I wish to thank Chairman Smith for inviting my organization, Human Rights Watch, to address the Africa Subcommittee today about the important question of U.N. peacekeeping forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
I lived in the Congolese capital Kinshasa when the U.N. peacekeeping forces, MONUC, first arrived there in 2000. I remember the Congolese people lining the streets cheering and dancing as the first contingent of blue helmets drove down one of Kinshasa’s main boulevards. I shared the hope of many Congolese people that the arrival of U.N. peacekeepers would bring peace and an end to the horrific atrocities that have characterized the war in the Congo, a war that has cost the lives of nearly four million people since 1998. In later years, I also shared the frustrations of the Congolese when the U.N. did not intervene to stop renewed conflict and more killing of civilians, as was the case in the eastern town of Bunia in May 2003 and in Bukavu in June 2004. The U.N. was simply overwhelmed with the task before it, lacking the mandate, the troops and sometimes the resolve to stop the horrors. To add to these frustrations have been the actions of some U.N. peacekeepers involved in sexually abusing women and girls in the DRC, a fact that is deeply saddening.
For many Congolese people, and for myself, these mixed feelings of both hope and frustration remain today. MONUC has shortcomings in how it has managed its operations in the DRC and these must be dealt with. But we must not forget the positive impact that the U.N. peacekeeping mission has had in the Congo. MONUC assisted in bringing justice to Ituri, one of the worst hit areas in eastern Congo, where U.N. forces helped to arrest and bring to trial some senior leaders of armed groups that terrorized the local population. Through its human rights unit, MONUC has exposed serious human rights crimes, bringing them to the attention of the U.N. Security Council and the DRC national government. In Bukavu in June 2004, when local groups started fighting in the streets, U.N. troops organized transport for hundreds of civilians at risk and brought them to places of safety, undoubtedly saving many lives. Most importantly perhaps, MONUC has helped to bring people together through Congo’s first ever national radio station providing information, news and analysis to nearly every household in the DRC.
The challenges that MONUC faces in Congo are immense. The mission has been tasked with supporting a fragile peace process, often hovering on the brink of collapse, and with bringing about the first democratic elections in over forty years. Attempts to address MONUC’s shortcoming and to bring about reform must ensure continued support for these important goals.
Sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers
MONUC’s credibility has been undermined by the exploitative and abusive behavior of some of its own staff. Investigations carried out by Human Rights Watch found that MONUC personnel have been involved in a pattern of sexual exploitation of Congolese women and girls. We interviewed girls, some as young as 13-years old, who had been raped by MONUC soldiers. We also spoke to girls aged between 12 and 15 who engaged in what is commonly called “survival sex”—sexual relations they entered into in order to get some food, money or protection. These relations are frequently exploitative and are particularly easy to establish in environments of conflict and massive displacement where women and girls have limited options. Allegations of sexual abuse are not unique to U.N. forces in the DRC. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have documented similar practices in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and other countries. With a past record of such abuses, it is essential the U.N. tackles this problem across its peacekeeping missions. Concrete reform in this sector is long overdue.
Despite the past history of sexual abuse by peacekeepers, the U.N. response to allegations of sexual abuses by its staff in Congo was slow. The U.N. had earlier taken steps to establish a code of conduct prohibiting such actions and stressing there would be “zero-tolerance” for sexual abuse and exploitation. Despite these clear rules, not enough was done to stop the practice. Between September 2001 and January 2004, only sixteen cases of alleged exploitation or abuse were investigated by MONUC’s security branch. Some of those accused were rotated out at the end of their tour of duty with no further consequences. Further in-depth investigations were finally carried out in 2004 which concluded that sexual exploitation was a much wider problem.
In order to make zero-tolerance policies a reality, effective action needs to be taken by the U.N. and troop contributing countries against those found responsible for acts of sexual violence and exploitation, as well as their commanders or supervisors. The U.N. must push for prosecution of peacekeepers by their home countries. The recent cases of six Moroccans and a French peacekeeper being repatriated to their home countries where charges were brought against them is a positive sign that this is now starting to happen. More such cases are needed, along with a follow-up mechanism inside the U.N. that presses to ensure that justice is done. Staff will only realize that such behavior has consequences if the U.N. leadership shows resolve in dealing with the problem.
