The recent savage rape and assault of scores of civilians in the remote and troubled far east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) is a “brutal reminder” of the obstacles faced in keeping the peace in conflict zones, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said today.
At least 154 civilians were raped in 13 villages along a 21-kilometre stretch of road in North Kivu province’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.
The string of assaults “is another grave example of the levels of sexual violence and insecurity that continue to plague eastern DRC,” Mr. Ban told the Security Council this morning.
The Secretary-General said today that he has issued calls to the Congolese authorities to investigate the incident and bring those behind the attacks to justice and to the Government to step up efforts to enhance security and stability in eastern DRC.
According to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), more than 9,000 cases of rape were reported last year in North and South Kivu provinces alone. Many more cases are estimated to go unreported.
“Yet, I am compelled to ask: what more can we do to protect civilians from such wanton violations of international human rights and humanitarian law?” said Mr. Ban, who met with survivors of sexual violence in eastern DRC last year.
The UN mission in the DRC, known as MONUSCO, he noted, is doing its utmost to protect civilians, albeit with limited resources and in a very difficult environment.
“But, at such times, we should always ask if we could have done more.”
The Secretary-General has announced that he is immediately dispatching Assistant Secretary-General Atul Khare from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) to the DRC to work with Roger Meece, his Special Representative in the country.
In a statement issued yesterday, he also said that he has asked his Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, to lead the UN response.
“Women and children should not have to live in fear of rape,” Mr. Ban emphasized.
“Communities should not suffer the indignity of knowing that human rights abusers and war criminals can continue to behave with impunity.”
Mr. Meece acknowledged today that while MONUSCO has been endeavouring to boost its regular contact with civilians and hold weekly meetings with local authorities regarding the safety of villagers, “none of these actions were enough” to prevent the recent tragedy.
The mission is considering having daily contact with villages in the area, and if no communication has been received, patrols will be dispatched.
But the envoy, addressing reporters in New York via video conference, noted that distances, even if they seem short by Western standards, “can be quite daunting” in eastern DRC, making it difficult for local leaders to travel to hold regular talks with MONUSCO.
The head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said yesterday that the recent mass rape underlines the urgent need to bring an end to the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war.
Anthony Lake, the agency’s Executive Director, said in a statement yesterday that “egregious violations of human rights, including rape and sexual violence, have become endemic in the DRC.”
According to UNICEF, some 18,000 survivors of sexual violence in the country sought assistance last year alone, including nearly 12,000 who were in need of urgent medical help.
“It is highly likely that many more attacks have gone unreported,” Mr. Lake stressed.
Many victims of sexual violence are physically and psychologically wounded for the rest of their lives and such assaults have profound impacts on families, communities and society, he added.
“Sexual violence is an international crime and all perpetrators must be held fully accountable,” the UNICEF head underscored. “Impunity from prosecution and punishment must end.”