(Kinshasa, March 7, 2005) - In eastern Congo’s conflict, government troops and rebel fighters have raped tens of thousands of women and girls, but fewer than a dozen perpetrators have been prosecuted by a judicial system in dire need of reform, Human Rights Watch said in a report released on the eve of International Women’s Day.
The 52-page report, “Seeking Justice: Prosecution of Sexual Violence in the Congo War,” documents how the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo has taken insufficient steps to prosecute those responsible for wartime rape. Human Rights Watch called on the Congolese government and international donors, including the European Union, to take urgent steps to reform Congo’s justice system.
Despite the peace agreement and broad-based transition process in the D.R. Congo, which began in 2003, soldiers of the national army and armed groups continue to perpetrate sexual violence in the eastern provinces of North Kivu, South Kivu and Orientale. In 1998, armed conflict broke out among the Congolese government, several neighboring countries and various rebel factions. Since then, combatants on all sides have subjected tens of thousands of women and girls—as well as a far smaller number of men and boys—to sexual violence.
“Sexual violence has shattered tens of thousands of lives in Congo, but fewer than a dozen victims have seen their assailants prosecuted,” said Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to Human Rights Watch’s Africa division. “The Congolese government must reform its justice system to prosecute wartime rape effectively.”
An increasing number of victims of sexual violence are demanding justice. “My husband does not want to live with me any more because I was raped by the Mai-Mai,” said one woman who, along with 11 others in Shabunda, South Kivu, was gang-raped by combatants belonging to the Mai-Mai, a local Congolese armed group opposed to foreign occupation. “The perpetrators must be punished,” she said.
The International Criminal Court may prosecute a small number of cases of sexual violence. At the same time, the vast majority of such crimes will have to be tried in Congolese courts. However, the Congolese judicial system is in disarray. Judges and prosecutors generally fail to treat sexual violence as a serious offense. Superior military officers are not held accountable for crimes committed by combatants under their command.
The handful of rape trials that have taken place have frequently resulted in violations of the rights of the accused and the victims. In one case in Bukavu, the defendant was not given an opportunity to choose his own legal representatives. Of his two lawyers, he met one the day before the trial, the other the day of the trial itself.
Support for victims is virtually non-existent: While publicly testifying against a soldier who had raped her, an eight-year-old girl was retraumatized by the proceedings. Little preparation time, guidance or psychological support was given in the face of significant pressures. In addition, victims who bring charges receive no special protection from police or judicial authorities.
“The Congolese government must make judicial reform a priority,” said Des Forges, “Support from international donors such as the European Union is essential for this effort.”
Current national laws on rape and war crimes are inadequate and inconsistent with the requirements of international humanitarian and human rights law. The Transitional Parliament is considering a new law on crimes of sexual violence. A ministerial committee is also considering a law on Congolese cooperation with the International Criminal Court.
Human Rights Watch called for measures that would assist victims of sexual violence in Congo. Women and girls who have suffered crimes of sexual violence must have their medical and psychological needs met. The report looks at the medical emergency surrounding widespread rape and calls for improved health services for victims, including those infected with HIV/AIDS.
A woman told a Human Rights Watch researcher how, in May 2004, she watched her 13-year-old niece being raped by dissident combatants from the RCD-Goma (Rassemblement Congolais pour la Démocratie, or Congolese Rally for Democracy–Goma) under Laurent Nkunda.
“Four men raped her. They had spread her arms and legs and held her down,” the woman said. “I had been with her but hid in a banana tree and watched what happened. Afterward she started to vomit blood, we brought her to Kirotshe hospital, and she died two days later.”