Last year marked major progress toward finding a peaceful resolution for the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s achingly long conflict, rooted in decades of civil war, regional incursions, ethnic tensions and resource pilfering. Throughout the many years, women have borne the brunt of the fighting, caught in the crossfire between rival militias and governments and terrorized through sexual violence as a tactic of war.
In February 2013, the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework Agreement was signed, and the dissolution of the M23 rebel group in eastern Congo began in November through aggressive methods deployed by the United Nations’ new armed brigade, which is made up of African troops and controversial despite its success as part of the UN’s peacekeeping mission in Congo. Yet many other armed groups still operate in eastern Congo, inflicting deadly attacks against civilians and raping women, while the UN says it is committed to its offensive approach.
In an interview with PassBlue, Russ Feingold, 61, the American special envoy to the Great Lakes region in Africa and Congo (DRC), answered questions about the conflict’s effects on women and other major problems that must be addressed moving forward.
Feingold was appointed special envoy in July 2013 and had previously served on the United States Senate Africa Subcommittee for 18 years as a Democrat from Wisconsin. In his new post, he is tasked with advising leaders in the region on resolving the conflict, which involves not only Congo but also Rwanda and Uganda.
On April 7, a US presidential delegation is traveling to Rwanda to attend the 20th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide, which helped to further destabilize eastern Congo. Feingold is part of the delegation, led by Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the UN.
Q. Are women in Congo still suffering in large numbers?
A. The continuing conflict and instability in the DRC has had a devastating effect on the civilian population, but a particularly harrowing effect on women and others who are subjected to sexual and gender-based violence [SGBV]. SGBV is a symptom of the chronic conflict where rape and sexual violence have been used as tactics of war. Many women in areas of conflict in the DRC have also been displaced, some repeatedly so, and denied the security and stability that enables families to prosper, to send their children to school and benefit from the government services we all take for granted. The United States is supporting a range of programs through UN and NGO [nongovernmental organization] partners to protect and empower displaced women and families, including coordinated efforts to prevent and respond to SGBV.
Q. Does the Congolese legal system support survivors of gender-based violence? What needs to improve?
A. The DRC government announced in 2009 a “zero-tolerance policy” on SGBV and has strong laws on the books against it; however, much remains to be done to fully implement this policy and ensure that the DRC government has the capacity to investigate and prosecute SGBV cases. As part of judicial reform, the DRC government needs to better establish witness protection programs so that survivors and witnesses feel safer coming forward. We continue to encourage and support institutional reform within the DRC’s judicial sector. As part of an effort to reinforce the capacity of the Congolese justice system, we strongly support the proposal for the establishment of mixed chambers in the DRC, which would include formal participation by international and Congolese judges, prosecutors and investigations; and provide a mechanism for holding people accountable for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other serious human rights abuses, including sexual and gender-based violence.
Q. What steps does the government need to do to address the root causes of gender-based violence and how can it stop it?
A. When I talk to women in the DRC and Congolese refugees in Rwanda, they share heart-wrenching stories of violence carried out against them and their families, instilling fear and doubt in the government. Many have been repeatedly attacked and/or displaced. This environment of fear impacts generations. SGBV is a symptom of the multiple-armed conflicts in the DRC — rape and other sexual crimes are used as tactics of war by predatory armed groups. The best way to end the use of SGBV is to end these conflicts and establish state authority and security in these areas. In this regard, we strongly support the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework Agreement, which we believe grants the DRC and the region the best opportunity for addressing the root causes of conflict. We continue to encourage and support the DRC government’s full and prompt implementation of its Framework commitments, including governance and security sector reform.
In addition to security concerns, there remains an absence of state authority in many parts of the country, which impede the delivery of services to the people. The country also suffers from insufficient infrastructure in some places and an utter lack of infrastructure in others. Ending the immediate conflict is an absolute priority, but ensuring the delivery of state services and enabling development are also pivotal to creating the conditions in which families can safely return to their homes and communities and live productive lives.
Q. With defeat of the M23 rebel group last fall, has the security situation improved for women in eastern Congo? What problems persist?
A. While the end of the M23 rebellion was a key step in stabilizing eastern DRC, the people of eastern Congo continue to be preyed upon and uprooted by a myriad of armed groups, including the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda [FDLR], the Allied Democratic Forces [ADF] and such armed groups as Mai Mai Cheka,which is responsible for some of the most heinous acts against women and civilians. We support the DRC military and the UN peacekeeping mission in the DRC’s ongoing efforts to protect civilians and neutralize the threat of these armed groups. The DRC government must also further implement security sector reform in order to establish a military and police that are capable of securing the entire country without preying upon its people. This includes ending impunity and ensuring that those responsible for SGBV and other human-rights abuses are held accountable, regardless of rank.
Q. Rwanda and Uganda have agreed to take in former rebels, while saying they will cooperate with the prosecution of those who have committed serious crimes. How likely is it that those who committed violence against women, including members of Congo’s army, will be prosecuted? What are the obstacles to pursuing justice in these cases?
A. The DRC government is currently prosecuting some of those alleged to be responsible for the Minova rapes in 2012. Our ambassador-at-large for war crimes, Stephen Rapp, attended the trials recently and noted that he is encouraged to see that the trials he observed appeared to be conducted in accordance with international standards for due process and fair trials. We continue to urge the Congolese authorities to ensure that the rights of the victims and the accused are fully respected and followed, and that all the defendants are present at their trials to face their accusers. There are prosecutions of security personnel, too few and hampered by an under-resourced judicial sector, but these are important steps for the DRC in ensuring justice and accountability, and for sending a clear message to future perpetrators that the Congolese government will not tolerate abuses against civilians by the security forces who are meant to protect them.
Rwanda and Uganda should work with the DRC government to return M23 ex-combatants to the DRC for demobilization and reintegration into civilian life. Those accused or suspected of war crimes and human-rights abuses should be investigated and prosecuted by the DRC government. The provision in the Nairobi Declaration, signed by the DRC government and the M23 in December 2012, calls for those responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity to be held accountable. As follow-up to this provision, the government of the DRC passed a strong law which grants amnesty for political crimes but which states very clearly that those responsible for atrocity crimes are not eligible for amnesty. This demand for accountability is a break from previous peace agreements that enshrined impunity. We encourage the DRC government to fully implement the Nairobi Declaration by holding accountable those responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and other human-rights abuses, including sexual and gender-based violence, whether by members of the M23 or the DRC’s security services. We also support the establishment of mixed chambers at the national level as the best mechanism for realizing the promises of accountability in the Nairobi Declaration.
M23 ex-combatants are spread across the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda. We urge these countries to cooperate in ensuring that those members of the M23 responsible for human-rights abuses are properly held accountable, per the Nairobi Declaration.
Q. You have said that you believe the participation of women in the peace process is critical to its success in the Great Lakes region. Could you elaborate?
A. The peace process underway in the Great Lakes to implement the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework Agreement will only succeed if it includes the voice and will of the people. It is imperative that women, who suffer the brunt of conflict, be full and active participants in the peace process. It is for this reason that I fully support the Great Lakes Women’s Platform, which UN special envoy, Mary Robinson, helped launch. The goal of this initiative is to ensure that women are full participants in the peace process, including by empowering and supporting women’s organizations.