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LONDON — When Angelina Jolie and William Hague traveled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in March, the Hollywood star and the British foreign minister naturally attracted attention. But what they came for — to announce a plan by the British government to bring war rapists to justice — might have been met with weary eyes.
Nevertheless the plan, developed by the British government and adopted by the Group of 8 countries in April, is meant to tackle the weariest places, calling for perpetrators of serious sexual violence during conflicts to be tried for war crimes. “An end to impunity,” as Jolie, also a United Nations special envoy for refugee issues, put it.
“This gives us the responsibility actively to search for, prosecute or hand over for trial anyone accused of these crimes,” Hague said in his announcement. “We need to shrink, and then to eradicate, safe havens for those responsible for war zone rape, and this is a step towards doing that.”
The initiative calls for creating an international protocol on investigating and documenting sexual violence in conflict. To begin to do so, the British government has formed a 73-member team of experts — police officers, lawyers, psychologists, doctors, forensic experts, gender-based violence experts and specialists in the care and protection of survivors and witnesses — to carry out the protocol in conflict zones.
The International Criminal Court, the world’s only permanent judicial body, is already charged with investigating and prosecuting war crimes, which includes sexual violence in conflicts. Britain contends, however, that the functions do not overlap.
“The UK effort will reinforce existing international and national efforts, rather than to duplicate or cut across them,” a spokeswoman for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office — Britain’s foreign ministry — said, adding that one objective of the suggested protocols is to help prosecutors at national and international levels.
Earlier this year, the team visited Syrian refugee camps (citing safety reasons, the British government declined to specify exactly where the team worked). The team trained local health professionals in the camps on “how to respond to reports of sexual violence, with the objective of improving the prospect of future investigation and potential prosecutions.”
Next, the team is scheduled to investigate violence in Bosnia, the Congo and Mali. Britain is also keeping the spotlight on the initiative this month at the United Nations Security Council, of which it is a permanent member and president in June. The debate, on preventing sexual violence in conflict, is to occur on June 24 and be led by Hague in New York. The government hopes to produce a resolution from the discussion on the nexus between accountability and prevention, a spokeswoman for the British mission to the UN told PassBlue.
“The UK government’s initiative is a very good and important step, but I’m not sure how much will change on the ground,” Chantal Daniels, a sexual violence specialist with Christian Aid, an international development charity, said in an interview. In the Congo, “you have to combat sexual violence not just by focusing on impunity but also through prevention work.”
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office says that Hague’s passion for the issue dates back to his encounters with rape survivors in refugee camps in Darfur, Sudan, and Srebrenica in Bosnia during the 1990s.
“Those experiences brought home to him the overwhelming lack of justice for survivors of wartime rape and sexual violence, despite the excellent work done by grassroots organizations and NGOs,” or nongovernmental organizations, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Office told PassBlue. “He was struck by the terrible life sentence of trauma, stigma and illness that follows the wake of rape in war and the impact this has on families and communities. Without justice and dignity for survivors, there is a long-term impact on development and the seeds of future conflict are sown.” (Foreign Office rules do not allow spokespeople to be named in most cases.)
A recent study featured in the International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, a journal published by the Guttmacher Institute, found that two in five women and one in four men in eastern Congo said they had been victims of sexual violence during the 20-year conflict. The time frame for those who were interviewed for the study was not clear.
Additionally, 43 percent of the 998 men and women surveyed reported that someone in their household had experienced a sexual human-rights abuse related to the conflict, with rape being the most common form of violence against women and second among men who were sexually abused. (The types of abuse included molestation and being forced to undress.)
The problem, Daniels said, is that conflict zones have no working legal system, and the police and armed forces are themselves implicated in sexual attacks. “And what will the capacity to hunt suspected sexual perpetrators be?” Daniels asked. “The UK expert team will be deployed on the ground, but to which extent will it be able to carry out investigations?”
That is the challenge. The British initiative, formally called the G8 Declaration on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict, is not legally binding. “The international voluntary protocol for sharing information is a good step,” Daniels noted. “But many NGOs on the ground may not want to participate. Who would they have to share their information with?”
Getting victims to talk about the details of their sexual abuse is a continuing problem, let alone getting them to testify against their attackers. “When they testify the rapists take revenge,” Jeannine Mabunda Lioko, a member of the Congo Parliament, said in an interview from Kinshasa, the capital. “When they go back to their villages, the perpetrator says, ‘So you said I attacked you? This time I’ll do even worse.’ That’s the problem we face. If they’re going to bring charges and testify, the women need protection.”
The plan could provide a sabre-rattling effect. “William Hague’s high-profile visit to Goma [in eastern Congo] certainly helped put the initiative on the map as far as policymakers and stakeholders here are concerned,” Fran Charles, a humanitarian worker for World Vision in eastern Congo, told PassBlue.
But, she added, “the Congolese have been let down by hundreds of initiatives before because the initiatives haven’t addressed the critical reasons behind sexual violence. Unless they address the underlying structural factors in eastern DRC, such poverty, scarcity of land and weakness of state structures, no initiatives can be effective.”
Despite enormous data on sexual violence in Congo, the situation may be much grayer than the numbers tell. Gina Heathcote, a professor of gender studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, said that focusing on women as sexual victims does not address the other roles they play in conflicts, including unsavoury ones. “Women are also combatants, perpetrators of violence and peace negotiators,” she said.
Perhaps the most frightening, rarely heard statistic of the Congo’s war rape epidemic is that in 41 percent of sexual assaults reported against women, another woman was the sole perpetrator, says the study published in the International Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health.
But nonprofit groups in the region dispute these findings. “This seems like an absurd statistic,” Emma Pomfret, a Christian Aid spokeswoman, said. “I have only ever heard of this happening very, very rarely, and then among the Mau Mau [rebel group]. When I went to the DRC last year for a documentary we were told the same thing. It’s definitely not 41 percent as in the report.”