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Press Briefing on Burundi Peace Talks in Tanzania

Press Briefing on Burundi Peace Talks in Tanzania

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary ________________________________________________________________________ For Immediate Release February 22, 2000

PRESS BRIEFING BY NSC SENIOR DIRECTOR FOR AFRICAN AFFAIRS GAYLE SMITH AND SPECIAL ENVOY TO THE GREAT LAKES HOWARD WOLPE ON BURUNDI PEACE TALKS IN ARUSHA, TANZANIA

The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

11:25 A.M. EST

MR. FALLIN: This is going to be an on-the-record brief. So, before I go further, let me introduce Gayle Smith. Many of you already know her. Gayle Smith is Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for African Affairs for the National Security Council. And also joining us via phone line the President's Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, Howard Wolpe. And we're going to be able to communicate with him -- he'll be able to listen to the questions and Gayle's responses, and if anyone has any questions for him, he's there in Arusha, he'll be able to respond to those questions as well.

This will be on the Burundi peace process and maybe review -- would like to review the President's use of teleconferencing technologies to address folks in Arusha this morning.

With that as an introduction, Gayle Smith.

MS. SMITH: Good morning, everyone. We'll do a test here in a minute and see if Howard is indeed with us. Can we check that yet?

MR. WOLPE: I can hear fine. Thank you, Gayle.

MS. SMITH: That's the voice of the President's Special Envoy to the Great Lakes, Howard Wolpe, former member of Congress, who is on the ground in Arusha and has been for this round of the mediation, but also during many, many mediation sessions prior to this one, previously under the chairmanship of the former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere.

I am more than willing to answer any questions you may have, as you know, and I think you are able to see the President addressed the Arusha peace process being convened in Arusha, Tanzania, yesterday. He did this this morning; it was a live satellite hook-up between the President and President Mandela, who is the facilitator of the talks.

Q One question for you or for Mr. Wolpe. What's your reaction to the Burundi President's offer for direct talks with the rebels? Is this a major step forward?

MS. SMITH: I would like to ask Howard to respond. I would say at a general level, we think it's an extremely positive thing that the government and other parties are giving the signal that they are prepared, indeed, to sit down with one another, and we believe that the Arusha process provides the forum for this. So, all in all, I would say that's a good sign.

Howard, would you like to add anything?

MR. WOLPE: Yes. The government has, in fact, been wanting to enter into direct discussions with rebel groups, in any forum and by any means. And in fact, as President Buyoya affirmed today in his own press conference here, there have actually been discussions between the government and the FDD, one of the principal rebel groups not yet at the table in Arusha.

The effort now that is being made is to arrange direct talks between the leadership of the FDD and another of the rebel groups with President Mandela, so as to begin an engagement. And precisely how that will be organized remains to be seen, but that's the effort that is currently underway.

Q Other than the FDD, are there any signs from any of the other rebel groups that have held out so far from these talks that they're actually willing to begin talking?

MS. SMITH: Howard, you're there on the ground. Why don't you go ahead?

MR. WOLPE: I'm afraid I didn't hear that question, Gayle.

Q Any other groups?

MS. SMITH: The question, if you want to go ahead and repeat it into this microphone, we'll see if he can hear it.

Q Sure. The question was, other than the FDD, are there any signs from any of the other rebel groups, who have so far refused to participate in the peace talks, that they may actually step forward and take part in them?

MR. WOLPE: I still didn't quite hear the question.

MS. SMITH: Howard, the question -- have you seen any signs on the ground out there that other groups who have not yet been participating intend to do so?

MR. WOLPE: We've seen some indications from the rebel groups -- and, in one instance, from people who purport to be speaking on behalf of another rebel group, but which we're not clear about the internal organization of that particular group yet -- but we've seen them say that they want to sit down with President Mandela and begin that dialogue. That's obviously encouraging.

Q What kind of support is the President offering?

MS. SMITH: Special Envoy Wolpe, who you've just heard on the line, has been engaged since these peace talks were initiated a couple of years ago. We have also funded the Arusha process and will continue to do that. And I believe that he will remain directly engaged with President Mandela. They have spoken on the telephone and met in person about Mandela's work as facilitator of this peace process, and I believe he intends to continue in that role.

Q That's what he means by support?

MS. SMITH: Yes.

Q He doesn't mean grants and funds and loans?

