Soldiers from the Congolese government army, Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), are silhouetted as they stand guard in Mushake village, 40 km west of Goma.

© 2007 Reuters

In the hills of South Kivu, eastern Congo, I recently met a group of adolescent girls and young women whose babies were born from rape, and who were struggling to cope.

Congolese soldiers had gang-raped them. A 16-year-old girl, holding her baby, said "I wanted to pursue these soldiers in court but then learned they'd been transferred."

 A 15-year-old girl who had just had a baby boy the previous day said: "My parents spoke to an [army] commander and he said that his soldiers do not rape, and that I am lying." Another girl told me she wanted to commit suicide. The girls' parents were either dead or had rejected their daughters.

The tragedy of Congo's women and girls has slowly emerged in recent years. Tens of thousands have been raped or otherwise assaulted by army soldiers, rebels, or other men. Sexual violence has been used to terrorize civilians by all warring parties.

The European Union and other donors have started programs of assistance for the victims that have made a real difference to the lives of some - unfortunately not all - Congolese women and girls. Beyond immediate medical and social assistance, the European Union in Congo also runs programs for military and judicial reform called EUSEC and REJUSCO.

Achieving shockingly little

But so far, donors have achieved shockingly little in their fight to end sexual violence. Recent figures indicate that rapes are on the rise.

The army has received extensive training on civilian protection from foreign military experts, including Belgium, yet it continues to be one of the main perpetrators of sexual violence.

While a few prosecutions of ordinary soldiers have taken place, commanders are still treated as untouchable and are almost never investigated for their responsibility for the acts of their soldiers.

For the victims I met in the hills, justice seemed light years away. As one Congolese lawyer put it: "A commander does not want to co-operate with the military justice system. It is a reflex."

Currently, the European Union is deciding on a new mandate for its security sector reform program (EUSEC) in Congo. EUSEC has helped to reduce corruption in the Congolese army by ensuring that many of the soldiers receive their salaries. Such efforts are crucial, but more change is urgently needed.

EUSEC should help improve army accountability for serious crimes, such as crimes of sexual violence. The army needs a clear chain of command, a vetting mechanism that removes high-ranking military officers responsible for serious human rights abuses, and functioning military courts.

Zero tolerance for rape

Reform can succeed only if those who commit or condone sexual crimes and other human rights abuses are prosecuted.

Army reform alone will not end Congo's cycle of impunity, which allows promotions rather than punishment for those who commit war crimes, including sexual violence.

To help establish the rule of law, the EU should support and fund a mechanism to try those most responsible for the crimes suffered by the Congolese people, such as a separate chamber on war crimes in Congo's courts, with the involvement of international judges and prosecutors. President Joseph Kabila has himself called for such a mechanism.

The EU should also require investigation and prosecution of senior army officers for crimes, such as rape, as a key benchmark for its continued funding of army reform.

On July 5, in response to concerns expressed by Human Rights Watch and others about the abusive behavior of government soldiers, the Congolese army responded by proclaiming a policy of "zero tolerance" for rape and other human rights crimes.

This is a welcome step; now the army, with the support of Europe, should put this principle into practice.