The recent savage mass rapes of civilians by armed groups in the volatile far east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) underscores the need for an end to impunity for perpetrators of such crimes, a senior United Nations official 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.
Margot Wallström, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict, told reporters today that these latest atrocities reinforce that “you cannot have a policy of zero tolerance backed by zero consequences.”
The DRC Government must buttress its policies to combat sexual violence with “consistent and visible consequences” for perpetrators, she stressed.
“So long as rapists remain at large, they hold the whole reputation of the Congo hostage.”
Ms. Wallström emphasized that the recent mass rapes highlight how sexual violence “should never be dismissed as random, cultural or inevitable.”
Systematic rapes, she said, are planned and are therefore preventable, and the North Kivu rapes highlight how peace and stability cannot be consolidated in the DRC unless women’s security can be ensured.
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, while many cases are believed to go unreported.
The official said a two-pronged approach is being pursued to tackle the problem of sexual violence in eastern DRC.
Firstly, perpetrators must be held accountable, she said, the issue of sexual violence is being elevated on the agendas of both the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the Security Council.
“The time when sexual violence is tolerated and sidelined as a product of war is over,” she said, noting that former Congolese leader Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo is facing trial at the ICC for war crimes, including rape.
Also key is improving the UN’s response to such incidents, Ms. Wallström emphasized.
The DRC has a joint Government-UN strategy on combating sexual violence, but efforts to implement it must be enhanced, she stressed.
Thirteen UN entities have joined forces to set up UN Action against Sexual Violence in Conflict in a bid to improve coordination and accountability, support national efforts to prevent sexual violence, and respond effectively to the needs of survivors.
Since peacekeepers could often be the first to interact with survivors, they must be prepared to respond to cases of sexual violence as much as they are for conventional military interventions, Ms. Wallström said.
However, she voiced concerns that as expectations mount for blue helmets in the DRC, the Government is requesting that the world body draws down its presence in the vast African nation.
“So we are expected to do more at the same time with less peacekeepers,” the Special Representative said, pointing out that at the time of the recent North Kivu attacks, there were 80 blue helmets stationed in an area over 300 square kilometres.
Although it is “simply not realistic” for peacekeepers to protect all women in the war-torn eastern DRC, she said the world body is looking into new ways and measures to enhance policies already in place, including early warning systems, distress call programmes and market patrols.
Ms. Wallström also said a senior member of her staff is currently in the ground with a team led by Assistant Secretary-General Atul Khare from the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), who was dispatched to the area last week by Mr. Ban.