No Justice for Women in DRC

July 28, 2011

Rape survivors gather to meet Amnesty International mission delegates, Kindu, Maniema province.

Two years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the unprecedented step of extending a diplomatic visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in order to travel across the country and meet directly with rape survivors in the country’s war-torn eastern region.

The Secretary heard brutal, firsthand accounts of targeted sexual violence women had suffered as part of a systematic campaign by armed groups intended to terrorize civilians and maintain control.

In response, Clinton committed her office to elevated efforts to prevent and respond to sexual violence, including a $17 million investment in survivor services and other programs.

Yet two years later, the headlines coming out of the Congo paint no better picture for women—indeed, it may be worse. Mass rapes have continued, many orchestrated by troops and commanders in the national army, while delays, corruption and disputes amongst Congolese authorities point to a calculated effort to sidestep rather than facilitate the administration of justice.

Just last week, the United Nations publicly implicated two army colonels for blocking investigations into mass rapes committed in North Kivu province over New Year’s Day. To date, no suspect has been charged in the rapes, in which 100 soldiers are reported to have attacked civilians in the villages of Bushani and Kalambahiro with whips and machetes, accusing them of supporting rebel groups. The official number of rape victims is 47, although as with most incidents of sexual violence, the crimes are likely underreported.

Then there were last month’s chilling reports of more mass rapes by 150 members of the Congolese army who had deserted from a training camp and raped over 100 women in Nyakiele village, near the town of Fizi. There are links between the leaders of those attacks and those responsible for the New Year’s Day rapes: the deputy to Colonel Kifaru Niragire, who has given himself up as the leader of the June attacks, was one of nine men—and the first commanding officer in DRC’s history–jailed by a military court on charges of ‘crimes against humanity’ for the January rapes. To date, Kifaru remains on an army base as investigations continue.

Most worryingly, there has been little movement in the delivery of justice for the 387 women, men, boys and girls who were raped in July and August of last year in the largest reported mass rapes on record in the country. Indeed, the news earlier this month was that the investigation has been called off due to reprisal attacks against survivors seeking justice. A UN report published last year pointed to the weakness of the Congolese justice system as a major obstacle to ensuring truth, justice and reparation for human rights violations.

How many more brutal accounts of dozens, even hundreds of rapes must surface before justice is served for women in DRC?

While survivor services are of utmost importance, what is critically needed is a simultaneous intervention that will ensure that justice, guaranteed by both national and international law, is served. In the face of these horrific accounts of rape and institutional failures to hold perpetrators to account, policies like Congo’s supposed “zero-tolerance” policy for sexual violence ring frighteningly false.

Indeed, the very credibility of international conventions like UN Security Council Resolutions 1325, 1820 and 1888, which were designed to protect women in war, are subject to question if the world’s largest peacekeeping force and the intervention of powerful international spokespeople like Special Representative Margot Wallstrom and Secretary Clinton amount to nothing.

There are a number of measures being piloted to address Congo’s historic abridgement of justice. A draft law is currently being discussed at the national level to create a specialized court for prosecuting perpetrators of serious international human rights and humanitarian law violations through mixed chambers consisting of local and international representatives. Mobile courts are also being pioneered, intended to take justice to the villages where the crimes are committed. Yet time is running out for women of Eastern Congo.

By whatever means, prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigations must be conducted into these crimes in accordance with international standards and perpetrators must be prosecuted. Survivors and witnesses seeking justice must be protected during investigations, and they must be able to access medical, psychological and other support services.

The Congolese government seems incapable or unwilling to do so directly, but it is under no circumstances to be permitted to stand in the way of international efforts to do so in its stead. The United States is chief among those who has pledged to end Congo’s war on women; now, more than ever, it is time for Secretary Clinton to keep those promises.

It is time to demand justice for rape survivors in Eastern Congo.