(Goma) - Killings and brutal sexual violence against women, girls and also men have massively increased in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since the start of military operations in January 2009, the Congo Advocacy Coalition, a group of 88 humanitarian and human rights organizations, said today. The coalition urged Hillary Clinton, the United States secretary of state, who arrives in Congo today, to press the Congolese government and United Nations peacekeepers for more effective measures to protect civilians and to pursue justice for serious crimes.
Since the start of military operations in January, more than 600 civilians have been killed and thousands of women and girls raped by armed rebel groups and government forces. According to UN estimates, the violence has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes, including some 56,000 who fled from Uvira territory, South Kivu, in July.
"The UN-backed offensive that was supposed to make life better for the people of eastern Congo is instead becoming a human tragedy," said Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam in DRC. "Secretary Clinton needs to make it very clear that US support for the UN's efforts in Congo is not a blank check and that civilians should be protected."
UN peacekeepers have been backing Congolese military operations, known as Kimia II, against the Rwandan Hutu rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), since March. This support followed earlier joint operations between the Congolese and Rwandan armies against the rebel group.
Since the US government is one of the main financial backers of the UN peacekeeping force, the Congo Advocacy Coalition called on Clinton to push for a more thorough assessment of the risks to civilians in the UN's operations and concrete action by the UN and the Congolese government to mitigate such risks, with specific attention to protecting women and girls from rape.
Since the start of military operations, the FDLR rebels have carried out widespread retaliatory attacks, brutally killing and raping Congolese civilians. In one recent reprisal attack, on July 20, the rebels killed more than 20 civilians in the village of Manje, in Walikale territory, North Kivu province. As in previous similar attacks, the rebels hacked some victims with machetes, shot others, and burned a number to death in their homes.
The Congolese Advocacy Coalition urged Clinton to press the Congolese and Rwandan governments, the UN and its member states to urgently review their strategy against the FDLR rebels and to plan for a new and more comprehensive approach emphasizing protection of civilians.
"So far, these military operations have brought nothing but horrible suffering for the people of eastern Congo," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Secretary Clinton should offer high-level US diplomatic engagement to figure out how to address the problem of the FDLR and other armed groups without causing even more harm."
Congolese army soldiers have committed widespread and serious abuses during the military operations, including rape. The majority of sexual violence cases reported in North Kivu since January have been attributed to government soldiers. On July 4, the Congolese government announced a policy of "zero tolerance" for abuses committed by army soldiers and said that commanders who permit their troops to commit such crimes will be held responsible. To date, only a handful of officers have been arrested.
Widespread impunity, the recent integration of 12,000 militia fighters into the army's ranks, and problems with salary payments have all compounded the discipline problems that have plagued the army for many years.
"The increase in rape in an area where already so many women and girls have been victims is deplorable," said Olivia Caeymaex of Enough. "Ending impunity for rape and other serious crimes needs to be at the heart of any strategy to combat sexual violence. Secretary Clinton should ensure US diplomatic and financial assets are focused on bringing to justice those who are most responsible."
The Congo Advocacy Coalition called on Clinton to use her visit to:
- Ensure that the UN Security Council sets out and stands by clear conditions for continued support for the joint operations with the Congolese army, including ensuring that human rights abusers do not take part in military actions, and guaranteeing rigorous monitoring and application of appropriate sanctions for any violations of international humanitarian law.
- Pressure regional governments and the UN Security Council to review the current strategy against the FDLR rebels and urge a new comprehensive approach emphasizing protection of the civilian population, apprehending those wanted for genocide, and a more effective voluntary disarmament and demobilization program, among other measures.
- Urge the Congolese government to bring to justice those responsible for serious human rights abuses, including sexual violence, within the Congolese army, particularly senior officers engaged in the present military operations.
- Urge and offer support to the Congolese government to undertake comprehensive reforms of the security sector and address the structural causes of conflict in eastern DRC, which include the issues of land, livelihoods, and fair representation of all communities.
