DR Congo: 'Zero Tolerance' for Sexual Violence

By Jennifer Smith

Refugees International wrote in a September 2009 field report that sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo had increased since the start of the government-led “Kimia II” military operations against the FDLR rebel group. When Refugees International Advocate Camilla Olson and I were in South Kivu in August carrying out research for the report, many displaced women described their experiences after they fled the fighting. One woman from Ziralo groupement told RI she escaped after hearing gunshots outside her house. In the chaos, her family was scattered and left home with nothing. She spent four nights in the forest before she could make it into town. She said women were raped by the FDLR while fleeing, and she didn’t want to go back home as long as they were still around.

Unfortunately this woman’s story has become all too common in eastern DR Congo. Following a visit to Goma in August, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton promised increased U.S. support to gender-based violence (GBV) programming there. While additional support is a necessity for the thousands of victims of sexual violence, there needs to be equal if not more attention to getting at the root causes of the total lack of accountability in eastern DR Congo. Not only is the justice sector extremely weak and corrupt, with political interference reportedly rife, but the Congolese army itself are perpetrators of much of the violence against women. The government has issued a “zero tolerance” policy for abuses but enforcement, especially of senior commanders, remains effectively non-existent. Efforts to combat GBV require the U.S. and others to put strong political pressure on the Congolese government to end its tolerance for this type of behavior.

The sheer number of international actors in eastern DR Congo requires that they coordinate their activities to maximize their impact. The United Nations ‘Comprehensive Strategy on Combating Sexual Violence in DRC’ aims to tackle issues of prevention, protection and deterrence by creating a single framework around which GBV actors in DRC can collaborate. RI’s September report on DR Congo recommended that the U.S. government ensure any GBV programs it funds adhere to this strategy, so that projects amount to more than ‘water on sand,’ in other words, quickly absorbed but with minimal impact.

The UN peacekeeping mission (MONUC) also has a key role to play in the fight against sexual violence.  There has been enormous controversy within the humanitarian community over MONUC’s logistical support to the Congolese army (FARDC) in the context of Kimia II. Because of the inherent contradictions in MONUC’s mandate (i.e. that they should protect civilians while supporting the army, one of the main threats to civilians), MONUC has adopted a “conditionality” policy where support will be withheld from FARDC units committing abuses. The mission has started a database tracking assistance versus abuses at the sector level and announced on November 2 the withdrawal of support from an FARDC brigade implicated in the massacre of 62 civilians (including women and children) near Lukweti in North Kivu.

This is an important first step. However, the withdrawal of support should not be limited to only high profile cases where numerous civilians are killed. More systematic and deliberate monitoring of the impact of MONUC’s support to the Congolese army is needed to ensure the UN is not inadvertently complicit in human rights abuses of any nature, including sexual violence. Because of political sensitivities and MONUC’s position as partner and mentor to the Congolese government, RI has called for this monitoring to be done by an independent third party body, supported by the UN Security Council. This would ensure that political considerations and relations with the government do not override the need for justice for perpetrators of GBV and other serious human rights abuses in the Congo.

TAKE ACTION: Urge Congress to re-introduce the International Violence Against Women Act.

For the next few weeks, Refugees International will be posting about the rights of women around the globe as part of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence.