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Genocide and the Ethics of Public Management in 2008

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Wed Aug 20 2008

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My apologies for the long dry spell especially for those of you who cant wait for the next agile bureaucracy post, not! I was temporarily distracted by our recent conference entitled Transforming Bureaucratic Cultures: Challenges and Solutions for Public Management Practitioners (www.thepublicmanager.org/2008Conference).

  Along these lines, heres a challenge that never seems to be out of the headlines for very long. In their recently published book on the genocide in Burundi in the mid-1990s, former Ambassador Robert Krueger and his wife share their experiences in attempting to intervene in this tragedy while posted in the country (Ambassador Robert Krueger and Kathleen Townsend Krueger, From Bloodshed to Hope in Burundi: Our Embassy Years during Genocide, University of Texas Press, Austin, 2007 - http://search.barnesandnoble.com/booksearch/results.asp?WRD=Robert+Krueger+and+Kathleen+Krueger).

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I first met Bob at the American Society for Public Administrations (ASPAs) annual conference in Dallas, Texas earlier this year. After reading the book, it occurred to me that the couples first-hand experiences in Burundi might help shed light on a cloudy applied topic: the ethics of public service particularly in the face of such horrific human rights violations. In effect, how should a public servant behave and what should one do in similar circumstances? Surely, the mounting evidence of genocide in the last century and the continuing pattern of ethnic cleansing and related humanitarian crises through the first decade of this century suggest that were likely to witness similar challenges for some time to come. Does our community of practice need a clearer roadmap, a code of conduct and special set of public management competencies to prepare public managers to act appropriately should their skill and courage be needed?  

  With this in mind, Howard Balanoff, chairperson of ASPAs new section on certified public management (CPM), and The Public Manager arranged for me to interview the authors before a student audience at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas in June 2008. (Video highlights of the seminar will soon be available on this Web site.).

 

Setting the Stage  In the book, the Ambassador sets the stage for this tragic story by recounting the small countrys brief, but tortured history before and after the Belgians exited and the significant waves of political assassinations and civilian massacres in Burundi between the early 1970s and mid-1994. Throughout his documentation of the genocide that occurred during his watch, replete with first-hand reports from Physicians for Human Rights and Amnesty International, the Ambassador adds the couples own photos of the human wreckage to leave no doubt about what transpired (and who was responsible).

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  When reports of violence and official military and police complicity began to reach the embassy, Bob felt he needed to have first-hand evidence of what was being reported. Against the better judgment of his civilian and military advisors (including some higher-ups back in Washington) and over the objections of in all likelihood, complicit Burundian officials, he continued to drive out into the countryside and isolated towns and villages to see for himself what was being alleged. He did this for several reasons: 1) to determine the veracity of such atrocities before reporting back to Washington, his international counterparts, and the media; 2) to prevent further violence simply by dint of his on-site presence as the US Ambassador; and 3) to provide leadership in the hopes that others would stand up in unity and offer hope to potential victims.

  What the Ambassador (and former US Senator and Congressman) discovered was that the bureaucratic culture of which he believed he was a part was not exactly thrilled with his actions. He had not been sent to this remote nation of six million people 85 percent Hutu (largely impoverished and institutionally uneducated) and 15 percent Tutsi (overseers installed by the Belgians) to solve the countrys tribal and political squabbles. In effect, his mission was not to involve himself in Burundis internal affairs at all. So what to do? Ignore what was going on around him? Be silent, or worse gloss over reported atrocities because such news would support a narrative that ran counter to the United States strategic aims (e.g., gaining other benefits from Burundis Tutsi leadership)?

 

Beginning of the End  Meanwhile, his wife, Kathleen, regularly found ways to reach out into the countryside as well both to show the flag and help in any way she could. Eventually, once events began to spiral out of control, this help included secretly hiding or transporting people out of harms way, providing emergency food, clothing and shelter, and other assistance through a network of local Burundian citizens (both Hutu and Tutsi) as well as members of the international community all of whom took considerable risk for themselves and their families. A short time later, in March 1995, after an incident of violence against Belgian residents, Kathleen and their two young daughters were required to leave the country. Yet another hardship, the family was separated again, and Kathleen soon after arriving back in the States learned she was pregnant.

  Bob stayed behind, only to get deeper into the imbroglio and fall victim to an assassination attempt when his 4-car convoy was attacked while attempting to document widespread, official cruelty in the countryside. Several passengers were killed, others injured, and the Ambassador escaped in one piece. Nevertheless, in June 1995, the State Department prohibited any embassy official from traveling more than 14 miles from the capital without formal approval from Washington. Subsequently, Bob was called back to Washington for consultations, and he never returned.

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  In the aftermath of Kruegers convenient departure, the Tutsi-led Burundi Army engineered another coup, deposed the Hutu President, spear-headed another genocidal wave that left over 50,000 Hutus dead and many more in concentration camps. It wasnt until Nelson Mandela and others intervened in 2000-2001 that the country began to move in the direction of a multi-ethnic sharing of power including, most importantly, leadership of the Burundi Army and a process of truth and reconciliation modeled after that of South Africas.   

 

  Reflections on the Culture of Bureaucracy

This book lays out the context and graphic evidence needed to understand what happened on the ground in Burundi in the last decade of the 20th century. In reflecting on the Kruegers experience leading up to the outbreak of genocide, what could have been done differently to prevent the tragic events that followed? For example:

 

  • What specific training was offered to key public officials of the U.S. mission (including the Ambassador and his State Department team, the US Information Service (USIS), members of the Department of Defense (DOD) civilian and military, etc.) to prepare them to respond to such circumstances prior to traveling to Burundi?

  • What leadership was provided in the way of in-country briefings, orientations and meetings with host country and United Nations (UN) officials, other missions and donor organizations, and local media to openly discuss the early signs and triggering events that could precipitate such a humanitarian crisis?

  • Once the crisis was well underway, what could have been done differently to mitigate the horrific consequences of the genocide as circumstances on the ground descended into chaos? Were public servants given the green light and the tools to protect individuals by warning, hiding, transporting, feeding, medically treating and/or defending them?

  • What aspects of bureaucratic culture (including the behavior of State, USIS, DOD, the UN, etc.) must be transformed to prevent such failings among public servants in the future?

  • In the aftermath of such atrocities, what role, if any, should US officials be prepared to play to help heal the wounds and repair the damage from the horrific carnage and human rights abuses that have been committed?

 

 

Conclusion  Clearly, there are universal lessons to be gleaned from the Burundi genocide and analogous humanitarian crises (in Rwanda, Bosnia, apartheid South Africa, Nazi Germany, Ottoman Turkey, etc.). Given the repeated occurrence of racial and religious persecutions (i.e., genocide, ethnic cleansing and extermination of entire classes of human beings) virtually all across the globe in modern times, what have we learned that can inform a new, universal code of ethics for those in public management positions? What is the role of the public servant to prevent and mitigate such human rights abuses and what new skill sets are required in a truth and reconciliation process? The Kruegers insightful memoir raises questions about the ethics of public service (for the State Department and others) and offers a roadmap for our community of practice in the way of an expanded code of conduct.

 

To be continued, with (hopefully) additional ideas from colleagues and others who want to transform thinking on these matters. Warren Master [email protected]

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