(Brussels) - Amid recent killings and rapes by government and rebel soldiers in the eastern Congo, the decision by the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor to systematically investigate war crimes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo could not be more timely.  
 
Luis Moreno Ocampo, the ICC prosecutor, today June 23, announced the beginning of this first-ever investigation by the prosecutor's office of this newly established court. Earlier this year, the Democratic Republic of the Congo's (DRC) transitional government triggered the action by requesting the ICC prosecutor to investigate crimes in the Congo. The prosecutor's office can investigate where national courts are unable or unwilling to do so, and its authority can be triggered by a formal request from the state involved.  
 
"There will be no meaningful transition in the Congo without putting an end to impunity for the horrific crimes that have characterized the conflict there," said Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice program at Human Rights Watch. "The recent killings and rapes in the eastern Congo underscore the urgent need for a thorough and effective investigation into these and other horrific crimes."  
 
Human Rights Watch estimates that at least 5,000 civilians died from direct violence in Ituri between July 2002 and March 2003, with hundreds more having died in this eastern region during the past year. These victims are in addition to the 50,000 civilians who died there since 1999, according to U.N. estimates. Since the formation of the transitional government in Kinshasa last year, several thousand more have died in deliberate attacks on civilians by armed groups in the Northern Katanga province.  
 
These losses are just part of an estimated total of 3.3 million civilians dead throughout the Congo, a toll that makes this war more deadly to civilians than any other since World War II. In Bukavu, south Kivu, both government and dissident forces carried out war crimes, killing and raping civilians in their battle to control the city. This is only the latest round of fighting in the eastern parts of Congo, where massive violations of human rights have become commonplace.  
 
Women and girls have been particularly targeted in the Congo, with most of the forces involved in the conflict using sexual violence as a weapon of war. The United Nations estimates that more than 40,000 women and girls may have been raped in the eastern parts of Congo over the past five years, some as young as three years of age.  
 
The Ituri conflict, as well as others in eastern DRC, highlights the participation of non-Congolese forces. Human Rights Watch believes that Ugandan and Rwandan officials, among others, may be implicated in some of these crimes and the prosecutor's investigation should look beyond the borders of the DRC.  
 
"We urge Luis Moreno Ocampo to follow the trail of criminality across national borders and investigate not only Congolese warlords, but their foreign backers as well," Dicker said. "With this investigation, the Prosecutor has the chance to send a message across the Great Lakes Region that impunity for these horrific crimes is coming to an end."  
 
Human Rights Watch also highlighted the challenges of working with victims and witnesses.  
 
"This investigation may set the standard for others to follow. It's of the utmost importance that investigators work carefully with victims and witnesses they are mandated to serve," Dicker said.  
 
The International Criminal Court, based in The Hague, has broad international support. Currently, 94 countries have ratified the Rome Statue establishing the court, and nearly 140 have signed this treaty. Last year, these states elected the court's first 18 judges and prosecutor.