Confronting Rape and Other Forms of Violence Against Women in Conflict Zones
May 14, 2009

Sexual violence targeting women and girls is nothing new. For decades, human rights and humanitarian organizations have reported sexual violence in Afghanistan, Burundi, Chad, Colombia, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, Peru, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Chechnya/Russian Federation, Uganda and the former Yugoslavia, just to mention a handful.  Rape as a military tactic of war has become an all too common tool, used to punish communities or specific ethnic groups.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, rape has been used as a weapon of war by government armies and armed groups over the last decade.  Tens of thousands of women and girls have become victims of sexual violence, including gang-rapes, mutilations, and sexual slavery. While sometimes directly linked to military operations, sexual violence by armies and rebel groups has often also taken place outside the direct context of fighting; sexual violence by civilians also seems to have increased dramatically. Despite the signing of recent peace agreements and improved relations between Rwanda and Congo, brutal violence continues in eastern Congo. The number of women and girls raped since January has significantly increased in areas of military operations by armed groups and soldiers of the Congolese army.

In Darfur, six years into the armed conflict, women and girls living in displaced persons camps, towns, and rural areas remain extremely vulnerable to sexual violence.  In fact, sexual violence continues to occur throughout the region, both in the context of continuing attacks on civilians, and during periods of relative calm. Those responsible are usually men from the Sudanese security forces, militias, rebel groups, and former rebel groups.

In both the Congo and in Darfur, the perpetrators of these crimes go largely unpunished.  This, again, is not new.  The failure to prosecute perpetrators of rape in war may be little more than the extension of a prominent failure to take sexual violence seriously in general.  Research by Human Rights Watch and others has shown that impunity is the rule rather than the exception for sexual violence in times of peace as well as during armed conflict.  In 2006, the United Nations secretary-general released an in-depth study on violence against women, which, among other depressing conclusions, noted that states "to an unacceptable extent" disregard their obligations on the prevention and punishment of violence against women. 

In fact, in many conflict areas, such as in the DRC and Darfur, seeking justice for crimes of sexual violence is difficult, often dangerous, and frequently beyond the financial means of most victims. 

As with most serious crimes in eastern Congo in the past decade, crimes of sexual violence are rarely properly investigated or prosecuted, especially when perpetrators are senior officers or commanders.  Both the military and the civilian justice systems are starved for resources and competent personnel.  While efforts have been made by international donors and the Congolese government to improve prosecutions of rape cases, those that have been tried successfully are at lower ranking levels.  Prosecutors and magistrates are unwilling - or unable due to lack of political support - to prosecute cases of senior level commanders.  A justice official told Human Rights Watch in Kinshasa in 2007 that he was unable to pursue a strong and well documented case of rape against a top general in the Congolese army because the general in question was "protected" by influential individuals. The failure to prosecute those in command responsibility for crimes of sexual violence undermines any deterrent effect of justice efforts to date.  The UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, after a visit to Congo in April 2007, concluded that interference by the executive and the army in judicial proceedings was "very common" and that Congo's judicial system was rarely effective with human rights violations generally going unpunished. 

While impunity is a reality with regard to all types of human rights violations in Congo, it is exacerbated for crimes of sexual violence due to the dual problem of stigma and denial. Victims of rape and sexual violence are highly stigmatized and sometimes seen as having incited the violence themselves; and magistrates and police officers often do not see rape and sexual violence as "real" crimes.

Likewise, survivors of sexual violence in Darfur have no meaningful access to redress. They fear the consequences of reporting their cases to the authorities and lack the resources needed to prosecute their attackers. Police are physically present only in principal towns and government outposts, and they lack the basic tools and political will for responding to sexual violence crimes and conducting investigations. Police frequently fail to register complaints or conduct proper investigations. While some police seem genuinely committed to service, many exhibit an antagonistic and dismissive attitude toward women and girls. These difficulties are exacerbated by the reluctance-and limited ability-of police to investigate crimes committed by soldiers or militia, who often gain effective immunity under laws that protect them from civilian prosecution.

