The United Nations is dispatching a senior staff member to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as senior officials express outrage at the recent rape and assault of more than 150 civilians by rebels based in the remote and troubled east of the country.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, condemned the attacks, saying they demonstrated the widespread level and systematic nature of sexual violence in the DRC.
Mr. Ban and Ms. Wallström urged that the perpetrators be brought to justice and pledged to help authorities in the DRC to fight impunity against sexual and gender-based violence.
A UN human rights team has confirmed that members of the Mai-Mai militia and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group of ethnic Hutu fighters linked to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, carried out the attacks in a series of villages in North Kivu province over a four-day period ending earlier this month.
At least 154 civilians were raped in 13 villages along a 21-kilometre stretch of road in North Kivu’s Banamukira territory between 30 July and 2 August, with the attackers blocking the road and preventing the villagers from reaching outside communications. Many homes were also looted.
In a statement issued by his spokesperson, Mr. Ban stressed the need for all armed groups in the DRC to lay down their weapons and join the peace process. The country’s civil war officially ended earlier this decade but sporadic fighting continues in the east and rebels wage frequent and brutal attacks against civilians, especially in North Kivu and South Kivu.
“The United Nations supports the efforts of the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to fight impunity and ensure the protection of civilians from violations of international human rights and humanitarian law, including all forms of sexual and gender-based violence,” the statement noted.
Mr. Ban said he is immediately dispatching Assistant Secretary-General Atul Khare from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to the region, where he will look into the UN response on the ground.
Mr. Khare is scheduled to meet with victims of the attacks, local community representatives and peacekeepers with the UN mission to the DRC (known as MONUSCO) who operate from a base in North Kivu.
MONUSCO’s efforts to protect civilians are constrained by both the scale and remoteness of the area, which makes patrolling difficult. Roads are often in extremely poor condition.
UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky also noted to journalists today that it is not uncommon for incidents involving civilians to go unreported given the locals’ fear of brutal reprisals from rebels.
Ms. Wallström, who will be in charge of the UN’s overall response to the incident, issued her own statement in which she described the mass rape as “a very extreme case in terms of its scale and the level of organization.
“This terrible incident confirms my general findings during my recent visit to the DRC of the widespread and systematic nature of rape and other human rights violations,” she added, noting that UN, civil society and NGO (non-governmental organization) sources also confirm this.
Ms. Wallström said the sexual violence in the DRC is so grave and widespread that it requires priority attention from the international community.
The Special Representative said the UN is examining ways of more rigorously monitoring the violence and other human rights violations so that perpetrators can be better identified and brought to justice.