MS. SMITH: Well, we are providing a major amount of humanitarian assistance to Burundi and have been doing so for some time. The President also indicated this morning that if, indeed, there is a peace agreement, we will do what we can to ensure that, indeed, the peace is consolidated. In addition, we provide assistance to Burundi under the President's Great Lakes Justice Initiative, which aims at building the institutions needed to break this cycle of violence. So we will continue our assistance on all of those fronts.

Q Gayle, realistically, they're bringing in major power to try to solve this ethnic war and they've brought in Nelson Mandela. But Mandela threw it off somewhat toward the end of his statement by saying that President Clinton, you're one of the major world powers and you're helping, but we rely on you for a speedy and urgent resolution to this. Realistically, is the U.S. going to be the catalyst for ending this, and do you really see an end to this soon?

MS. SMITH: I think part of what President Mandela is looking for -- and it's something we strongly support -- is a way to convey to the people of Burundi and all of the parties involved in this conflict that, indeed, the international community is engaged, supports the peace process, cares about whether or not they're successful and, indeed, wants them to be successful.

I don't know if you've ever traveled to Burundi -- it is an extremely insular country and society, and I think this exposure of the message sent by President Clinton today, the messages sent yesterday by representatives and leaders of governments in the region -- of the French, of the Belgian, of the British -- are extremely important to let people know that in this extremely difficult and complex negotiation, they do, indeed, have the support of the international community.

I don't think any of us thinks that this war's going to be wrapped up this afternoon or tomorrow. It is, indeed, a complex process. They made substantial progress under the leadership of President Nyerere and I think President Mandela has injected a great deal of momentum into the process since he took over the reins in January.

The negotiations will continue, but I think the signs we see from Arusha are that, indeed, the parties do feel like this strong sign of international support can help give them the foundation they need, from which to make some real progress.

I'd like to ask Howard if he wants to add anything specifically on the mediation. Howard?

MR. WOLPE: Well, it was really fascinating to watch the reactions of Burundians these past two days, to have the foreign representations that were made here, to have the international focus on Burundi. These are people who are engaged in a very scary process. This is probably one of the most intractable conflicts on the face of the African continent; people that have suffered massively in terms of bloodletting, communal massacres, genocide, in which there's hardly a family that has not been touched by the violence. And to have the sense that the international community cares, is involved, and wants to be supportive, helps build confidence among the people that are trying to make peace. So it's had an enormously positive psychological impact.

Q What was the reaction to the President's remarks? Does he know?

MS. SMITH: Howard, do you want to speak about the reaction on the ground to the President's remarks?

MR. WOLPE: It was wonderful. All around me, people were coming up and just expressing their appreciation. One of the delegations that was sitting right behind me wanted assurances again that we had offered earlier that the Burundians themselves would be able to see this on Burundian television and hear it on Burundian radio. There was just absolute delight, and just a real sense of appreciation for that expression of support, concern and engagement.

Q The President spoke of a disaster befalling the people of Burundi if the peace conference were not successful. What did he mean by that, a disaster? There's already been a disaster, 200,000 dead.

MS. SMITH: Well, I think he means that an even worse disaster is the threat and the risk that we all face if, indeed, the Arusha process is not successful.

I would make one slight correction in terms of this conference. This conference is, I believe, the ninth session of this mediation process. I will ask Howard to correct me if I've got that wrong -- or at least the ninth summit of the regional leadership in working towards an end to this conflict. And in each one they have made progress. And again, we believe that they have and will make progress in this particular session.

It is not this conference that is going to tie this up in a bow ultimately and finally. But I think the view is that with people having taken the steps that they have -- and as Howard suggests, it takes a great deal of courage, given what's happened in the recent past in Burundi -- to get as far as they've come, to fail now could signal another round of death and killing and insecurity in Burundi. And we very much would like to do what we can to prevent that.

MR. WOLPE: I would only add one comment which is that, to those of us who have been tracking the policy -- rather the process -- over the last several years, literally -- I've been watching matters in Burundi going back to June of 1996 -- only a couple of years ago, many of the people sitting around the table today were so demonized by one another that it was inconceivable that you could even bring together that collection of individuals and of parties.

I remember a time just a couple of years ago when it was hugely controversial whether to use the term "negotiations" instead of "dialogue." Just to give you a sense of the tremendous barriers of mistrust, suspicion, and fear that have to be overcome in this process.

