UN report highlights Congo's continuing rape crisis

Posted May 12, 2013 by Robert Myles
A new report by United Nations human rights inspectors says Congolese troops carried out systematic rapes of women and girls numbering nearly 200 toward the end of last year.
Villagers fleeing their homes in Sake  in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)’s North Kivu ...
Villagers fleeing their homes in Sake, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)’s North Kivu province, after fighting erupted between FARDC Government forces and rebel groups
UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti
The recent UN dossier states Congolese armed forces, known by their French acronym of FARDCLes Forces armées de la République démocratique du Congo — raped more than 102 women and 33 girls, some a mere 6 years old. The near 200 cases of rape took place as the Congolese troops, in November 2012, retreated in the face of an advance by a rebel grouping known as the M23 militia, otherwise known as the The March 23 Movement — Le Mouvement du 23-mars. The report gives accounts from victims and eyewitnesses telling of mass rape, killings, arbitrary executions and other gross violations of human rights. Nor do the M23 rebels escape criticism. The UN inspectors’ report also cites militia forces as committing a number of atrocities. In April, Digital Journal had reported on the case of a Congolese soldier who had confessed to raping 53 women near the Congolese town of Minova.
According to MONUSCO (the United Nations Organization Mission in Democratic Republic of the Congo), FARDC soldiers committed serious human rights violations. As these were “perpetrated in a systematic manner and with extreme violence,” the UN body says they may constitute international crimes under human rights law, as well as crimes under Congolese criminal law. The report focused on events in November 2012 as fighting took place between government forces and rebels over the town of Goma, North Kivu province in The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and the subsequent retreat by Congolese government forces that regrouped around the town of Minova in South Kivu province.
The majority of the cases documented in the UN report occurred on November 22 and 23 around the town of Minova. Each incident had a similar modus operandi: As the report describes, “FARDC soldiers entered houses, usually in groups of three to six, and, after threatening the inhabitants, looted whatever they could find. One or two of the soldiers would leave with the looted goods and at least one would stand guard as the remaining FARDC soldiers raped women and girls in the house. Victims were threatened with death if they shouted; some were raped at gunpoint. Most victims were raped by more than one soldier. Almost all cases of rape documented by the UNJHRO [United Nations Joint Human Rights Office] were accompanied by death threats and additional acts of physical violence.”
In a statement, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said, “Those responsible for such crimes must know that they will be prosecuted.” He described the sexual violence outlined in the report as “horrifying” in both its scale and systematic nature.
Around the same time, as M23 militia occupied the towns of Goma and Sake, they perpetrated serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations, says the report. UN investigators documented at least 59 cases of sexual violence, 11 arbitrary executions, recruitment of children, forced labor, cruel inhuman and degrading treatment and looting by M23 combatants.
The joint investigation attributed a number of reasons for the atrocities. These included poor discipline among soldiers and officers, improper training and inadequate vetting mechanisms for new recruits to the military. Investigators also expressed their serious concern on failings of the Congolese army to protect civilians blaming the failures on a lack of vetting procedures on those signing up for military service — a lack of checks that allowed former rebels to integrate into the Congolese national army without verification of their human rights records.
While recognizing that DRC authorities had made an effort to investigate human rights violations, Ms. Pillay urged DRC authorities to do more to ensure justice for victims and to re-establish the confidence of the civilian population in the Congolese justice system. The commanding officers of two of the battalions alleged to have been involved in the rapes have been suspended after MONUSCO wrote to FARDC's chief of staff requesting formal suspension of support to these units.
Since these initial suspensions, the DRC government said it had carried out further investigations, in the course of which it had recorded around 400 testimonies from victims, witnesses and suspects. Government sources also said several arrests had been made as an interim internal disciplinary measure with a number of officers allegedly involved in the atrocities having been suspended pending further proceedings being taken by the military prosecutor.
Among the officers suspended are the two commanding officers of the battalions principally suspected of committing atrocities, their deputies and officers from eight other units.
Roger Meece, the head of MONUSCO and the UN secretary-general’s special representative in the DRC, welcomed the steps taken by the authorities. He also affirmed the United Nations’ continued support for an independent, credible judicial investigation and the Congolese armed forces. Mr. Meece went on to say that future efforts to improve security in DRC armed forces must include systematic verification of the human rights records of combatants and their commanders. Only by doing so could the Congolese army have any chance of fully ensuring civilians were protected
As recently as March 30, Zainab Hawa Bangura, special representative of the UN secretary-general on sexual violence in conflict, signed an agreement with Congolese Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo Mapon to prevent sexual violence. The task for the Congolese government is now to put into practice the various commitments set out in the Joint Communiqué which includes combating impunity for crimes of sexual violence, accelerating security sector reform efforts, creating vetting mechanisms when integrating former combatants into the national army, ensuring a better control of mineral resources and greater support for services to survivors.
Putting the latest UN report in context, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been described as the "rape capital of the world." As far back as 2007, an article in The Washington Post described the prevalence of rape in the Congo as being the worst in the world with the intensity of sexual violence against women in eastern Congo being "almost unimaginable." In the same year, in a PBS documentary entitled ‘A Conversation with Eve Ensler: Femicide in the Congo’, activist Christine Schuler Deschryver said that in the eastern part of Congo, there were more than 200,000 victims of rape.