Government troops - the FARDC - in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) are to blame for much of the epidemic of sexual violence in the east of the country, according to US and UN reports detailing war crimes and possible crimes against humanity by various groups there.
FARDC is trying to rout the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR) and the Ugandan Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) from the Kivu region and Oriental province in eastern Congo, but operations have been criticized for their impact on civilians.
“Armed groups such as the LRA and FDLR commit atrocities that amount to grave breaches of international humanitarian law and, in some instances, may also constitute crimes against humanity,” according to the UN experts.
“In North Kivu, an assistance provider for victims of sexual violence recorded 3,106 cases between January and July 2009; half of these cases were perpetrated by FARDC members,” a group of seven UN experts said in their second report on the situation in DRC, submitted to the Security Council on 8 March.
Many of the FARDC troops used to be members of rebel groups who joined the army as part of peace initiatives.
In 2009, groups still under arms “continued to commit numerous, serious abuses - some of which may have constituted war crimes - including unlawful killings, disappearances, and torture”, according to the US government’s annual global human rights report, released on 11 March.
The UN experts added arbitrary arrest, forced labour and extortion to this litany of abuses.
In Dungu territory of Oriental Province, according to the US-based Enough Project, soldiers committed 116 rapes in a single neighbourhood last October.
“A particularly egregious case involved the gang rape of a pregnant woman by five Congolese soldiers near the market of Bangadi on 8 October, 2009,” it said.
FARDC commander General Leon Mushale told Enough the problem was isolated: “It is the fault of the man, not of the organization … we are dealing with the problems on a case–by-case basis,” he said.
“There is a correlation between peace and rape,” Bora Kawende, acting head of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) office in North Kivu, recently told IRIN. “During war, soldiers here commit collective, massive rape.”
The UN experts’ report said impunity, absence of the rule of law and women’s subordinate social and legal position reinforced a climate of general acceptance and tolerance for violence against women and girls in increasingly militarized societies, such as eastern DRC.
Photo: Aubrey Graham/IRIN
|Thousands are still fleeing the violence in South Kivu and living in camps (file photo)|
"The application of the law is weak," Kawende said. “And if a perpetrator is sentenced, the government must have a good jail where he can stay,” she added. In Mbandaka, a soldier was sent to jail for rape, but could not be locked up because the prison had been destroyed during the war.
Congo’s military justice system, the experts said, had retained jurisdiction over most cases involving serious violations of human rights and international humanitarian law, but was weak and susceptible to executive interference by military or political decision-makers.
“The solution is justice, justice, justice,” said Esteban Sacco, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian affairs (OCHA) in North Kivu. “There has to be a system that brings to justice those who commit the crime of rape.”
Speaking at a seminar in Goma, North Kivu prosecutor-general Mulumba Kifulya said arrests and prosecutions took too long, and many victims were too poor to pursue cases or preferred to keep quiet.
The charity, Women for Women, called on men to help reduce sexual abuse. “In December, we held a seminar for 550 trainers of trainers, including soldiers, clergy, traditional rulers and local administrators,” Clovis Mulungula, sponsorship assistant, told IRIN. “In the seminars, we noticed that some men did not know the consequences.”
At least 1.36 million are displaced by violence in the Kivus, according to OCHA. In Hauts Plateaux, Uvira region of South Kivu, thousands of civilians have been trapped by conflict since February, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said.
"We heard from people who have reached our medical structure that there are many civilians who are afraid to come to the hospital,” Philippe Havet, MSF's head in DRC noted on 11 March. “They are in constant fear of being attacked.”