful. In Sierra Leone, whose brutal conflict was far closer to the Burundian situation than the South African case, the 1999 amnesty granted to the RUF rebels is widely believed to have helped trigger an upsurge in violence.

One of Mr. Krueger’s most regrettable ommissions is the fact that Burundi has seen amnesties and de facto amnesties on a number of previous occasions. According to the Burundians I have spoken to, the horrific violence that broke out in the early 1990s was fuelled, in part, by anger over the fact that the perpetrators of a cycle of massacres during the late 1980s had been granted a blanket amnesty. Since 2003, members of all the major armed groups in Burundi have enjoyed immunity from prosecution – ostensibly in the name of “peace”:

Another regrettable ommission is the fact that, amid the resulting “culture of impunity”, Burundi’s abuses are still going on today. According to a report issued by Amnesty International in October, “Rape was endemic during the years of armed conflict but continues to this day despite the ending of hostilities”. Amnesty says that “the Burundian authorities have systematically failed to take concrete steps to prevent, investigate and punish these crimes. As a result, perpetrators regularly escape prosecution and punishment by the state and victims are left without protection”:

In this context, Mr. Krueger’s claim that “Burundi has already seen too much retributive justice without the UN adding more” seems very misleading. If, by “retributive justice”, he is referring to the cycle of vicious killings and massacres, such as the one in which my sister Charlotte died, then this is a deeply unfortunate misuse of language. To suppose that these were anything other than gross acts of injustice is an exercise in moral obfuscation, and an offence to the memories of the victims.

If, on the other hand Mr. Krueger is choosing to characterise as “retributive justice” the prosecution, under fair and impartial international standards, of those suspected of torture, murder and rape, then it simply isn’t true that Burundi has seen “too much” of it. As noted above, and as can be seen in the excellent reports of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, the defining feature of Burundi’s conflict has been the wholesale denial of justice to all but a handful of victims. Both Amnesty and HRW argue compellingly that Burundi urgently needs more justice, not less of it, if peace is to be sustainable.

The phrase “retributive justice” is itself something of a loaded one, which clumsily conflates two wholly separate moral phenomena. There is a world of difference between the “retribution” that was dealt out to my sister on December 28th 2000, and the fair and impartial judicial remedy that victims are guaranteed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Most victims I know want justice not out of some bloodthirsty lust for revenge, but rather as the surest way of deterring future atrocities and preventing others from suffering as they have. To characterise this as a desire for “retributive justice” seems grossly abusive and unfair.

The most regrettable ommission of all from Mr. Krueger’s article is the voices of the victims themselves. The author creates the misleading impression that the pressure for justice is being exerted on Burundi’s government primarily by the international community, through the United Nations. In reality, it is Burundi’s victims themselves who have been calling most vocally for justice – and, in fact, demanding that the UN takes a much more active role.

For example, in 2005, on the first anniversary of the August 2004 massacre of 156 Congolese Tutsis at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi, thousands gathered to remember the dead, and “demand that justice be done”. Binagana Anon, a representative of the families who lost loved ones in the attack, condemned the UN for its “silence” over the massacre.

Another such voice is that of Adrienne, the sister of my sister’s Burundian fiancé Richard Ndereyimana, who still lives in Burundi, and who made the following appeal to my family in an interview in 2005:

“The parents of all those who lost loved ones… are ready to go to court, but here we are nothing – this place is corrupt and there are killers everywhere. Tell those who are abroad, in Europe, to carry our voice – ask Charlotte’s family to tell the world of our distress. We want justice.”

It seems tragic that, just when the United Nations appears finally to be listening to the voices of Burundi’s victims, Mr. Krueger is using his to argue, in effect, that their concerns should be ignored. He is of course entitled to his views, but what cannot be right is the use of systematic distortion and ommission in order to make the argument fit.

A number of survivors from Burundi and the wider region have recently been resettled in the United States. Many have a harrowing story to tell about the realities of life amid a culture of impunity, and many have strong views about what needs to be done in order to ensure long-term peace and true reconciliation. If the Sacramento Bee is interested in hearing some of these voices, I would be very happy to put you in touch.


Richard Wilson

Justice, Not Platitudes

November 27, 2007

Robert Krueger’s new book on Burundi is excellent, yet deeply flawed.

