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Outrage Grows Over Failure to Protect DRC Civilians

Aprille Muscara

UNITED NATIONS, Aug 28 2010 (IPS) - As details emerged this week of the U.N.’s knowledge of rebel activity in the villages where nearly 200 women were systematically gang raped by armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) late last month, human rights groups are demanding an investigation into the U.N.’s failure to prevent the raid from occurring.

“These scandalous, outrageous atrocities should serve as a wake up call for the international community,” Marcel Stoessel, Oxfam International’s country director in the DRC, told IPS in a phone interview.

Amnesty International echoed Oxfam’s sentiments, calling for a critical investigation of the U.N.’s inaction.

“The DRC government and the United Nations must urgently review the failures to protect civilians to prevent such horrors from being inflicted again,” Amnesty International said in a statement.

Amnesty also urged the immediate gathering and preservation of evidence in order to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Legally, the responsibility to arrest and prosecute the perpetrators of the mass rapes lies with the weak and often ineffective Congolese government, which has been under mounting pressure to capture and try the individuals responsible.

A spokesperson for the U.N. said that a team has been deployed to investigate the incident, and is expected to finish its work by the beginning of September. The Congolese government, however, is not involved.

Another official of a human rights group admitted that the rebels were not likely to be apprehended, much less prosecuted. He cited a leaked U.N. report, revealed by Le Monde on Wednesday, which accuses the government of Rwanda of war crimes, including possibly genocide, in the DRC as reflecting the history of violence in the region since 1993.

“The report shows that impunity has been the norm,” he told IPS. “In this particular case,” he said, referring to the mass rapes, “it’s not, unfortunately, going to be the exception.”

The conflict-ridden DRC has been ranked the number five failed state by Foreign Policy for the last two years, worsening two spots since 2007. Rape is systematically used as a tool of war, with about one case of rape reported every hour – the perpetrators of which are usually armed men from rebel groups or the regular Congolese army, according to Amnesty.

“The government doesn’t have a presence, indeed authority, over the entire territory, which makes it possible for armed groups to commit these atrocities,” Stoessel told IPS. “And even when the Congolese army is present, they are often themselves not a protective force and are perpetrators.”

Given the DRC’s instability, in 1999 the U.N. sent a peacekeeping force to the country, now called MONUSCO, which is charged with the protection of civilians. This week, it was revealed that MONUSCO failed to act despite knowledge of the rebels’ presence in the villages, and failed to respond timely after eventually receiving information of the mass rapes.

The Security Council held an emergency meeting about the mass rapes Thursday, after which Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin and U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice expressed indignation at the number of questions that remain outstanding regarding the U.N.’s response to the incident on the ground.

“We’re horrified and we’re outraged,” Rice said. “It was a disturbing briefing both for what we learned and what we don’t know still.”

Between Jul. 30 and Aug. 3, 200 to 400 armed men allegedly from the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) and the Mai Mai Cheka rebel groups ravaged a cluster of villages in the DRC’s North Kivu province. One of the villages was just 20 kilometres away from a MONUSCO forward operating base.

A day after the raid began, MONUSCO received information of rebel activity in the villages. Robert Meece, the U.N.’s top official for the country, told reporters on Wednesday that there was no indication of an attack. However, the same day, an e-mail was sent to U.N. staff urging them to stay away from the area because the situation was too dangerous, the New York Times reported Wednesday.

Despite this, MONUSCO did not visit the villages until Aug. 2. At this point, the raid was still taking place, but according to Meece, the peacekeepers were not informed of the violence occurring. This alarming lack of contact has raised questions about MONUSCO’s procedures during their visits and their efficacy in communicating with the very people they are charged to protect.

“They need to get out of their vehicles, go on foot patrols right close to these most vulnerable communities and deploy strategically where civilians are most at risk,” Stoessel said of the peacekeepers.

Another patrol took place Aug. 4, but Meece noted it went in the opposite direction of the villages.

“Visits alone are not sufficient – that was the clear feeling of members of the Security Council,” Churkin told reporters after the council meeting. “Every other day, once a week, is not sufficient for having reliable information.”

Peacekeepers did not return to the affected area until Aug. 9, Meece said – over a week after MONUSCO learned of the rebels’ presence in the villages and three days after the International Medical Corps (IMC) says it alerted the U.N.’s office of humanitarian affairs of the mass rapes. CNN reported Thursday that the IMC informed the U.N. of the raid on Aug. 6, disputing official U.N. claims that it did not have knowledge of the rapes until Aug. 12.

In response to revelations of the mass gang rapes this week, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dispatched Atul Khare, deputy head of the U.N. peacekeeping department, and Margot Wallstrom, his special representative on sexual violence in conflict to the DRC. They are expected back in New York on Sep. 8 and will brief the Security Council.

“We are looking forward to the return of Mr. Khare and a very serious, sober evaluation – as one council member put it – of what happened and why. Clearly not everything worked the way it should have worked under these circumstances,” Churkin said. “We are going to get to the bottom of it.”

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