PUSHING FOR “ZERO TOLERANCE” ON SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN THE DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF CONGO

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 10 Feb 2010

Ramona Vijeyarasa – RH RealityCheck

The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been torn by violent conflicts since its independence from Belgium in 1960. Beginning in 1998, the Second Congo War involved seven foreign armies, these major actors driven largely by desires for control over natural resources, including diamonds, copper, zinc and coltan, these “economic forces and mineral resources fueling the war”. A peace accord in 2003 has not prevented sporadic fighting nor have the international peacekeeping forces been able to prevent rebel forces from intensifying assaults in the Ituri and North-Kivu provinces of the country in recent times.

Along with these conflicts has come widespread violence aimed at the civilian population, especially women. There is no shortage of reports or data documenting the abhorrent extent of sexual violence in the DRC. Primarily meant to protect the population, several reports show that armed forces have been complicit in sexual violence on many levels. Human Rights Watch (HRW) in their 2009 report “Soldiers who rape, commanders who kill” looks at the inability of the DRC government, military and judiciary to stop rape and the complicity of some of these actors in perpetuating sexual violence. Similarly, the group Doctors Without Borders (DWB) states, “more than three quarters of the women that we have treated have been raped by unknown armed soldiers.” In 2004, DWB treated 270 rape victims over the course of the year in North Kivu. Today, they treat that many victims of rape on average every month. While nearly 54 percent of those affected are ages 19 to 45, a startling 40 percent of victims are girls under the age of 18. Women are targets working in the fields. Women are targets walking home. Women are targets virtually everywhere.

Since 1999, the UN Mission in the DRC (MONUC) has been on the ground trying to create peace. The UN has recently extended the MONUC mandate until 31 May 2010, with the next few months specifically aimed at protecting civilians as well as facilitating the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of Congolese armed groups and repatriation and resettlement of foreign armed groups. For years now, DRC President Joseph Kabila and MONUC have pushed a “zero tolerance” policy against sexual violence and misconduct by the armed forces. This objective has obviously not been met. The Kimia II military operations (in Swahili and Lingala, Peace II), which saw MONUC lending support to the DRC army (FARDC), despite the army being implicated in grave human rights violations, failing to stop sexual violence. Considered by UN human rights actors, like Special Rapporteur Philip Alston to be a “catastrophe” for human rights, Kimia II has been replaced by the FARDC’s new operation “Amani Leo” (“Peace Today”) which commenced in January 2010. It can only be hoped that the renewed MONUC mandate and Amani Leo operations make some progress towards the “zero tolerance” policy, which has seemed until now, just a policy on paper.

The power of such a zero tolerance policy, if implemented and effective, cannot be understated. It is not simply a question of a completely unacceptable situation with regards to women’s security. Central to the issue is the sheer lawlessness that results when the armed forces are the perpetrators of violence. Some potentially effective strategies have been proposed to achieve justice for victims and put an end to sexual violence, including by the Office of the UN Senior Adviser and Coordinator on Sexual Violence in the DRC. Their strategy talks of combating impunity for cases of sexual violence by strengthening the judiciary and putting in force the DRC’s 2006 laws on sexual violence. They also highlight the need to reduce vulnerability and exposure of women to sexual violence, with more effective responses from security forces and better vetting to exclude from security forces “individuals who lack integrity”.

Persistent calls have been made directly to President Kabila from political leaders in the US and Europe for an end to the sexual violence. During a visit to Goma, the capital of North Kivu, in August of last year, Hillary Clinton pushed for “no impunity for the sexual and gender-based violence” in her meeting with Kabila, after first meeting with refugees at the Magunga camp. In December of last year, commenting on President Kabila’s declarations against violence, the Swedish European Union Affairs Minister Cecilia Malmstroem, whose country held the EU presidency until December of last year, reiterated “Congolese authorities are responsible for making sure the policy of zero tolerance is not merely words, but is also translated into reality”.

This is not an entirely new step. The EU has long been calling for an end to sexual violence in the DRC, with a resolution from January 2008 of the European Parliament noting that women in the eastern part of the DRC are being “systematically attacked on an unprecedented scale” with the atrocities against women structured around rape, gang rape, sexual slavery and murder having “far-reaching consequences including the physical and psychological destruction of women”. It further notes that although the DRC Humanitarian Action Plan 2008 reported 32,353 rapes during 2007, this was probably only a fraction of the total number.

Despite global pressure, reports on the ground are less hopeful. According to Refugees International, enforcement of the zero tolerance policy “especially of senior commanders, remains effectively non-existent”. Considered a “lawless world”, it is difficult to know what it will take to put an end to the rapes. Justice is weak in the DRC. UN Resolutions 1325 (2000) and 1820 (2008) on women and peace and security explicitly call for an end to sexual violence and demand the immediate end by all parties to armed conflict of all acts of sexual violence against civilians with immediate effect. Resolution 1820 specifically states that, among other things, rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide. Yet, in practical terms, on a day to day basis, where can women find refuge?

The complexity of addressing these issues should not be underestimated. I am writing this piece now in an effort to join other NGOs, UN agencies and activists from the international community pushing to make sure that the past years of sexual violence do not remain the norm. I am writing as a reminder that “zero-tolerance” does not simply mean a reduction in numbers and must not only be words on paper. The global community MUST watch to ensure that President Kabila’s commitment to the ELIMINATION of sexual violence is made real.

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