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  • Rape in the Congo: A story of monumental UN failure

    By Info | September 16, 2010

    AIDS-Free World, 16 September 2010

    In yet another grisly déjà vu, the world has heard about hundreds of rapes in a small area of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, or Congo) in late July and early August, many of them in North Kivu, within a few miles of a United Nations encampment of peacekeepers charged with protecting civilians. The UN is not just negligent but complicit in these crimes.

    The UN has consistently failed Congolese women, at every level from the troops on the ground to the Security Council that deploys them, from the array of UN agencies present in the DRC to the Secretariat in New York and the Secretary-General charged with leading the bureaucracy. It has failed to understand the problem, to address it, to acknowledge its own mistakes, to assign responsibility, and to substitute effective action for rhetoric.

    Hutu members of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) who had participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide fled that year over the border into the DRC. By 1996 they had penetrated deep into the Congo. Now there are about 6,000 FDLR fighters who use the DRC as a base, and are deeply involved in exploiting that country’s minerals. They have raped women without pause or hesitation since arriving.

    Since 1996, the eastern regions of the country have known little peace. About 600,000 women have been raped in the DRC, according to UN reports. The Rwandan troops as well as the Congolese army, and a confusing array of other militia groups have earned the DRC the terrible sobriquet, “Rape Capital of the World.” In eastern Congo, rape is so commonplace that hospitals exist almost solely for the purpose of patching up women whose genitals and internal organs have been torn apart.

    Against this background, the UN’s actions and inaction over the last 14 years have led to the latest episodes in Luvungi and other areas in eastern Congo. Local Congolese rebels together with the FDLR took over Luvungi from July 30 to August 3 and raped hundreds of women. The world was informed not by the UN, but by an NGO, International Medical Corps, which was approached by victims who sought help. This is astonishing until one looks carefully at the UN’s role in the DRC. You need only go back to January 2009 to understand the immediate background of the attacks.

    In early 2009, the UN and the Congolese government initiated a joint military operation named Kimia II. The operation aimed to weaken the FDLR by finding and dispersing or arresting its troops. Before Kimia II was launched, international NGOs and Congolese activists begged the UN not to go ahead with it. The Congolese Advocacy Coalition, comprising 64 aid and activist groups, spoke out against it. The NGOs said the mission would fail because there simply wasn’t enough firepower to defeat the FDLR. They pointed out that joining this action would give the federal DRC troops—with their own record of continuous raping—added power and new opportunities to abuse it. Most urgently, they predicted that Kimia II would trigger a retaliatory response in the form of further sexual violence.

    Neither the UN Secretariat nor the UN Security Council listened. Kimia II was launched, and led to a year and a half of mass raping, of which the Luvungi incident is just the most recent example. Kimia II has now been abandoned in the face of irrefutable evidence that it caused great harm to the civilian population.

    US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed outrage and shock about the rapes. This is remarkable, since she was warned about the consequences of Kimia II and supported it nonetheless. As one of the permanent members of the Security Council, the US government’s support was critical.

    One of the groups that predicted the violence was the International Rescue Committee (IRC), which was ignored at the time. Unfortunately they were correct, and it is a sad irony that months later, the IRC later received a large portion of the funding Secretary Clinton promised to the DRC to treat the victims of sexual violence.

    MONUSCO (formerly MONUC), the internationally staffed UN peacekeeping military force in the DRC, has been in the area since 1999. It is the largest peacekeeping mission in the world, with nearly 20,000 uniformed personnel. Protecting women is central to the peacekeepers’ mandate, and they continue to fail to do so. Kimia II is harrowing evidence of MONUSCO’s lack of connection with the complexities of the situation, and lack of willingness to listen to those who do understand those complexities. It is hard to say which scenario is more disturbing: that the UN mission had no knowledge of the attacks, or that it knew but failed to act.

    According to a New York Times story, the United Nations Department of Safety and Security sent an alert to UN staff members on July 30, the day the rapes began, that there was rebel activity in the area. Yet the armed troops, a few miles away, did nothing. The first UN response came on September 1, more than a month after the attacks.

    When it became clear that the international community wanted some answers, the UN Secretary-General sent an Assistant Secretary-General to investigate the UN’s role in the crimes. He returned with no insights for the public, but rather with revised figures of how many hundreds of women were raped (500 in the area, not just the 240 in Luvungi). While it is important to know these facts, this investigation was not intended to explore the nature of the attacks, but the nature of the response.

    Other questions call out for full and immediate answers. Since it appears that the UN peacekeepers 20 miles from Luvungi did indeed know that rebels were in the area, why was no action taken? What were the peacekeepers doing? MONUSCO is equipped with helicopters, which were famously used recently to airlift gorillas out of areas beset by poachers. Why were no helicopters flown over the area where women were endangered, no warnings sent out, no troops deployed to stop the carnage? If peacekeepers were indeed unaware, why did their intelligence fail?

