July 16, 2009

Summary

I was just coming back from the river to fetch water.... Two soldiers came up to me and told me that if I refuse to sleep with them, they will kill me. They beat me and ripped my clothes. One of the soldiers raped me... My parents spoke to a commander and he said that his soldiers do not rape, and that I am lying. I recognized the two soldiers, and I know that one of them is called Edouard.
-15-year-old girl, Minova, South Kivu, March 2009
We were three young women and we were on our way to Cirunga.... They [the soldiers] raped us and dragged us to their camp which was not far away. I stayed there for one month, under constant supervision.... There was no conversation between us, he had sex with me at any moment, when he felt like it, and with a lot of violence. I spent my days crying. I begged God to free me from this hell.
- 23-year-old woman, Kabare, South Kivu, April 2009
One evening some soldiers came to attack us. This was in February or March 2008. They said they would kill our father. The soldiers were angry with my dad because he had stopped them from cutting down an avocado tree [as firewood].... We stayed in the living room. Two soldiers raped my bigger sister. When he had finished, he injured her with a knife at the eye, and he did the same with my brother.... Then they left. My mother brews beer and they took the money she had earned from that.
- 13-year-old girl, Kabare, South Kivu, April 2009

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, tens of thousands of women and girls have suffered horrific acts of sexual violence. The government army, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), is one of the main perpetrators, contributing to the current climate of insecurity and impunity in eastern Congo. FARDC soldiers have committed gang rapes, rapes leading to injury and death, and abductions of girls and women. Their crimes are serious violations of international humanitarian law. Commanders have frequently failed to stop sexual violence and may themselves be guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity as a consequence. Although other armed groups also commit brutal acts of sexual violence against women and girls, the sheer size of the Congolese army and its deployment throughout the country make it the single largest group of perpetrators.

The destructive long-term physical, psychological, and social effects of sexual violence on the victims cannot be underestimated. The situation is particularly bad for girls, who are at risk of serious injuries after rape, and whose health is at risk if they get pregnant. Their future is often compromised as they have difficulty finding a partner, drop out of school, are rejected by their own family, or have to raise a child born from rape while still being a child themselves.

This report looks at abuses of sexual violence committed by the FARDC, efforts to stop it, and why such efforts have failed so far. More specifically, the report looks at the 14th brigade as an example of the wider problem of impunity. Since its creation in 2006, this brigade has committed many crimes of sexual violence in different areas of North and South Kivu in eastern Congo. It has also been responsible for abductions, killings, torture, looting and extortion. Without sufficient food or pay, soldiers have attacked the civilian population to loot and extort goods.

Abuses against civilians peaked when the brigade was cantoned with almost no provisions in Kabare, South Kivu between January and August 2008. Officially, since March 2009 the 14th brigade has ceased to exist when it was amalgamated with combatants from other armed groups into two new brigades-a process that saw former armed opposition units assimilated into the FARDC without any vetting and only limited training. The command structures of the 14th brigade provide the backbone of some units, and many Congolese, including soldiers, still refer to former 14th brigade troops as the 14th brigade. Sexual violence by them has continued to the present. Many of the soldiers from newly integrated armed opposition groups have also committed acts of sexual violence.

Despite protests by victims, residents, NGOs, and even politicians, Congolese military courts have done little to bring to justice those responsible. Commanders have protected their soldiers. The army hierarchy has even left it unclear under whose command the 14th brigade is.

As the example of the 14th brigade illustrates, sexual violence by the army continues despite serious efforts by the government, the international community, and Congolese civil society to fight mass sexual violence. In November 2007, President Kabila's wife, Olive Lemba Kabila, opened a country-wide campaign supported by UN agencies to combat sexual violence, aiming to raise awareness and push for an end to impunity. The first lady's involvement gave the issue of sexual violence a higher profile. In 2006, a landmark sexual violence law came into force, providing a much improved legal framework to try those responsible, and in late 2008 the International Criminal Court launched an investigation into crimes in its jurisdiction in the Kivus, including sexual violence. There are also now many important, if still insufficient, programs providing medical, psychological, economic, and legal support to survivors.

Less money has been allocated to prevention and protection; according to a MONUC estimate, only 11 percent of donor funds for sexual violence have been allocated for the physical protection of women and girls. As part of those efforts, the government, international donors, and NGOs have taken specific steps to deal with the army's poor human rights record, sometimes as part of broader security sector reform. Such measures include training on international humanitarian law and Congolese law; building the capacity of the military justice system and the police; improving access to justice; and ensuring regular payment of army soldiers. As a result of these efforts, some progress has been made. The military justice system is better equipped to deal with sexual violence than a few years ago, and has made some limited progress in bringing ordinary soldiers to account for their sexual crimes.

Despite these important advances, the military justice system remains a weak institution. To date, only a small fraction of the total number of acts of sexual violence committed by soldiers has been prosecuted. Access to justice remains difficult. For example, during 2008, 27 soldiers were convicted of crimes of sexual violence in North and South Kivu provinces. During the same year, the UN registered 7,703 new cases of sexual violence (by army soldiers and other perpetrators) in North and South Kivu.

Moreover, almost all military prosecutions of sexual violence to date have focused on lower-ranking soldiers. No senior military figure has been prosecuted for sexual crimes; the criminal responsibility of senior officials, including their command responsibility, is rarely the subject of investigations by military prosecutors. The most senior officer convicted of crimes of sexual violence in the Kivus has been a captain-no major, lieutenant colonel, colonel, or general has been prosecuted. Military commanders continue to be powerful figures who are treated as untouchable by political and military leaders; brigade commanders in particular are often given free reign. Commanders also continue to protect their soldiers in many instances, obstructing the course of justice. This undermines ongoing efforts to render justice even for crimes committed by lower-ranking soldiers.

The Congolese government and its international partners should intensify efforts to prevent and punish sexual violence crimes by army soldiers. They should take measures to build the capacity of the weak military justice system; professionalize the army, including by improving living conditions of soldiers; and introduce a vetting mechanism to remove officers with responsibility for past crimes from the army.

But initiatives to strengthen the military justice system and to improve command and control within the FARDC will take time to implement and will do little to address the immediate problem of impunity, especially of more senior officers, which is fundamental to both justice for victims and the prevention of further crimes. Since the military justice system remains a weak institution, the government should consider establishing a mixed chamber, composed of international and Congolese judges and prosecutors. This mixed chamber would prosecute high-ranking officers, armed group leaders, and civilian leaders responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual crimes, beyond the few individuals who will be tried by the International Criminal Court (ICC).