The cycle of sexual violence that has been churning throughout the eastern half of the Democratic Republic of the Congo has refused to stop, despite all the steps the United Nations has taken over decades to end the epidemic. Just last fall, systematic rapes, committed by the Congolese Army, occurred in an area around Minova, a new report, released earlier this month by the UN Joint Human Rights Office, reveals.
In November, the Congo Army, formally called the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC), retreated from North Kivu Province as the M23 rebel group invaded the capital, Goma. The troops ended up near Minova, in South Kivu Province, where the rapes occurred over 10 days, following a pattern in which three to six soldiers entered a home, looted and raped the women and girls in the house while one soldier stood guard outside. Victims were threatened with death if they shouted.
The UN investigation, outlined in the report, documented 135 sexual assault cases of women by the military, some at gunpoint, and many women attacked by more than one soldier. The victims included 33 girls, 6 to 17 years old. In addition, the report said that M23 rebels were responsible for at least 59 cases of sexual violence in the Goma area, many of them wives of Congolese Army soldiers.
As to why the soldiers committed such crimes without provocation is not addressed in the report, but André-Michel Essoungou, a UN Department of Peacekeeping and Field Support spokesman, said that this type of behavior was not unusual for retreating soldiers, who may be acting out of frustration and “certainly goes to the issue of discipline.”
Only 11 Army officers have been arrested for the Minova attacks, and two for rape. Twelve senior officers were suspended in March and are apparently being investigated by the Congolese judiciary, with help from the UN stabilization force in Congo. The report cites poor discipline among soldiers and officers, improper training and inadequate vetting mechanisms that could prevent soldiers with poor human-rights records from joining the military.
The UN’s latest strategy to try to instill peace in the region is the appointment of Mary Robinson, a former UN high commissioner for human rights, as special envoy for the Great Lakes region, which includes Congo. The UN is also deploying its first-ever combat brigade to intervene militarily in Congo, but there are already questions about the value of the force, which will be working under the umbrella of the largest police force and peacekeeping mission worldwide, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in Congo, or Monusco.
The brigade will consist of 3,000 infantry battalions, artillery and special forces to fight the dozens of rebel groups plaguing the area. It will be led by Malawi, South Africa and Tanzania troops, complementing Monusco’s work protecting civilians, and Tanzanian soldiers have just arrived.
The Women’s Peace Delegation, a collection of nongovernmental organizations, expressed serious concern that the brigade’s orders to disarm the M23 and others will actually increase violence against civilians in revenge. The women also expressed doubt that brigade members would adhere to the UN principles of zero tolerance on sexual exploitation and abuse. The brigade will, however, have a gender component to safeguard against abuses.
Timo Mueller, a senior researcher in Goma for the Enough Project, a nonprofit group based in Washington that fights international humanitarian crimes in central Africa, agrees with this assessment.
“The intervention brigade will further weaken state authority and increase gender-based violence,” Mueller said in a telephone interview. “I am very concerned, as it will certainly further militarize the province. The UN mission [Monusco] has the primary mandate to protect civilians, and the intervention brigade will enter the state, and all of the 20,000 UN personnel will be under increasing attack and will spend all of their resources protecting themselves and not the civilian population.”
Mueller thinks the brigade will cause a lot of chaos in the Kivu Provinces and throughout eastern Congo, interfering with the follow-up investigation and judicial work that is needed to identify sexual attacks.
“We are hearing rumors that the M23 and the other armed groups are staking alliances to build a defense mechanism against the brigade,” he said. “This will lead to displacement and a great dismantling of groups and collateral damage. It will also erode the authority of the state and weaken its social fabric.”
Rwanda, which borders some of the most contentious areas of eastern Congo and has been named by the UN as a party to the M23 rebels’ illegal activities, supports the brigade. “We believe that it must play a role of deterrence rather than of a military solution,” Eugène-Richard Gasana, the UN ambassador from Rwanda, wrote in an e-mail. He added that the brigade should not only back the new regional peace agreement but also focus on “negative forces in activity,” like the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel contingent that he said was forming a belt around the Rwandan border for potential incursions and has been “the main source of insecurity in eastern Congo since 1994.”
Most recently, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended that emergency contraceptives be made available to women who have been raped in conflicts.
“We have about four or five girls here per day who are victims of rape,” Virginie Mumbere, who runs public affairs for Heal Africa, a community health organization in Goma, said in a Skype call. Mumbere said that the lack of proper health infrastructure in the region makes it difficult to reach all women and children who are victims of sexual abuse.
Smaller homegrown groups, such as Women’s Solidarity for the Well Being of Families and the League for Congolese Solidarity, have been making inroads in helping victims recover, reinforcing the fact that local people can make a bigger difference than international institutions and government officials in many instances.
The UN and other professionals working in Congo have heavy hopes pinned on Robinson, the new special envoy.
“Mrs. Robinson’s role is very relevant,” Mueller of Enough said. “She adds a renewed commitment by the international community to provide peace in the region.” He added that while women are getting less afraid to file court cases, the UN must continue to work with nonprofit groups to promote justice reform.
Robinson, who was also the first woman to be president of Ireland, is tasked with carrying out the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Congo, which was signed in February 2013 by 11 countries: Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of Congo, Rwanda, South Africa, South Sudan, Uganda, Tanzania and Zambia, as well as by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, the Southern African Development Community, the African Union and the UN.
A senior UN official in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations said in a telephone interview that Robinson’s “framework of hope,” as she refers to the peace agreement, has been set up to deter attacks against women and children.
“The Congolese Army is not in the position to protect its own civilians,” the peacekeeping official said. “The intervention brigade will deal with these various armed groups and mitigate collateral damage. Obviously, there are great risks, and the aim is to reduce the possibility that civilians will be caught up in strike operations of the brigade.”
Robinson briefed the Security Council this month after a short visit to the Great Lakes region. She underlined that the “spirit” of negotiations should be met “with optimism and courage and not cynicism.” This time, she said in her own spirit of optimism, there is a chance to resolve the crisis’s “underlying causes and to stop it for good.”
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Tala Dowlatshahi is based in Zurich, where she runs the communities team for the International Relations and Security Network, an online information-services project. She formerly worked as the United Nations bureau chief for Talk Radio News Service. Since 2002, Dowlatshahi has also worked as a US representative for Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans Frontieres), the Paris-based media watchdog group. Dowlatshahi has reported from Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Turkey, South Africa and Uganda. Her work has been featured on CNN International, BBC World News, Al Jazeera, Voice of America, Reuters and in humanitarian news programs. She is member of New York Women in Film and Television and the Overseas Press Club of America as well as a recipient of the 2011 Visual Artists Guild champion for the right of freedom of speech and expression award. She as a B.A. in mass communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and an M.A. in international development from New York University.