Reports that between 150 and 200 women and children were raped by rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) prompted pledges by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that the United States will do everything it can to work with the United Nations and DRC officials to hold the perpetrators responsible and create a safe environment for all civilians living in eastern Congo.
According to press reports, hundreds of soldiers from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) and elements of the Mai Mai local militia took over Luvungi and surrounding villages between July 30 and August 4 and brutally raped women and baby boys before looting the areas and withdrawing.
“This horrific attack is yet another example of how sexual violence undermines efforts to achieve and maintain stability in areas torn by conflict but striving for peace,” Clinton said in an August 25 statement.
“The United States has repeatedly condemned the epidemic of sexual violence in conflict zones around the world, and we will continue to speak out on this issue for those who cannot speak for themselves,” she said.
Along with causing immediate harm to victims, sexual violence “denies and destroys our common dignity, it shreds the fabric that weaves us together as humans, it endangers families and communities, it erodes social and political stability, and it undermines economic progress,” Clinton said. “These travesties, committed with impunity against innocent civilians who play no role in armed conflict, hold us all back.”
The secretary presided over the September 20, 2009, passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1888, which underscores the importance of preventing and responding to sexual violence used as a tactic of war. In the wake of the latest incident, Clinton urged the international community to “build on this action with specific steps to protect local populations against sexual and gender-based violence and bring to justice those who commit such atrocities.”
More than 5 million people have died during fighting in the DRC dating back to the mid-1990s, and the conflict remains one of the longest-running — and deadliest — in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 5,000 rapes were reported in the Kivu region in 2009, although the actual number is believed to be much higher, according to news reports. The soldiers of the chronically undertrained and unpaid Congolese military are often accused of being the worst perpetrators of systematic rape, while high-ranking Congolese government officials and members of the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in the DRC also have been accused.
The International Criminal Court has begun legal proceedings against former DRC rebel leaders Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, as well as former DRC Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba. All three are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape.
During her visit to Goma in August 2009, Clinton announced that the United States is providing $17 million to help survivors of rape and prevent sexual violence in the eastern DRC.
The funding is being used to provide medical care, counseling, economic assistance and legal support to 10,000 women in areas including North and South Kivu. Part of the money is also being spent to train health care workers in the complex surgical procedures needed by survivors of rape, such as fistula repair.
Condemning the rapes in the Luvungi area as “another grave example of both the level of sexual violence and the insecurity that continue to plague the DRC,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon sent Assistant Secretary-General Atul Khare, the officer-in-charge of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, to the country, and told U.N. Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallstrom to take charge of the U.N.’s response and follow-up to this incident, according to an August 24 statement by Ban’s spokesman, Martin Nesirky.
According to Nesirky, peacekeepers at the U.N. Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) North Kivu office did not receive reports of the attack until August 12.
“It’s unfortunately common for incidents to go unreported, for the simple stark fact that people fear reprisals,” he said. He added that although the peacekeepers do regular patrols, they cover a large area and their force is limited in number.
Nesirky also read a statement by Special Representative Wallstrom, who described the rape rampage as “a very extreme case in terms of its scale and the level of organization of the attacks,” and said the perpetrators “must be brought to justice.”
“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,” Wallstrom said, and the DRC “remains one of the grave situations of concern that requires priority attention and response of the international community.”