Robert Krueger’s new book provides an impressively detailed – and long overdue – account of the atrocities by Tutsis against Hutus in Burundi during the 1990s. But his view that Burundi’s war criminals should not be prosecuted for their crimes – and by extension that Burundi’s victims should be denied their right to justice – flies in the face of international human rights standards, and does not reflect the opinions of the overwhelming majority of Burundians I have heard from since my sister Charlotte was murdered by Hutu-extremists in Burundi in December 2000 (

Neither is Robert Krueger’s view shared by Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch, who have carried out detailed research in Burundi since the early 1990s. These groups share the view of many Burundians that the ongoing failure to punish those responsible for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity is a driving force behind the abuses which still go on today, under the new, ostensibly “democratic” government:

Few who have lost loved ones in violent circumstances would dispute that forgiveness has a role to play. But what’s disappointing is that Mr. Krueger appears to conflate the slow, painful and deeply personal victim-led process of forgiveness with a formal, government-led arrangement in which ”forgiveness” is equated with “immunity from prosecution”, and in which amnesty can be granted to the perpetrator against the victim’s will.

What Mr. Krueger fails to mention in his account of South Africa’s “Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, is that the majority of victims – including the family of the murdered anti-Apartheid activist Steve Biko – opposed the granting of amnesty to their abusers. Many felt embittered by the process, not “reconciled”, and – perhaps most damningly of all – many felt that the TRC had undermined rather than advanced the process of communal reconciliation:

Even with such problems, South Africa’s TRC is widely regarded as the most successful such “experiment”. In the majority of cases, according to Human Rights Watch, (, amnesty processes have yielded results ranging from the disappointing to the disastrous. In Sierra Leone, for example, arguably a far more apt comparison with Burundi than South Africa, a 1999 amnesty preceded a massive upsurge in violence by the RUF rebels. In Zimbabwe, amnesties have repeatedly been granted in the name of “reconciliation”, with the predictable result that violence and abuse have become endemic. In Rwanda, a series of de facto amnesties for massacres of Tutsis actually preceded the 1994 genocide. As Robert Krueger himself notes, the violence that began in Burundi in 1993 had its roots in the unpunished crimes of the 1970s – and was itself preceded by the granting of a general amnesty.

Another disturbing distortion is the conflation of justice with “retribution”. Most victims I know want to see their loved ones’ killers prosecuted not out of some crazed “blood lust” (many oppose the death penalty), but to stop the perpetrator from doing it again, to deter others, and to restore the dignity of the dead. It seems deeply unfortunate that the most basic, common sense rationale for justice as practiced worldwide from Japan to Djibouti, should be deemed inappropriate in a situation as manifestly unjust as Burundi.

Faced with a history as horrific and complex as Burundi’s, it is all too tempting to throw up our hands and ask “why doesn’t everyone just forgive each other?”. But it seems sad that someone who has witnessed the consequences of impunity firsthand should take such a seemingly simplistic view. To suppose that the cycle of corruption, impunity and abuse can be ended while killers retain their power and influence seems both naive and irresponsible.

Few would dispute Mr. Krueger’s opinion that prosecuting every perpetrator in Burundi may prove an impossible task. But to move from this to the conclusion that no-one should therefore be prosecuted is a bit like saying that because a government can’t cure everyone with TB, they shouldn’t try to cure anyone.

The eminently pragmatic solution agreed – under international pressure – by the Burundian authorities in 2005 ( is the formation of a “special chamber” within the Burundian judiciary to prosecute those suspected of leading and orchestrating the worst of the violence, combined with a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to deal with more junior figures. But like the nominally-democratic government of Cambodia, the government of Burundi has many members who are themselves implicated in serious crimes. In Cambodia, it took years of international pressure before the government finally followed-through on its promise to deliver justice for the Khmer Rouge victims. In Burundi, the authorities have likewise, to date, shown a marked reluctance to honour the part of the 2005 deal that involves war criminals getting prosecuted. In the meantime, these criminals continue to kill, rape, embezzle, and destabilise the country. It is sad that, rather than using his influence to press the Burundian government to keep their promises, Mr. Krueger chooses instead to downgrade the right of victims – guaranteed in article eight of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – to “an effective remedy by the competent national tribunals”.

Robert Krueger’s new book is excellent in many ways. But he has done Burundi’s victims a gross disservice by perpetuating the idea that a distorted and politicised notion of ”forgiveness” could serve as a meaningful substitute for justice. The 21 victims of the December 2000 “Titanic Express” massacre – my sister Charlotte among them – deserve better than that. So do the 156 Congolese Tutsi refugees massacred by the same group at Gatumba in August 2004 and the thousands of others, both Hutu and Tutsi, who have been killed in the past two decades. The families of the dead want justice – not platitudes – and we have already waited too long.