The Congo Advocacy Coalition is a group of local and international nongovernmental organizations established in 2008 to focus attention on the protection of civilians and respect for human rights in eastern Congo's peace process. The following organizations are members of the coalition's steering committee: ActionAid, Enough, Human Rights Watch, Norwegian Refugee Council, Oxfam, War Child Holland, Conseil Régional des Organisations Non Gouvernementales de Développement (CRONGD) - North Kivu, Promotion et Appui aux Initiatives Féminines (PAIF) - North Kivu, Initiative Congolaise pour la Justice et la Paix (ICJP) - South Kivu, and Association des Femmes Juristes du Congo (AFEJUCO) - South Kivu.
Action Against Hunger/Action Contre la Faim (ACF), Beati i Costruttori di Pace (Blessed are the Peacemakers), CARE International, International Crisis Group (ICG), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Light of Africa Network, Mercy Corps, Norwegian Church Aid, Refugees International (RI), Tearfund, Trocaire, VDay
ACODESK, Action de Promotion et d'Assistance pour l'Amélioration du Niveau des Vies des Populations (APANIVIP), Action des Chrétiens activistes des Droits de l'Homme a Shabunda, Action des Chrétiens pour l'Abolition de la Torture (ACAT), Action Pour Enfants Oubliés ( APEO) Sud-Kivu, Action pour la Lutte contre l'Ignorance du Sida, Actions Globales pour la Promotion Sociale et la Paix (AGPSP), AEPDE (Sud Kivu), ALCM, APED, APIBA, APREDECI, ASPD, Association des Armateurs sur le Lac Kivu, Association des Jeunes Chrétiens de l'Eglise Sinai (AJCS)/Sud Kivu, Association des Volontaires du Congo (ASVOCO), Association pour le Développement dans les Pays de Grands Lacs Africaine (ADGL), Campagne Pour la Paix (CPP), Centre Africain pour la Paix, la Démocratie, et les Droits de l'Homme (ACPD), Centre de Promotion Socio Sanitaire (CEPROSSAN), Centre de Recherche sur l'Environnement, la Démocratie et les Droits de l'Homme (CREDDHO), Centre d'Intervention et de Promotion Sociale Participative (CIPSOPA), Centre d'Observation des Droits de l'Homme et d'Assistance Sociale (CODHAS), Centre Olame, CIDI/NK, CJP, Coalition Congolaise pour la Justice Transitionnelle (CCJT), Collectif des Associations des Femmes Pour le Développement (CAFED), Collectif des Chercheurs et Analystes Politiques, Juridiques, et Socio-économiques (CAPJSE), Collectif des Jeunes du Sud Kivu, Collectif des Organisations des Jeunes Solidaires du Congo (COJESKI)/Nord Kivu, Conseil des Facilitateurs des Pays de Grands Lac, Dauphins Muzihirwa-Kataliko, Eglise Indépendante du Congo (UEIC), Encadrement des Femmes Indigènes et des Femmes Vulnérables (EFIM), GRAM-Kivu, Group d'Assistance aux Marginalises (GAM), Group d'Etudes et d'Actions Pour un Développement Bien Défini (GEAD), Groupe Hirondelle - Bukavu, HEAL Africa, Héritiers de la Justice, Initiatives ALPHA, La Fondation Mère et Enfant, La Providence, Ligue Nationale et d'Appui aux Initiatives des Jeunes en RD Congo (LINAJEUN-RDC), Maman An'saar du Congo (MAC), Ouvriers du Monde (ODM), PAL, PAMI, Perspectives Monde Juste, PFND, Programme Chrétien pour la Protection des Droit de l'Enfant, Programme du Développement Sociale (PRODES), Promotion de la Démocratie et Protection des Droits Humains (PDH), Réseau des Associations de Droits de l'Homme (RADHOSKI)/ Sud Kivu, Réseau Provincial des ONG des Droits de l'Homme au Congo (REPRODHOC), SEDI/Uvira, Solidarité Féminine pour la Paix et le Développement Intégral (SOFEPADI), Solidarité des Familles pour le Développement (SOFADE), Synergie des Femmes pour les Victimes des Violences Sexuelles (SFVS), Union d'Actions pour les Initiatives de Développement (UAID), Union des Jeunes pour le Développement de Bunyakiri (UJDBu), UPADERI, UWAKI Sud Kivu, Villages Cobaye (VICO)