Another Year Lost for the Lives and Dignity of Congo’s Women

November 29, 2012

Rape survivors awaiting surgery, Panzi hospital, Bukavu, South-Kivu province. Copyright Amnesty International

Three years ago when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took the unprecedented step of travelling to the Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to meet with rape survivors of the country’s brutal conflict, I was elated and hopeful. Elated because Secretary Clinton was doing something that had never been done before—sending the message that sexual violence is just as high on America’s foreign policy agenda as trade or traditional capital-to-capital diplomacy, and that the dignity and needs of survivors are a particular priority. Hopeful because I thought it meant perhaps three years later we would see some real change for women in that unending war.

I was wrong.

Tens of thousands of civilians have this very week been displaced following the fall of Goma, a city in Congo’s war-torn east, to the armed group M23, worsening an already dire human rights situation.  Since only April of this year, fighting between the Congolese army and the M23 armed group has displaced 226,000 people in North Kivu province, and 60,000 refugees have fled to Uganda and Rwanda. As with the many other chapters in what’s become known as Africa’s world war, sexual violence has been a trademark of the recent fighting. Amnesty International has documented numerous crimes under international law and other human rights violations committed in the course of fighting between M23 and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) army in recent months.

Congo has been plagued by almost two decades of conflict resulting in suffering and death of millions of men, women and children. Crimes under international law including unlawful killings, enforced disappearance, rape and other forms of torture and sexual violence have been committed on a large scale by national and foreign armies, armed groups and militias. Most chillingly, the Congo conflict has become synonymous with rape and other forms of sexual violence, which are committed with impunity by security forces, including the armed forces of the DRC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, FARDC), and other armed groups. And no number of promises from foreign dignitaries or resolutions from international security bodies seems to have changed that.

In a recent mission, Amnesty International visited several internally-displaced person (IDP) and refugee camps in DRC and Uganda. Some women and girls told Amnesty International that they feel more vulnerable in the camps. The husbands and men who would be their protectors have fled, fearing forced conscription by various armed groups. Women and girls report being raped as they scavenge for food or fuel for cooking fires.

As we mark this year’s global “16 Days” campaign against gender violence, I am deeply troubled by the lack of progress—perhaps the opposite of progress—we can claim on this issue. Last year held much the same sombre review of continually climbing rates of violence and soul-crushing impunity with which this war is waged on women’s bodies. This year, I am struck that the campaign is fittingly targeted to raise awareness on all forms of gender violence—including violence against men like Dr. Denis Mukwege, the Congolese doctor who was targeted for assassination on October 25th, 2012.  Dr. Mukwege is the celebrated—and very rare—surgeon in the East who has dedicated his career at Bukavu’s Panzi Hospital to rebuilding the torn bodies and psyches of Congolese rape survivors.

The Doctor had recently spoken to the UN General Assembly regarding sexual violence in his country, entreating the body to end the violence and bring justice to his country.  Though Dr. Mukwege survived the attack, his guard was not so lucky.

Keeping the Promise to Protect: More Action, Less Arms

When will enough at last be enough? When will we honor our promises to protect with the action that is necessary to prevent this ghastly violence and to hold perpetrators to account?

At Amnesty USA, we are marking this year’s Campaign calling on Secretary Clinton to remember her promises to the women and men of Congo who are the targets of this interminable war. The United States must use its leadership at the Security Council and on the world stage to stop the war on Congo’s women, pressuring the DRC government and the peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, to ensure civilians—especially women and girls—are protected.

On a larger level, what is happening today in the DRC is an urgent example of why progressive policy measures like an international Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) are needed. Since 2005, a UN resolution has banned the sale of weapons to armed groups in the North and South Kivu provinces and the Ituri region, where the bulk of revolts (including the current M23 rebellion) have taken place.  However, Amnesty International has documented numerous violations of this policy by the DRC government as well as by companies based in the US, the Ukraine, China and France.  Unfortunately, the UN chose to weaken its restrictions on arms sales in 2008, despite the fact that the UN Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources in the DRC indicated that neighboring countries such as Rwanda and Uganda continued to supply factions in eastern Congo with arms.

Similarly, the DRC government has allowed former rebel movements to integrate with the DRC armed forces without turning in weapons, and the regime has been increasingly secretive about tracking the whereabouts of weapons within its own military.  DRC forces often sold weapons to rebel groups or pro-government militias.  In 2012, the UN Board of Experts asserted that the Rwandan government was providing aid to the M23 rebel movement linked to Basco Ntaganda, a warlord indicted by the International Criminal Court for crimes that included violence against women.  His CNDP militia committed numerous rapes and killings of civilians in 2007 and 2008, and many of its members now belong to the M23 rebel movement.

The international arms trade is fueling Congo’s war on women. As an international community, we must demand an end to it. As Americans, we must insist that our own government hold US companies to account for their hand in the arms trade. We must demand that our leaders honor their commitments to end sexual violence in DRC by taking leadership at the United Nations to halt such crimes, to strengthen the protection of civilians and to ensure that the perpetrators of serious human rights violations are brought to justice. We must ensure that the policy mechanisms that are available—that could be utilized to do something now, today, this minute—actually are. That means using our leverage at the Security Council to put pressure on the world’s largest peacekeeping force, MONUSCO, to protect civilians—especially women and girls—in IDP camps and in the large swaths of countryside where we know fighting is happening but there is insufficient security presence. That means insisting the DRC Government enforce its farcical “zero tolerance policy” for sexual violence—we know who the worst offenders are, and we have the capacity to stop them. And finally, we must ensure survivors’ needs are met—that they have access to the full range of physical and psychosocial health services, livelihoods support and reparations, and legal and justice mechanisms.

Do something!

Write a letter calling on US State Department to take leadership at the Security Council in ensuring both the Government of the DRC and MONUSCO provide protection for civilians, especially women and girls at heightened risk of sexual and gender-based violence, in areas where insufficient security forces are present, including IDP camps, and to ensure survivors of violence have access to a full range of health, psychosocial, livelihoods and justice mechanisms and services.  Visit our 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence site and click on “DRC” to find more information and a sample letter.

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