Opinion Rape as a Weapon of War in Congo

Sexual violence is a brutal reality in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo: Tens of thousands of women and children were raped in the region last year alone. In a guest editorial, François Grignon of the International Crisis Group urges the West to fight the epidemic before more lives are shattered.

By François Grignon

Panzi Hospital in the town of Bukavu in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo specialises in the care of rape victims. Although Panzi has 350 beds, it must send many women home before they have fully recovered because of the never-ending stream of new patients arriving for treatment.

Panzi is emblematic of the catastrophic toll sexual violence has inflicted on the people of eastern Congo over the past decade. The non-governmental organization Medecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) has reported that 75 percent of all the rape cases it dealt with worldwide were in the eastern Congo. A census by UNICEF and related medical centres reported treatment of 18,505 persons for sexual violence in the first 10 months of 2008, 30 percent of whom were children. This year, the situation deteriorated further still, with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reporting a huge surge in sexual violence and rape in eastern Congo.

Reported cases represent only a fraction of the total -- a vast number of cases go unreported. Women fear that they will lose all prospects for marriage or that their husbands will abandon them if they acknowledge they have been raped. In other cases, the threat of retribution -- coupled with the near certainty that the perpetrators will never be held accountable -- discourages women from stepping forward.

Most of the warring parties of the conflict in eastern Congo, including the Congolese Army, Rwandan Hutu rebels, and Congolese Tutsi rebels, have used rape as a weapon of war. Moreover, rape has become ingrained in Congolese civilian society and is widely used to determine power relations. Men and teenagers rape not only women and girls of all ages, but also other males. An estimated 90 percent of minors in prison in eastern Congo have been convicted of rape, according to the non-governmental North Kivu Provincial Subcommission on Sexual Violence.

A Culture of Impunity

Sexual violence can be as damaging as bullets. It destroys not only the bodies of the victims, but the basic social fabric of local communities and stokes the armed conflict that has plagued the eastern Congo. Enduring peace will require systematically putting military and civilian rapists behind bars in order to end the culture of impunity that promotes sexual violence.

But Congolese military and civilian authorities show little will to prosecute sexual crimes. And Congolese military and civilian courts lack the capacity, credibility and political neutrality to judge such crimes effectively and fairly. To deal successfully with the scourge of sexual violence, a consolidated approach needs to be developed involving both international and national judicial mechanisms.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) should immediately begin to issue arrest warrants for senior commanders who have used sexual violence as a weapon of war, since it can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity, or even a constitutive act with respect to genocide. The ICC cannot, however, handle the bulk of the cases. Widespread enforcement will require a reformed Congolese justice system that the Congolese people trust and use, staffed by competent, trained and fair-minded people. It should also include increased civilian and military criminal penalties for sexual crimes, the strengthening of arrest, detention and prosecution capabilities, the stepped-up recruitment and training of female police officers and a civilian court of appeal for victims of sexual abuse to replace the military court that now handles such cases.

Empty Words?

The Congolese authorities also need to take steps to prevent sexual crimes from happening before they occur. These steps include enforcing appropriate military disciplinary measures, upholding the principle of command responsibility, training troops on the categorical prohibition of sexual violence against civilians, debunking myths that fuel sexual violence, vetting armed and security forces to take into account past actions of rape and evacuating women and children under imminent threat of sexual violence.

The UN's launch on April 1, 2009 of an overall strategy for combating sexual violence in the Congo was a welcome step. But this strategy and other recommendations for justice reform and for preventing sexual violence will be empty words in the absence of robust engagement at all levels of the Congolese civilian and military hierarchy.

If we wish to end the never-ending stream of women arriving at Panzi Hospital, we cannot afford to turn our heads. Western donor countries must apply the necessary pressure on Congolese military and civilian authorities and demand both judicial and political accountability for the continuing violence in eastern Congo, pushing them much harder to take the actions needed to rid the country of the epidemic of sexual violence.

François Grignon is director of the Africa Program of the International Crisis Group.


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