Webcast Recap

In a conference co-sponsored by the International Crisis Group and the Wilson center, Executive Vice President Mike Van Dusen opened up by welcoming participants.  He then stated that the tragedy of the Democratic Republic of Congo in recent years has many historical antecedents: 32 years of “Mobutuism,” two brutal wars in the 1990s, and continued armed conflict since, all characterized by civilian abuse, victimization, and denial of humanitarian assistance that has cost as many as 3 million lives, possibly far more. Sexual violence, Van Dusen said, is common, unfortunately, and has been exacerbated by the wars and on-going military operations of the last two decades. He cited reports that the provinces of North and South Kivu and Equator are called the “Ground Zero of Rape”.  The American Journal of Public Health, he stated, has reported that 48 women are raped every hour in the Congo and an Oxfam/Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Study in 2010 concluded that 40 percent of the rapes were committed by civilians, which is a 17-fold increase in civilian rapes between 2004 and 2008.  These statistics are horrifying but they show that rape in Congo is obviously more than just a problem of war:  it is a problem of a dysfunctional, traumatized, and fractured society.

In his brief introduction, Steve McDonald said that the Woodrow Wilson Center has been involved in these provinces of the Congo since 2006 through its Cohesive Leadership Initiative working to reconcile the legacies of war and depredation wrought on communities.  Through a series of workshops held in several communities and the participation of over 800 individual leaders in them, the Center has focused on the inclusion of traditional leaders, as well as community, ethnic, and government leaders.

A panel discussion led by Dr. Mukwege, and participated in by Secretary Otero and Mr. Schneider, then followed.

The Use of Violence Against Women is a Tool

“There can be no pardon for people who commit such crimes [against God and humanity]” Dr. Denis Mukwege, Director of the Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and recent recipient of the King Baudouin Foundation’s International Development Prize, stated unequivocally. Rape, Mukwege said is not just a weapon of war, but a strategic calculation with a clearly sought objective. The four reasons  rape is being used as a tool, he contended, are: (1) to displace local populations to create a space for the exploitation of minerals in the region; (2) to reduce the local demographics through the spread of STDs and HIV, thereby destroying a woman’s ability to reproduce; (3) to destroy the economy of the community through the razing of homes and fields; and (4) to obliterate the “tissue social” (social fabric) through the stigmatization and dishonoring of women by way of barbarous rapes in the presence of  family members and the production of fatherless offspring.

Lack of Political Will

Mukwege posited that on the local level the political will to counter the alarming frequency of rape is negligible, as politicians and bureaucrats sometimes jostle with what is fast-becoming common knowledge to deny that it even occurs in their constituencies.  In the same fashion as other participants on the panel, Mukwege echoed the necessity of aggressively attacking impunity, which is rampant throughout North and South Kivu. He asserted that during the peace negotiations, unfortunately, justice took a backseat to peace and as a result, “we see that there is neither peace nor justice, and thus nothing has changed.[1]

Implication of the Military

As for the integration of rebel and militia elements into the FARDC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo), Dr. Mukwege charged that “we have just taken the old bandits, asked them to protect the people today that they raped yesterday; we just gave them a military uniform; a uniform is not enough to make a good soldier.”[2]

The Senior Vice President of the International Crisis Group, Mark L. Schneider, argued that the FARDC has neither adequate control over the armed groups nor the process of integration. The current approach to ending gender-based violence, he said, has been vexed by systemic failures that are fundamental in combatting the egregious incidence of rape in the Congo.  Schneider took aim at the “grotesque” incapacity to manage the demobilization of ex-combatants - too many soldiers have not been sufficiently vetted, paid, or held to account for past crimes - and a justice system plagued with corruption and scant resources, and in desperate need of reform with an emphasis on prosecuting the perpetrators of sexual violence.  He advocated for an internal review of the US’s military support efforts in the DRC and that tangible benchmarks be in place to halt sexual violence against Congolese women and children. If said benchmarks are not met, assistance should be summarily suspended.

The Response of the US Government

Maria Otero, Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs for the US Department of State, outlined the four main tracks the US government is pursuing in the Congo with regard to sexual violence: (1) diminishing impunity through the strengthening of the justice and political system; (2) increasing protection for vulnerable populations, which may be the most difficult aspect to implement as it involves raising awareness; (3) enhancing the capacity of the security sector to address gender-based violence; and (4) improving access of quality healthcare services for the survivors of gender-based violence.  She cited the efforts undertaken by the US government, local NGOs, and other multilateral organizations, including seven bureaus and offices within the State Department working on gender-based violence, as well as USAID’s work to enable thousands of women to obtain counseling and therapy.

Next Steps

Two future events pose potential problems in the implementation of any immediate reform effort, according to Schneider, i.e. the perception of electoral unfairness and the looming insecurity in the forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in November, and the implosion of the Kimberly Process.

Mukwege postulated that MONUSCO (Mission de l’ Organisation des Nations Unies pour la Stabilisation en République Démocratique du Congo) operates essentially in absence of a strategy that incorporates the protection of women. Furthermore, MONUSCO and others arrive after the fact thus becoming reactive; whereas policy should be formulated such that a more participative and preemptive strategy is employed in order to curb the prevalence of gender-based violence.

Under Secretary Otero called for the strategic employment of a public awareness campaign on gender-based violence and more importantly, ameliorating the federal and local government’s capacity to forecast the early warning signs of conflict and to act accordingly to contain and prevent it. The increase of public awareness on the issue and severity of this crime should form the bedrock of policy.  The American Bar Association’s training of Congolese justice officials to assist people in obtaining retribution for the wrongs they have suffered will comprise a necessary structural component of reform. She also held that an integrated approach involving the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to protect returned refugees and refugee populations in camps that are most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation would be integral. Turning the tide on epidemic rape and sexual violence in the Congo and the reformation of the Congolese justice and security sectors will require the full engagement and unwavering commitment of MONUSCO, the US government, and Kinshasa. 

[1] « Dans la négociation de la paix, malheureusement on a préféré…sacrifier la justice sur l’hôtel de la paix…en sacrifiant la justice sur cet hôtel de la paix on observe qu’on a ni paix ni justice, et donc ça n’a rien changé »

[2] « …on a tout simplement pris des anciens bandits, on les a mis ensemble et on leur a demandé de protéger cela qui hier ils étaient en train de violer … juste une tenue ; je pense que la tenue militaire ne suffit pas pour être un bon militaire… »