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International Response

With growing press and public attention to the crisis of sexual violence in eastern Congo, international leaders and various agencies are beginning to understand the scale of the problem. One important step to ending crimes of sexual violence by armed forces would be to reform the army and enable the military hierarchy to better discipline soldiers. Reluctant to become directly involved in such efforts, international leaders have focused on providing assistance to victims.  Such assistance increased in 2004 but was still far less than what is needed.

Medical assistance

Following the 2003 U.N. assessment mentioned above, U.N. agencies identified work on sexual violence as one of four priority areas for the 2004 Consolidated Appeal Process (CAP) for the Congo. Meant to raise a total of US$ 187 million, it had received pledges of about half that amount by October 2004.168 In March 2004, the World Bank granted US$102 million to combat HIV/AIDS in Congo and the Global Fund has dedicated $35 million to AIDS care over the next two years in Congo.169 Some of these funds will necessarily assist women who have contracted HIV/AIDS as a result of having been raped.  

By mid-2004 several international agencies were providing help for the medical, psychological, social and legal rehabilitation of the victims in eastern Congo, but most were based in North and South Kivu with far fewer working in Ituri. UNICEF supported Panzi hospital in Bukavu with two gynecologists on staff; the international NGO Doctors on Call for Service (DOCS) ran a clinic treating victims of sexual violence in Goma; the International Rescue Committee (IRC) funded several clinics that provide medical care, including for victims of sexual violence; Aide Médicale Internationale (AMI) helps victims of sexual violence in Uvira and Médicins Sans Frontières offers similar help in Shabunda. The German development agency Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) carries out a program of community counseling in South Kivu, helping communities to address the issue of sexual violence and reintegrate victims.

Given the enormity of the task at hand, this can only be a starting point. Tens of thousands of women and girl victims remain in acute medical need. Despite the important efforts by individual agencies, the international response to the mass rape of eastern Congo has been devastatingly slow.

Legal assistance and reform of the justice sector

Faced with the enormity of trying to make the justice system function, key donors came together under the leadership of the European Commission to develop a coordinated strategy of assistance. A group of experts tasked with assessing the problem reported to the E.C. in May 2004. They went beyond providing advice on how to organize and rebuild the judiciary, and made recommendations on impunity, how to deal with violations of international humanitarian law, and transitional justice. They called for the adoption of the ICC implementing legislation and for modifications in the Criminal Code provisions concerning crimes of sexual violence and other international crimes. The experts also recommended changing the family code to give women full legal capacity and recommended that judicial personnel be trained in how to investigate violations of international humanitarian law. The report is meant to become a basis for donor funding. 

As mentioned above, the E.C. funded efforts to restore the judicial system in Bunia, Ituri district, was a generally successful program that may serve as a model for restoring judicial operations elsewhere in the country.

International justice: the ICC investigation in Congo

On June 23, 2004, the ICC Prosecutor announced that his office was beginning an investigation into violations of international humanitarian law committed in the Congo. The first investigation undertaken by the ICC, this was triggered by a Congolese government request. The prosecutor’s office can investigate crimes where national courts are unable or unwilling to do so, and its authority can be triggered by a formal request from the state involved.  The prosecutor’s office has started its investigations in the conflict-ridden Ituri region, but has made clear that crimes in other parts of Congo might also be investigated.

Given the scale of crimes of sexual violence in the Congo, it will be important for the ICC to investigate and prosecute crimes of this nature. Such investigation will need to focus on those bearing the greatest responsibility within the armed groups as well as those backing them, including actors outside Congo’s borders.

Human rights monitoring and civilian protection by MONUC

MONUC started out with a narrow technical mandate in Congo, focused on monitoring the compliance with the Lusaka peace agreement, and reporting on military activities by all sides. In July 2003, the U.N. Security Council broadened this mandate to include the protection of civilians, a major task in the Congo conflict. This means that MONUC troops can and should use force when necessary to protect civilians. Unfortunately MONUC has not fully implemented this mandate; in many areas of eastern Congo, civilians continue to be at the mercy of armed groups as before and have failed to get the protection needed, as was the case with victims raped and killed during the uprising led by Mutebutsi and Nkunda in June 2004.  Nevertheless, in some instances MONUC has indeed intervened in order to protect the civilian population, for example in Bunia town, signaling to armed groups that their abusive behavior will no longer be tolerated.

MONUC’s role in monitoring human rights abuses and assisting victims has also changed significantly over the past two years. At its inception MONUC’s civilian component was small, and human rights monitoring did not take place systematically. However, more recently MONUC has managed to place human rights monitors in many parts of the country, including areas that are remote and the scene of grave abuses. MONUC has carried out investigations into grave abuses promptly and, in some cases, published the results. Increasingly, MONUC has also documented crimes of sexual violence and taken steps to assist the victims in taking cases to court, as in the example described above.

Such efforts are undermined when MONUC and other U.N. staff themselves abuse and exploit women and girls in Congo. In interviews with victims, Human Rights Watch has found that MONUC peacekeepers from different military contingents as well as civilian staff have sexually exploited Congolese women and girls who were in desperate need of food, money or other items.170 In some cases MONUC staff have also sexually assaulted or raped women and girls. The U.N. reaction to this situation has been slow and inadequate. Information about these abuses has been available within the U.N. since mid-2004, when an internal investigation was conducted. It was only in January 2005 that these abuses were vigorously condemned by the U.N. Secretary-General. Only a handful of cases has been subject to an internal disciplinary procedure, and even fewer cases have been tried in home countries of the suspects.

[168] The four main target groups are IDPs and returnees, children, demobilized soldiers, and women and girls victims of sexual violence. Accessed on October 27, 2004 on

[169] (accessed January 17, 2005).

[170] Human Rights Watch interviews with victims and witnesses, Bunia and Kisangani, October 6 and 9, 2004.

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