UN human rights chief ‘appalled’ by sexual violence in DR Congo, Burundi

31 May 2007

The top United Nations human rights official today said that she was appalled by the level of sexual and gender-based violence she found in Africa’s Great Lakes region, particularly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Burundi.

“I have to say the level of sexual violence and its intensity is pretty surprising and appalling,” High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour told reporters in New York after briefing the Security Council on her recent 12-day visit to the region, where she toured the DRC, Rwanda and Burundi.

“Gender-based violence is not just an affront to dignity; it is a form of torture and absolute brutal physical and mental assault on the victims,” she said.

In a hospital Ms. Arbour visited in Kisangani in the northern DRC, one of the many she stopped at during her mission, she said that 60 per cent of the cases involved victims between the ages of 11 and 17.

Providing medical assistance – such as major fistula surgery – to assist victims is key, Ms. Arbour said, but she observed that “what is required is so out of reach,” both in terms of resources and of manpower.

She stressed that efforts targeting perpetrators and bring them to justice are also crucial.

While women who have been victims of violence have been ostracized and stigmatized, those behind the crimes operate with impunity, she said. In some instances, women are teased by the very same people who attacked them.

Deficits in the justice systems in the DRC and Burundi must be addressed to ensure that perpetrators of such crimes are prosecuted, she said. The system in the DRC is “so deficient,” she said, with informal settlements often taking place so those responsible are not charged. Meanwhile in Burundi, she said that magistrates themselves have commented on the corruption and interference thwarting the prosecution of cases.

In the DRC, the High Commissioner said that she travelled to such areas as Kisangani as well as Bunia and Goma in the east, “where armed groups are still continuing their predatory practices.”

One of the unfortunate effects in the DRC of the reintegration of militia leaders into the Armed Forces of the DRC (FARDC) is that “they have been emboldened, further empowered and seem to be continuing exactly the same pattern of predatory practices against civilians in the region,” she noted, calling for a major reform of the security sector.