    On the heels of its brief investigation, the UN has pointed the finger—rightly— at everyone from the militias doing the raping to the Congolese government. But it has assigned only half-hearted blame to the UN itself by saying that it must do better.

    These are tepid words when one considers the scale of failure, and its price. The United Nations has 192 member states. Most of the world is represented. The Security Council has 15 members. “Stop Rape Now – UN Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict” is a joint initiative of 13 UN agencies aimed at ending sexual violence. The peacekeeping mission in the DRC has about 20,000 military and civilian members. These numbers are worth reiterating, as they point to the vast resources at every level. All these resources have failed time and again to do their job—to intervene on behalf of the women of the Congo. The scope of organizational chaos and bad decisions at every level is truly epic.

    Atul Khare, the UN Assistant Secretary-General sent to investigate, has said of the peacekeepers simply, “They failed to protect.” We have not heard the reasons for this, or any plans to change this pattern of ineptitude. If the UN were a corporation, people would be demoted or lose their jobs for far less.

    Instead, the UN, in the shape of officials such as Roger Meece, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative to the DRC, and, in that capacity, the new head of MONUSCO, is engaged in inventing disingenuous excuses for its failures—excuses such as the vastness of the Congo and the impossibility of being effective in such a huge country. The DRC is indeed a huge country, but the bulk of the sexual violence occurs in a small section in the east, in just two of the country’s 26 provinces.

    Roger Meece’s immediate predecessor, Alan Doss, was the ultimate apologist for the UN in the DRC. Now, just a few weeks into his posting, Meece is already going down that path. When those in charge are not honest enough to face mistakes of this magnitude, there is very little hope for change.

    Atoki Ileka, the DRC’s Ambassador to the UN, has issued a statement expressing disgust at the rapes. He, too, has not put forth any suggestions about the UN’s role—although the official DRC position is that the UN’s peacekeeping mission has failed and should withdraw.

    There has been nothing of substance from the UN’s new Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallstrom, who did not visit the area after the attacks. When asked about the UN’s failure to respond to early signals such as rebel movements into the area, she, like Meece, showed a remarkably quick embrace of her new employer’s defensive stance, telling the media, “It’s a lesson to learn.” Hundreds of thousands of rapes into the crisis, it is beyond comprehension that the UN uses such banal language to explain and justify itself.

    There has been no mention of the UN mandate to act in cases of sexual violence in conflict, as stated in Resolutions 1820 and 1888. Once again, grand resolutions and job titles have done nothing for the women of the Congo.

    Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is at the helm of the United Nations. Last week he found time to fly to Rwanda, where government officials are outraged that a UN report has charged them with terrible human rights abuses in the DRC. Why is he not in the DRC, asking pointed questions about the human rights abuses that occurred there, and the UN’s own role? The world has heard enough about how outrageous he finds all the crimes that come to his attention. It is his responsibility to do something about them.

    It has been many long years, and more than half a million women have been raped, broken, exposed to HIV, deeply traumatized, and have suffered immeasurably. Their bodies, their minds, their lives, their children, their villages, the fabric of their communities have sustained damage that will last for generations. The world has acknowledged this enough to send a 20,000-strong mission to the area. Yet among all the committees, offices, agencies and representatives of the UN, there is no comprehensive plan to effectively protect the women of the Congo, and no brave leader to take charge.

    It is conceivable that Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile, appointed just this week to be the first Under Secretary-General of the new agency, UN Women, will be that leader. The women of the Congo are certainly within her mandate. Their situation could not be more desperate, and she might represent the last chance for the UN to honor its commitments before the world loses hope.

    Topics: News | 3 Comments »

    3 Responses to “Rape in the Congo: A story of monumental UN failure”

    1. Essay: 1325 Has Failed Women | Wide Angle | PBS Says:
      May 27th, 2011 at 9:59 am

      [...] as though mass rape were something new and suddenly in need of attention. We used the helicopters that could have prevented your rapes to airlift our U.N. officials into your region. When the officials arrived, they asked questions to [...]

    2. Essay: 1325 Has Failed Women | Women, War and Peace | PBS Says:
      June 3rd, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      [...] as though mass rape were something new and suddenly in need of attention. We used the helicopters that could have prevented your rapes to airlift our U.N. officials into your region. When the officials arrived, they asked questions to [...]

    3. Essay: 1325 Has Failed Women | Women, War and Peace | PBS Says:
      June 3rd, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      [...] as though mass rape were something new and suddenly in need of attention. We used the helicopters that could have prevented your rapes to airlift our U.N. officials into your region. When the officials arrived, they asked questions to [...]

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