Further action also needs to be taken on the prevention side in the U.N. mission in the Congo and elsewhere to curb future abuse. This should include adequate resources for an independent investigation unit inside each peacekeeping mission to investigate sexual abuse allegations, more women in peacekeeping missions, a program of assistance for the victims of such abuse and for the children born from these sexual encounters. The U.S. government should push for such reforms inside the U.N. mission in the DRC, as well as in other peacekeeping missions.
Sexual Abuse in the Broader Context
While it is shocking that U.N. peacekeepers have been engaged in acts of sexual abuse, far more women and girls have suffered rape at the hands of armed groups and armies on all sides in the DRC. According to aid agencies figures, over forty thousand women and girls have been systematically raped, mutilated and enslaved during the conflict, abuses that continue today. This is the real tragedy of the Congo and one which rarely grabs the headlines. When I recently interviewed women about sexual abuse committed by U.N. peacekeepers, one woman said to me, “Yes it is true that some girls have been raped by U.N. soldiers, but so many more have been brutally raped by other armed groups. Please focus on stopping this as it brings us so much more pain and suffering.”
While governments focus on bringing U.N. peacekeepers who commit acts of sexual violence to justice, they should be doing the same to bring the leaders of these armies and armed groups to trial. The U.S. government, working together with MONUC, should insist that the Congolese government hold accountable soldiers of the national army and other armed groups who have committed rape and other sexual violence, as well as their commanders who ordered or tolerated mass rape. In January the Congolese government appointed six warlords to the rank of general in their new army despite documented evidence that these individuals had committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, including rape. The U.S. government should publicly denounce such appointments and should insist these generals, and others like them, are investigated and brought to trial.
More development assistance should also be made available to rebuild the Congolese national justice system to tackle crimes of sexual violence and to set up programs to help the tens of thousands of victims who suffer the consequences of rape. The European Commission and other donors carried out an audit of Congo’s justice system last year to determine the priority areas for support, but to date little follow-up action has been taken. The U.S. government did not participate in this effort and has been notably absent from any support to justice reforms.
We cannot focus solely on the minority of sexual crimes committed by U.N. peacekeepers when Congolese women cry out for help against armed groups who continue to terrorize them on a much larger scale. Armed groups committing mass rape carry out war crimes and I urge the U.S. government to do more to end such violence and to bring justice for these crimes.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Congo faces immense challenges. Well-armed warlords with little or no loyalty to the transitional government continue to fight in eastern Congo; neighboring countries, in particular Uganda and Rwanda, threaten Congo’s peace and continue to arm groups loyal to them; and the illegal exploitation of natural resources continues to provide funding for those opposed to peace. As the Congolese enter a politically charged election year, failure to meet these challenges will increase the chances of a return to conflict that is likely to destabilize the Congo and the entire Central Africa region.
MONUC’s role is vital to the Congolese peace process. It needs to be strengthened and supported by the U.S. government and the international community in order for it to carry out its role. This help has not always been forthcoming. DRC, a country roughly the size of western Europe, has only 16,700 U.N. peacekeeping troops, far too few for the security challenges faced by the peace process and 5,000 less than requested by the U.N. Secretary General last year. Elsewhere far more troops have been deployed in countries with similar problems. In Liberia, a country roughly the size of one district in Congo, 15,000 U.N. troops have been allocated, and Burundi, DRC’s tiny eastern neighbor, has been allocated 5,000 troops. It is clear that MONUC requires an increase to make troop numbers commensurate with the size of the DRC and the extent of security challenges it faces.
MONUC also requires more soldiers with advanced training and experience in peacekeeping. Many international officials accept the need for more experienced peacekeepers in the DRC, but they claim that Europe or America cannot offer such forces because of commitments elsewhere or because DRC is not a priority. If the Congolese peace process is to succeed it requires a real commitment from western governments that goes beyond rhetoric.
Some have claimed that providing more funds and resources to MONUC at a time when a number of its troops stand accused of sexual abuse is wrong. Human Rights Watch strongly disagrees. We believe the U.N. needs to take urgent action to deal with those accused of sexual abuses, but it is important that this issue does not overshadow the important role that MONUC must play in helping to bring about peace in the DRC through a process of democratic elections. As we have seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, the lead up to elections can be violent and there are many side issues which can weaken the resolve of the international community. The U.S. government and others must not allow MONUC to be further weakened and must take action to ensure it is capable of doing the job for which it was created. As with other post-conflict zones in which the U.S. government is active, the Congolese people deserve a right to vote in free elections, they deserve a right to live free of human rights abuses and they deserve a right to peace.