Call for judicial reform, justice for rape victims

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and international donors must take urgent steps to reform the country's legal system and ensure justice for victims of sexual violence, the international advocacy group, Human Rights Watch (HRW), said on Monday in a new report.

"Sexual violence has shattered tens of thousands of lives in Congo, but fewer than a dozen victims have seen their assailants prosecuted," Alison Des Forges, the senior adviser to Human Rights Watch's Africa division, said in the report released a day before 8 March, International Women's Day.

"The Congolese government must reform its justice system to prosecute wartime rape effectively," she said. "Support from international donors, such as the European Union, is essential for this effort."

The HRW report, entitled, "Seeking Justice: Prosecution of Sexual Violence in the Congo War", documents how the Congolese government has taken insufficient steps to prosecute those responsible for wartime rape.

It said despite a peace agreement and broad-based transition process in the country, which began in 2003, soldiers of the national army and armed groups continued to perpetrate sexual violence in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu, and the northeastern Orientale Province.

Armed conflict broke out among the Congolese government, several neighbouring countries and various rebel factions in 1998. Since then, combatants on all sides have subjected tens of thousands of women and girls, as well as a far smaller number of men and boys, to sexual violence, HRW said.

An increasing number of victims are demanding justice, HRW reported.

The International Criminal Court may prosecute a small number of cases of sexual violence. At the same time, the vast majority of such crimes will have to be tried in Congolese courts, HRW said.

However, it added, the Congolese legal system is in disarray.

"Judges and prosecutors generally fail to treat sexual violence as a serious offence," HRW said. "Superior military officers are not held accountable for crimes committed by combatants under their command."

It said the handful of rape trials that had taken place had frequently resulted in violations of the rights of the accused and the victims.

HRW said current national laws on rape and war crimes were inadequate and inconsistent with the requirements of international humanitarian and human rights law.

Women and girls who have suffered crimes of sexual violence must have their medical and psychological needs met, it said. The report looks at the medical emergency surrounding widespread rape and calls for improved health services for victims, including those infected with HIV/AIDS. [On the Net: The Human Rights Watch report: http://hrw.org/]

Meanwhile, the UN has called on the Congolese government to confine the militia leaders who have been arrested in the eastern region.

"These persons have been put under house arrest," Fred Eckhard, the UN Spokesman, was quoted as saying on 4 March. "Some even appear to move about freely and to retain means of communication."

In a statement read at a meeting by UN Security Council President Ronaldo Mota Sardenberg, the 15-member Council identified the perpetrators of an ambush and murders of UN peacekeepers on 25 February as members of the Front des nationalistes et integrationniste (FNI).

The Council blamed such leaders as FNI President Floribert Ndjabu and former FNI force commander Goda Supka, who were said to have been arrested along with Germain Katanga of the Forces of Patriotic Resistance in Ituri.

"The mission is calling on the government to truly arrest these people and bring them to justice," Eckhard was quoted as saying.