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WASHINGTON, Jul 16 2009 (IPS) - In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), tens of thousands of women and girls have suffered horrific acts of sexual violence at the hands of the government army, the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), said Human Rights Watch in a report released Thursday.
The report, “Soldiers Who Rape, Commanders Who Condone: Sexual Violence and Military Reform in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” documents persistent sexual violence by the army, and the limited impact of government and donor efforts to address the problem.
The report looks closely at the conduct of the army’s 14th brigade as an example of the wider problem of sexual violence by soldiers. The brigade has been implicated in many acts of sexual violence in North and South Kivu provinces, often in the context of massive looting and other attacks on civilians.
Despite ample information about the situation, military, political, and judicial authorities have failed to take decisive action to prevent rape, the report says.
Although other armed groups also commit brutal acts of sexual violence against women and girls, the sheer size of the Congolese army and its deployment throughout the country make it the single largest group of perpetrators, it says.
“We have seen progress in the prosecution of ordinary soldiers for sexual violence,” said Juliane Kippenberg, Africa researcher for HRW’s Children’s Rights Division. “But senior army officers continue to be untouched. Their own crimes and their command responsibility for the crimes of their soldiers must be investigated and held to account.”
Since then, the rebel forces and Congolese army troops combined have killed more than 1,500 civilians, raped thousands of women and girls, abducted hundreds of adults and children, and burned to the ground thousands of homes, sometimes entire villages, rights groups say.
Sexual violence by the army is widespread despite efforts by the Congolese government and international community to end it. In early July 2009, the government publicly recognised that a policy of “zero tolerance” to human rights violations by the army has become necessary following intense criticism by international groups. The Congolese army sent out instructions to all troops that protecting the population is their duty, and warning that rape and other crimes against civilians will be punished.
“Zero tolerance for rape is a noble aim, but it’s meaningless if the government doesn’t prosecute commanders most responsible for rape,” Kippenberg said. “The Congolese government, the U.N., and others have done a lot to support the victims of sexual violence, but less to end the permissive atmosphere that causes it.”
The report comes two days after the release of a survey by the international aid agency Oxfam, which concluded that sexual violence has dramatically increased since the offensive began. The agency surveyed 569 civilians living in 20 conflict-ridden communities in North and South Kivu provinces.
“The offensive against the FDLR was supposed to bring peace to eastern Congo, but our survey shows people are living in constant fear of violent attack,” said Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam in the DRC.
“The results of this survey should be a wake up call to those in the U.N. Security Council supporting the current military offensive. In only five communities, people said the Congolese army was keeping them safe. Many interviewees said they feared the army and the FDLR equally. The Congolese people need an army that protects on them, not preys on them,” Stoessel said.
The United Nations, the European Union, and other donors have provided assistance to Congo for military reform, including army training on international humanitarian law and help with improving the command structure. They also provide crucial support to the country’s justice institutions, including the military justice system.
In a Jul. 10 briefing to the U.N. Security Council, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping operation in the DRC (MONUC), Alan Doss, commented on the rise of sexual violence saying, “We have also seen violence against women and girls in provinces that have been at peace for many years.”
In March 2009, MONUC developed a comprehensive strategy to combat sexual violence, which the government endorsed. As part of the U.N. efforts, Security Council members, during their visit to Congo on May 18 and 19, handed President Kabila a list of five senior army officers accused of rape and asked the president to take action.
“I can report that President Kabila has given instructions for their immediate removal from command positions, while the Defence Minister has instructed the military prosecutor to initiate legal procedures against them,” said Doss.
HRW, however, maintained that none have been arrested.
Such problems in the peacekeeping operations have arisen from the integration of former rebel soldiers from the Congress for the Defense of the People (CNDP) into the FARDC.
“We would discourage, however, the integration of any additional militias into an already plethoric FARDC,” Doss said in his statement. “I believe we have reached the point of saturation in the Congolese Army.”
To end sexual violence by the army, the government should create a vetting mechanism to remove abusive officers from the army, establish a strict chain of command, improve living conditions and salaries for soldiers, and strengthen the military justice system, HRW said.
Human Rights Watch also called on the government to consider establishing a “mixed chamber”, staffed by Congolese and international judges and prosecutors, to help overcome the weaknesses of the country’s justice system. The special chamber would operate within existing national courts and prosecute military and civilian leaders for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual crimes, beyond the few cases that will be tried by the International Criminal Court.
The Security Council plans to hold an open debate in August 2009 on how to carry out Resolution 1820 on sexual violence in conflict, adopted in June 2008. The resolution spells out concrete obligations of individual countries and U.N. entities to prevent and punish sexual violence when it is used as a weapon of war.
HRW called upon the Security Council to use Resolution 1820 to initiate tough measures against governments and armed groups that commit sexual violence in Congo and elsewhere. These should include funding benchmarks, measures such as travel bans against responsible individuals, sanctions, and refusing U.N. cooperation with abusive parties.
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