But now we are seeing convergence on some critical issues -- all the core issues are, in fact, on the table; people are talking about them not only in Arusha, but in Burundi itself. And one of the important things that happened in the process in this ninth gathering of the regional summit was that the Arusha process was, for the first time, more publicly and clearly linked to Burundi itself, because a lot of the people in Burundi have been wondering what is happening in Arusha, and this was an opening up, an airing of issues in a more public way, which I think is enormously important to build the base on the ground that could sustain any agreement that would ultimately be fashioned in the Arusha process.

MS. SMITH: Just to clarify Special Envoy Wolpe's point, we were able to help see that this was broadcast, indeed, yesterday's opening session with the African leaders and representatives from Europe and today's inside Burundi and elsewhere in Africa, which is a real first in terms of this process, as he suggests.

Q The government of Burundi represents -- of the population, the Tutsis. Do you find any willingness on its part to actually consider sharing power with the majority of the population, the Hutus?

MS. SMITH: Well, I believe that by their participation thus far in the Arusha process, it is clear that they are willing to grapple with those difficult issues of what representation should and must be in Burundi, and how to deal with a situation where you have a small minority and a much larger majority.

President Buyoya, as Howard suggested, has given a couple of press conferences out there. Howard has been meeting with the Burundi delegation and I think he'll agree with this, but Howard, I wonder if you want to add anything.

MR. WOLPE: Absolutely. All of the issues are being discussed; there are literally negotiations taking place now. All parties accept the principle of power-sharing. All parties accept that, in fact, the principle that democratic principles must be a core element of the new arrangement of power, but that they also must find a means of giving a sense of security to minorities within that very -- what has been a historically very polarized society. So issues of the political system are very much on the table -- the process of negotiation, likewise, the army. There's a broad understanding of the need to create a generally national army, of creating security arrangements that will provide a sense of confidence that all Burundi will be protected, minority and majority alike.

Q You say there's a need for security arrangements. You spoke of the army. Either one of you can answer this. What's the feasibility in these last few months of the Clinton administration that there will be some type of U.S. involvement military-wise to help over there?

MS. SMITH: The need for security, I think, was in reference to the instability that's plagued Burundi, and arrangements for the security forces and the army in Burundi to be such that people don't, indeed, live in fear of them. So that was --

Q But will there be some type of United States military involvement to help foster this security that he's talking about?

MS. SMITH: Howard, the question is whether there would be U.S. military involvement to help foster the kind of environment that everyone hopes for in Burundi. I think at this point, it is our view, and I believe shared by President Mandela and the facilitation team in Arusha, that our most constructive role is, again, to do as much as we can to strengthen the peace process. If there is a peace agreement, we will certainly look at what the international community should do to help consolidate that process. But at this point in time, I think our priority effort is clearly on this Arusha process.

Q Do they have an army?

MS. SMITH: Yes, they do indeed have an army.

Q Does the United States regard the bloodshed in Burundi in the same -- as being the kind of genocide that took place in Rwanda?

MS. SMITH: Well, if you look at the past of Burundi, there was, indeed, in the past something that many people do refer to as a genocide in Burundi. Certainly, the stakes are such, combination of factors are such, and the recent history is such, that the risk of mass killing, communal violence and genocide is always there. And again, I think that's one of the reasons that the President this morning joined President Mandela and other leaders in the region to do what we can to help bring the people of Burundi together.

Howard, would you like to add anything? I think we're almost finished here.

MR. WOLPE: No, no, what you said is essentially correct. I mean, there has been, as in both genocide and communal massacres, actually, Burundi debate greatly which event would be defined as genocide, which would be defined as communal massacre. The reality is, though, that both Hutu and Tutsi have been terribly victimized by mass killing. And that's what -- all of the Burundi are struggling to try to figure out a way to end the culture of impunity.

Q Should Mandela be endorsing Senate candidates, like he did today?

MS. SMITH: I think President Mandela is a good friend of the President and Mrs. Clinton, and I think he just wished to convey his friendship. You can direct that question to him or his people.

Q And wished her success.

MR. FALLIN: Just to point out, there is a transcript -- or there will be a transcript available of the President's video-teleconference session remarks. That will be available back in the bins. And the Burundi fact sheet is also back there in the bins.

Q Thanks, Jim. Thanks, Gayle.

MS. SMITH: Thank you all very much. Thank you, Howard.

MR. WOLPE: Thank you.

MS. SMITH: It's very odd not being able to see you, but we appreciate your being with us.

Q Did the President get involved in Burundi because he didn't get involved in Rwanda and it was criticized so much?

END 11:52 A.M. EST


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