(NB – this piece began as a response to this article in the Dallas Morning News)

Comment is Free (Guardian), December 22 2006

December 23, 2006

Little Truth and no Reconciliation 

Six years ago, my sister Charlotte was dragged from a bus and shot dead in the tiny Central African state of Burundi. Twenty other passengers, among them her Burundian fiance, died with her. The killers were members of Palipehutu-FNL, a Hutu-extremist group seeking revenge on the country’s then-dominant Tutsi minority. The massacre was unusual only inasmuch as it caught the attention of the international media. Since the start, in 1993, of the latest cycle of massacre and reprisal-massacre, 300,000 civilians have been killed. The vast majority of attacks have gone unreported.

This time last year, it looked as if the cycle might finally have been broken. Following Burundi’s first elections in more than a decade, the country’s larger and more moderate Hutu-led rebel group had taken power, promising to mend ethnic divisions and rebuild the country’s once-buoyant economy. While Palipehutu-FNL continued sporadic attacks, the restoration of democracy had weakened and divided them. Many predicted that the group would be forced to capitulate – or face military defeat – within months.

The new government agreed to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to examine Burundi’s bloody post-colonial past, together with a special war crimes court to prosecute the worst of the perpetrators. The UN High Commission for Refugees stepped up “voluntary repatriations” of those who had fled the conflict. Shortly before the fifth anniversary of my sister’s death, Burundi’s Information Minister declared that the group’s leader, Agathon Rwasa, would soon be arrested and put on trial over the December 2000 killings.

A year on, we’re still waiting. In 12 months, international optimism over Burundi has unravelled with stomach-churning speed while no attempt has been made to prosecute Agathon Rwasa and his ilk, dozens of ordinary Burundians have been tortured and summarily killed as “FNL suspects”. Rape and torture by the security services is rife. Journalists, human rights campaigners and opposition politicians have been arrested, harassed and intimidated.

When Olucome, the country’s main anti-corruption organisation, alleged widespread financial irregularities by the new government, its director was arrested and charged with “defamation”. Other members have been beaten up, and received death threats over their work. Staff of the country’s main human rights organisation, Ligue Iteka, have also reported threats.

In June, the Burundian government announced plans to redefine the proposed “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” as a “Truth, Forgiveness and Reconciliation Commission”. Proposals for a special war crimes court have effectively been ditched. Many fear that the remodelled TFRC will be little more than a thinly-disguised general amnesty, of the kind that has been tried, and failed, so often before in Burundi.

Concerns over corruption came to a head with the mysterious sale of the Presidential Falcon 50 jet to a US company, Delaware Corporation FZC, for nearly $2 million less than its market value. Senior figures within CNDD-FDD accused the party chairman, Hussein Radjabu, of taking kickbacks over this and a number of other deals. (See pages 17/p23 of the Swisspeace report.)

In late July, the authorities announced that they had foiled an attempted coup, involving senior members of every major opposition party. The government quickly arrested the country’s Tutsi former Vice President, along with the Hutu ex-President, and a bizarre collection of Hutu and Tutsi extremists, anti-genocide campaigners, and independent journalists. The government’s star witness was Alain Mugabarabona, the leader of an FNL splinter group, who had confessed to being the mastermind behind the coup.

If the allegations were true, then it would have been a remarkable example of inter-ethnic collaboration. In reality, many believe that the “plot” was nothing more than a clumsy fabrication, dreamed up as a pretext for silencing criticism and eliminating political opposition.

One day Burundi’s Information Minister, Karenga Ramadhani, was claiming that Gratien Rukindikiza, an exiled politician, had implicated Alexis Sinduhije, head of the country’s largest independent radio station, in the coup plot. The next day Sinduhije’s radio station broadcast an interview with Rukindikiza, who denied saying anything of the sort and accused Ramadhani of “losing his head”. The day after that, Ramadhani announced that it had all been a misunderstanding and Alexis Sinduhije had nothing to fear.

The alleged leader of the conspirators, Alain Mugabarabona, was then interviewed from his prison cell, on a smuggled mobile phone. Mugabarabona claimed that the coup plot was a fabrication, and that he had been tortured into confessing involvement. Torture allegations by several other alleged coup-plotters were corroborated by the country’s human rights minister, who visited them in prison. Meanwhile a series of unexplained grenade attacks on bars in the Burundian capital claimed yet more lives. In late August, without irony, President Nkurunziza begged “forgiveness” for the human rights abuses committed during his first year in power, while urging the courts to “severely punish” those accused of plotting against him.

In September, Vice President Alice Nzomukunda resigned, condemning her own party’s leadership over corruption and human rights abuse, and denouncing the coup allegations as baseless. Soon afterwards, CNDD-FDD signed a peace agreement with Palipehutu-FNL, granting them immunity from prosecution, and paving the way for them to join the country’s government.