Adding to the difficulties, the Sudanese government has recently expulsed several local and international nongovernmental organizations, compounding the general and ongoing operational problems facing humanitarian agencies in that country.  Many of these organizations were providing services and support for victims of sexual violence and can now no longer do so.

The United States, through its permanent seat on the Security Council, has the opportunity and, indeed, ethical responsibility to push for more systematic accountability on sexual violence in conflict.  In June 2009, the United States successfully led the Security Council in the unanimous adoption of Resolution 1820 on Women, Peace, and Security.  This resolution establishes explicitly and in detail the concrete steps all stakeholders must take to ensure that women and girls no longer will be the subject of sexual violence in war, and that all sexual violence is prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

This resolution is just the first step. 

The Security Council continues to be hampered in its ability to act on sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situations by a lack of information.  Information on the patterns of use of sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict features little in the reports the Council commissions and receives from the field offices of the United Nations.  Human Rights Watch believes that the serious gaps in the Security Council's approach to rape and sexual violence would be best bridged by the establishment of a high-profile and independent global advocate for women in conflict situations, such as a new Special Representative on Women, Peace and Security.  Such an appointment was recommended at the International Women's Colloquium, convened in Monrovia by the Presidents of Liberia and Finland in March 2009.

Moreover, without follow-up the important provisions contained in resolution 1820 will remain on paper.  The United States Senate should encourage the administration to provide leadership for ensuring that follow-up, specifically through insisting:

  • that all UN field mission reports include strategic information on if and how sexual violence is used as a weapon of war;
  • that the implementation of resolution 1820 be reviewed annually and in-depth;
  • that support and protection of civilians, including in particular against sexual violence, explicitly be made a priority for UN peacekeeping forces;
  • that the UN put in place a structure for permanent coordination and oversight of information flows to the Security Council on sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict situation at a level that signals accountability and commitment; and
  • that this structure or mechanism be empowered to address the Council directly as situations occur.

The United States should also use its financial assistance to further accountability and justice for sexual violence in conflict by introducing benchmarks for US funding for activities relating security sector reform, such as visible and clearly defined efforts to investigate and prosecute serious violations of international humanitarian law, including by individuals who were complicit in such crimes, including by giving orders,  or who held command responsibility and failed to prevent or punish such crimes. 

Specifically regarding the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United States should engage directly with the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, to urge the following:

  • the professionalization of the army and the police, and ensuring a clear chain of command, and a zero-tolerance policy on sexual violence.
  • the establishment of a vetting mechanism to remove high-ranking military officers with a track record of serious human rights abuses, including sexual violence.
  • the implementation of measures to strengthen the military justice system's response to sexual violence, including through the creation of specialized units on sexual violence within each military prosecutor's office and tribunal; services are adapted to the needs of child victims; increasing numbers of female judicial staff: providing free legal aid schemes; and creating more mobile courts.

In the interest of furthering justice and accountability in the Congo, the United States Senate should encourage the US administration to support efforts to establish a special chamber with Congolese and international judges and prosecutors within the Congolese justice system. The chamber's mandate should be to investigate serious violations of international humanitarian law, including sexual violence, and to prosecute officers who held command responsibility and were complicit in such crimes including by giving orders. 

In Sudan, it is paramount that the current focus on accountability for crimes against humanity not overshadow the urgent need to provide support and services for civilians, including victims of sexual violence. The United States must use its considerable influence to ensure that the prevention of sexual violence, and the protection of victims and witnesses, remain a priority in negotiations with the Sudanese government.

Specifically, the United States Senate should press the US administration, in its bilateral dealings with the Sudan government, to urge that

  • peacekeeping forces in Darfur deploy a sufficient number of experienced and high-ranking female police officers;
  • peacekeepers continue and increase preventative "firewood patrol" to protect women and girls who venture outside IDP camps and in rural areas;
  • humanitarian agencies immediately be allowed access to Sudan, and in particular to Darfur, to provide services and support for victims of sexual violence; and
  • ensure that United Nations personnel in Sudan observe confidentiality guidelines and established clear referral processes to guide victims to the relevant humanitarian agencies.