Hi everybody, sorry to keep you for a second. So I’d just like to start, in talking about Burundi, by focusing on one family and I think the experience of this single family over the last month makes the stakes of what’s going on in Burundi pretty vivid. On Tuesday, the son of Burundian human rights activist Pierre Mbonimpa was laid to rest. And he was found dead last Friday, after being detained by security forces.
Mbonimpa himself, one of the great human rights defenders in Burundi, wasn’t around when his son was killed because he himself had been shot in the face in August and is attempting to recover. His son-in-law was murdered in October. And the message Mbonimpa sent to mourners at his son’s funeral was the following: “Do not lose courage. Time will pass. The tragedies we face will end with a resolution to the conflict in Burundi. I maintain hope that it will come soon.”
Now how a man who’s just gone through what his family has gone through can bring himself to send such a message, I think, is a tribute to how dedicated he is to peace and human rights in his country.
But the experience of that family illustrates just how high the stakes are, in terms of the violence being carried out now against civilians in their homes, in bars, on the streets, but also the grave risk of further escalation and the grave risk of mass atrocities. And this risk is what demands international action and the resolution that we passed today reflects the Security Council’s commitment to addressing this deteriorating political and security situation. It emphasizes the need to plan for all contingencies, including the dark ones, while taking steps to reconvene a comprehensive and political dialogue to restore peace in Burundi.
And I want to stress internationally facilitated dialogue among Burundi’s stakeholders is absolutely critical. It is not enough for us to do what we have been doing, which is to support the EAC-led political process – we do support it, the Security Council most definitely supports it – but there must be a robust political process and that process must be invigorated. So I think that’s a very important message out of the Council today.
The other piece of this important resolution, I think, is as the situation has deteriorated in recent months, the UN presence has been getting smaller and smaller. So at just the time that we need more eyes and ears on the ground, we have had fewer and fewer UN personnel. And indeed that presence is slated to wind down entirely by January. So what this does is halt that trend – that discordant trend – and indeed put the UN in a position now where it can assess what the best form a UN presence should take. So that’s, I think, the second important feature of this resolution.
And then the third is, because of Burundi’s history, but also because of some of the very divisive rhetoric and the sheer number of people who have been killed here in recent days, it is clear that contingency planning is needed; it is needed in the sub-region, it is needed in the region, and it is needed here at the UN. And so I think this resolution sets that contingency planning in motion and is very important for that reason.
I think Council unity today is also a very important signal and we will continue to shine a spotlight on what is happening in Burundi, and again look forward as a Council – but also as the United States, working bilaterally to do everything we can again to push political dialogue, to make sure we’re prepared for contingencies, and to stand up for the rights of Burundians who are living in great fear right now.
And with that, I open it up for questions.
Reporter: Thank you. Thank you, Madam Ambassador. You talk about the diminishing UN presence on the ground, what would your recommendation be, from a U.S. perspective, to the Secretary-General? What would you like that UN presence to look like?
Ambassador Power: Well, in the first instance, you know, the African Union has authorized the deployment of a hundred observers and I’ve been engaging with the AU all week from here and in my contacts with people in Addis. Their push right now is to make sure that that hundred person presence even deploys. We think that, again, what the Council has authorized today, sending political and security experts and advisors to the region to assess what’s best – I’m not going to – neither preempt nor micromanage from here, from so far away from Burundi, the precise contours of that presence.
But I think the fact that, again, this Council in a united fashion came together and said to the Secretary-General ‘you tell us and we are prepared to stand behind what you recommend as the situation evolves.’ So I think also that this coordination between the UN and the African Union is going to be critical in terms of where observers fan out to. I mean, the more presence the better. It’s both in terms of documenting what’s actually happening on the ground – getting us ground truth, because some of that is contested of course in Burundi itself – but also as a deterrent. I mean, when these observers are out and about that documentation, and so forth, can deter. So we’ve clearly got to widen that presence, and for all of the limits for what we know about what’s happening in Bujumbura, I think other parts of the country have been “No Go Zones” for much of the international community. And so, getting ground truth on what happens outside the capital is also critical as we think about next steps.
Reporter: Thanks. There was some reporting yesterday about the possibility of peacekeepers from MONUSCO, if needed, going in. And I wanted to know what steps would that require? And also, there’s some discussion – Burundi has UN peacekeepers and police in CAR and I’ve seen a document that says that they are not appropriately equipped, they’ve been given waivers and extensions to continue serving in CAR. I wanted to, I guess, know from you what connection should there be if some of these troops were either engaged in abuses back in Bujumbura, or in terms of actually giving them waivers? Is this a leverage that the UN has to try to get better performance in Bujumbura?
Ambassador Power: I’m not going to comment on the specific Burundi-CAR connection, because I actually haven’t seen the specific report, so let me take it up a level. Troops and police that deploy in UN missions have to be vetted. And certainly when we have information that troops or officers are implicated in human rights abuses, that is something that we as a member state share – as a matter of course – with the department of peacekeeping, and we encourage other countries to do the same.