But the killings have continued. In October, thirteen more mutilated bodies were found, floating in Burundi’s Ruzizi river. In November, Amnesty International revealed that a number of “FNL suspects” killed earlier in the year were former refugees who had been told by the UNHCR that it was safe to return. For these victims, as for so many others before, the international community’s wishful thinking over Burundi had proved deadly.

A 2003 peace agreement between CNDD-FDD and the then-Tutsi-led government, endorsed and applauded by the UN, granted both sides “provisional immunity” for all crimes. Warnings by human rights groups that this would encourage further abuses were ignored. So too were calls for those implicated in war crimes to be barred from running for office. Some church groups have urged the Burundian government to go even further, and grant yet another general amnesty.

But to the Burundians I know, the idea that “peace and reconciliation” could be achieved while killers remain in power is a cruel joke. The difficult, messy truth is that democracy alone is not enough. Only by ensuring that Burundi’s war criminals are prosecuted under international law, can we hope to see a permanent end to the violence.

Guardian, Comment Is Free, September 14 2006

September 14, 2006

Caught in the crossfire

The arms trade has caused the deaths of millions of civilians – we need to bring it within the framework of international law.

“It’s the white people supplying the weapons in Africa – now you’re going to feel what it’s like,” my sister Charlotte was told, shortly before being gunned down by members of the Forces pour la Liberation Nationale (FNL) armed group in war-torn Burundi. The UK post-mortem found that she had been shot seven times in the back with an eastern European semi-automatic rifle. Her killers may have been illiterate members of a ragtag peasant army, but they knew where the guns were coming from.

In the five years since, I’ve been haunted by the idea that the man who sold them those guns might be walking the same streets as me here in London, drinking in the same pubs, and catching the same tube trains. While the violence ravaging Central Africa might seem distant and unreal, it begins here, in Europe, where the guns and bullets are made, and many of those brokering the sales are British or Britain-based.

Charlotte was one of 21 people murdered when a bus, the inauspiciously-named “Titanic Express”, was ambushed close to the Burundian capital in December 2000. It was one among hundreds of similar attacks. Bullets recovered from the notorious August 2004 Gatumba refugee camp massacre – in which more than 150 Congolese Tutsis died – have been traced to as far afield as Bulgaria, Serbia and China.

More than 300,000 people – mostly civilians – have died in Burundi’s bloody conflict since 1993. In the wider region – Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the death toll runs into the millions. The financial cost, too, is devastating. Across Africa, $15bn is lost every year through the impact of war, cruelly undermining prospects for economic development. Poverty, inter-ethnic rivalries, and a culture of impunity all play a part in fuelling the violence. But without the ready and abundant supply of guns and ammunition, these conflicts would be far less deadly.

Each year, arms manufacturers produce enough bullets to kill every man, woman and child on the planet, twice. Each day, 1,000 more people die through gun violence, most of them civilians like Charlotte. The world over, armed groups exploit the easy availability of guns to wage war against governments and against each other, catching civilian populations in the crossfire. Yet there are no internationally agreed standards regulating small arms sales.

As a result, the arms trade is out of control. Most of the suffering is in the developing world; while most of the profits are here in the west. But neither are we in the west immune, as my family knows all too well. Britons, being global travellers, are at risk from the global flood of guns. And the sheer volume of guns and bullets being manufactured means some inevitably find their way into the hands of criminals and terrorists in the UK. It’s in all of our interests to get the small arms trade under control.

Three years ago, Amnesty International, Oxfam and the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) launched the Control Arms campaign for the creation of an international arms trade treaty (ATT). The principle is simple: no transfers of guns, bullets, grenades or mortars should be allowed to places where they are likely be used in human rights abuses against civilians. Countries that sign the treaty will be agreeing to place strict limits on the movement of weapons from and through their territories.

The idea has won support from governments around the world, with Britain in the lead. More than a million people in 140 countries have joined the Million Faces petition online, and yesterday we held a global day of action for the arms trade treaty. Next month the UN general assembly will consider whether to begin the process of developing the ATT.

Yet despite this momentum there are signs of backsliding. An international meeting today will discuss the resolution on the ATT, which the UK is promoting for the general assembly. However, that resolution fails to mention human rights, which should be the central principle of the ATT.

Today’s meeting at the Foreign Office will be a major opportunity to get things back on track. In the name of my sister and those who died with her, I hope that we grasp it. We will not make poverty history, nor be sure of our own security, until this bloody trade is brought within the framework of international law.

Click here to sign the Control Arms campaign’s Million Faces Petition