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During five years of armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, tens of thousands of women and girls in the eastern part of the country have suffered crimes of sexual violence. The signing of a peace agreement in 2002 and the installation of a transitional government in 2003 raised hopes that both the military conflict and related abuses would end. But in eastern Congo women and girls – as young as three years old – continue to be targeted for crimes of sexual violence. Some have been gang-raped or abducted by combatants for long periods of sexual slavery. Some have been mutilated or gravely injured by having objects inserted into their vaginas. Some who fought back when attacked have been killed. In a number of cases men and boys have also become victims of crimes of sexual violence.

As detailed in this report, perpetrators of sexual violence are members of virtually all the armed forces and armed groups that operate in eastern Congo. Such crimes were committed by the former Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma (RCD-Goma), a Rwandan-supported armed group that controlled large parts of eastern Congo during the war. The RCD-Goma and its Rwandan allies had a number of adversaries – Mai Mai rebels, and Burundian and Rwandan Hutu armed groups – who also committed widespread acts of sexual violence. Further to the northeast, other armed groups fought for control over territory, and also carried out frequent acts of sexual violence. Among those were the Congolese Rally for Democracy – Kisangani – Liberation Movement (RCD-ML), the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), and the Union of Congolese Peoples (UPC) and the Front for National Integration (FNI) in the Ituri region. Members of the former government army, the Congolese Armed Forces (FAC), and of the new national army known as the Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo (FARDC) are also guilty of sexual abuses.

Victims of crimes of sexual violence have enormous needs for medical, psychological and social support; unless such needs are met, they have difficulty beginning and persevering in efforts to bring the perpetrators of the crimes to justice. Congolese nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were the first to assist the victims but growing support now comes from various international agencies and international NGOs. Among the services now offered in a few communities is assistance in initiating legal action against those suspected of responsibility for the sexual violence.

In the past women and girls who had been raped generally kept silent, fearing stigmatization by those who blame the victim. Many feared reprisals from perpetrators if they reported the crimes. But in the last two years, a small number of victims of sexual violence have sought justice from the Congolese judicial system. This report documents such efforts and the reasons why they often failed, including deficiencies in the law, the unwillingness of military and other officials to treat sexual violence as a serious offense, lack of protection for the victims, and various logistical and financial impediments linked to the dilapidated state of the judicial system.

The report also examines the handful of prosecutions that ended in the conviction of persons accused of crimes of sexual violence and describes deficiencies that resulted in violations of the rights of the accused to a fair trial. In addition, there was insufficient attention to the needs of the victim, and no protection for victims and witnesses. The report also addresses the failure of military prosecutors to examine the culpability and command responsibility of superior officers when sexual violence was part of ongoing crimes under their command.

The Congolese government, faced with the overwhelming task of delivering justice for the many crimes committed during the war, has started to rebuild its fractured judicial system. Its’ most notable success thus far was the restoration of a functioning court in Bunia, in Ituri district of Orientale province. The report discusses prosecutions that resulted in ten convictions on rape charges by this court. It examines reforms needed in laws and in the operation of the judicial system, including providing adequate protection to victims and witnesses.

As a party to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Congo has referred crimes under the Court’s jurisdiction to the ICC prosecutor who has begun an investigation. This development constitutes a real hope for justice for the Congolese people. The huge scale of serious crimes involving sexual violence should be a priority concern of that investigation. However, the ICC will be able to investigate only a very small number of people bearing the greatest responsibility for serious crimes in Congo and the national courts will have to deal with the majority of the crimes committed during the war.

International donors and the United Nations (U.N.) have provided assistance to victims, although not sufficient to meet the overwhelming needs of the crisis. The European Union (E.U.) has supported reforms in the judicial system, particularly the effort to re-open the court in Ituri.

A U.N. peacekeeping operation known as the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUC) has been sent to monitor the peace process and protect civilians. In recent months MONUC human rights staff have documented and made public grave cases of human rights violations and have in some instances assisted victims of crimes of sexual violence to institute judicial proceedings. However MONUC has often failed to protect civilians, including those targeted for sexual violence. Worse, some MONUC peacekeepers and civilian staff have discredited the operation and the U.N. more generally by committing crimes of sexual violence and by sexually exploiting women and girls.

This report is based on research carried out in North Kivu, South Kivu, and Ituri during 2003 and 2004, including interviews with victims of sexual violence, relatives of victims, judicial authorities, political authorities, and lawyers. The report draws also on extensive consultations with the staff of local and international nongovernmental organizations and of various U.N. agencies. The names of all victims and their families are pseudonyms, to protect their security.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>March 2005