I think you’ve seen in recent months how training for Burundian peacekeepers, whether on the military or the police side, has been dialed back quite considerably by a number of countries, including the United States. And that’s unfortunate, frankly, insofar as all of us have an interest in Burundian peacekeepers, police and military performing well and operating professionally in other countries around the world. But there also has had to be a response to the events on the ground and to the steps that the Burundian government has taken that have contributed to this deterioration. But again, when troops or police are involved in abuse, they should not be serving in peacekeeping missions; they should be held accountable by the UN and then of course in the home country.
On the MONUSCO question, given the divisive rhetoric, given the history in this country, given the number of people who’ve been killed up to this point and the vast numbers who are living in fear or fleeing to neighboring countries, we have an obligation to do contingency planning of all kind. And the fact that you have a mission nearby means that, of course given how slow UN deployments can be and how long it takes to move people from their home country into a country that is experiencing violence, a scenario in which one looks at MONUSCO is one that has to be examined. And I think, again, this resolution is important because it empowers the UN to look at various scenarios and various contingencies.
To be clear, MONUSCO is a separate mission, those troops have their work cut out for them where they are; there has been a rise in militia violence, as you know, cooperation between the Congolese government and MONUSCO has not been what it should be. And for MONUSCO to move to another country, you might remember from South Sudan when we did inter-mission cooperation, it requires a Security Council resolution to move that forward. It also requires troop-contributing countries to be willing to deploy in a very difference set of circumstances. So that’s a complicated piece of business, and I want to stress, our goal is not to have to get to that point. But our primary objective, of course, is to ensure that Burundi does not descend into mass violence.
And so that’s why looking at contingencies, grappling with the complexity of that option or any one of a number of options – and you know the East African Standby Force is doing contingency planning, again from our contacts at the AU – they are doing contingency planning. So we’re starting to see the regional and international machinery kind of kick in and it’s important because if something descended very quickly, we all know from past experience that the startup costs for actually responding to mass violence can be substantial. And so again our goal is, through diplomacy and through a political solution – a political track – never to have to get to any of these contingencies.
Reporter: Thanks, Ambassador Power. Off topic – now that the visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu is over, do you think that there’s room for the U.S. to start engaging on the New Zealand resolution that’s been circulated among a small group of countries? And then, this week the Syrians have pledged to make sure that there aren’t arbitrary attacks in the war there and Staffan de Mistura seems to be somewhat optimistic about this pledge that he has received from the Syrians. Do you share that optimism? Do you think that we’re on the cusp of major changes on the ground in Syria, or not?
Ambassador Power: Let me take your second question first. On Syria, first of all, Secretary Kerry will be speaking, I think to the broader Syrian picture at 2pm and so I urge everybody to tune in, give a plug for my colleague. He’ll be talking about our parallel efforts to combat ISIL and of course to secure a political solution – a political solution that’s absolutely indispensable also to combatting ISIL as well as to alleviating the terrible suffering of Syrians.
I think it’s fair to say, it’s fair to echo, what Staffan de Mistura said when he was here a few days ago, which is – there’s more momentum than there’s been in some time and one has to take stock of that. There are more stakeholders coming to the table prepared to have tough and frank conversations than has been the case in recent memory and so that’s very important. One has to be very clear-eyed about the substantial gaps, at least in the public positions that various stakeholders have, as they’ve articulated their positions here even just in recent days. So again, I think what’s important is countries are coming together, there is a widespread consensus that a political solution is necessary and for four and a half years there has been significant disagreement about how to bring about that political solution. So those disagreements have to be overcome and they have been substantial and those are the differences we hope to narrow in Vienna.
On the very specific question of Syrian promises and Syrian commitments, we would like nothing more than to see an end to the indiscriminate attacks carried out against Syrian civilians. I would note that in October there were nearly 1,500 barrel bomb attacks. Those are by definition arbitrary, by definition indiscriminate. There is no such thing as a discriminate barrel bomb because of the nature of the weapon.
It is very hard to take Syrian pledges at their face, not least because, last I checked, President Assad continues to deny that his regime even uses barrel bombs despite the extensive documentation and grotesque pattern of use. So I think we have to take public pledges with a grain of salt, and what Vienna is about is securing pledges but ensuring that those pledges are followed up very quickly by actions and moving to try to build on again, this initial momentum and to try to show people on the ground, many of whom have lost hope in the world coming together in order to alleviate their pain, but to show them that these talks can mean something for them. I think that’s what de Mistura has stressed, that’s what Secretary Kerry among many points is going to stress today.
On the question of the situation in the Middle East and the New Zealand resolution, I would just underscore what President Obama said during Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit, what Secretary Kerry said here at the UN last night: the United States remains convinced that the only way to bring about lasting security and dignity for the people of the region is through the negotiation of a two-state solution. And any UN action, I’m not going to comment on any specific text that hasn’t been tabled and isn’t before us, but would be assessed by us on the basis of, will it concretely contribute to the kinds of negotiations between the parties that are going to be needed in order to secure a two-state solution and negotiate a two-state solution? And I would only note that there are a lot of proposals out there – there often are – but there is a particularly high number of proposals here at the UN, and so to get into any particular proposal ahead of time I think would be premature.