U.N. Weighs Sanctions Against Perpetrators of DRC Mass Rapes

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By Aprille Muscara

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 8, 2010 (IPS) - The U.N. Security Council is considering leveraging sanctions against the perpetrators of the mass rapes that occurred last month in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) following a meeting held on the recent violence Tuesday.

"From the U.S. point of view, we will take up the mantle of leadership… in ensuring that the perpetrators of the violence are held accountable, including through our efforts in the sanctions committee – to add them to the list that exists and to ensure that they are sanctioned," U.S. Ambassador Susan Rice told reporters after the meeting.

Over 500 rapes have now been confirmed in the North and South Kivu provinces since Jul. 30, with scores more unconfirmed and still others certainly unreported, according to the deputy head of the U.N. peacekeeping department, Atul Khare, who briefed the council during the meeting. Khare was dispatched to the DRC after reports of the recent violence in the country surfaced in the media two weeks ago.

Members of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda, known by their French acronym FDLR, and the Mai Mai Cheka rebel groups systematically gang raped over 242 women during a four-day raid of 13 villages in the North Kivu province beginning Jul. 30. According to MONUSCO, the U.N.'s peacekeeping force in the DRC, they are believed to have continued their pillaging spree after 75 subsequent rapes were confirmed in neighbouring areas.

And in South Kivu, over 214 rapes of men, women and children as young as seven years old have been confirmed, with reports of the systematic rape of every woman in the village of Kiluma yet to be corroborated, Khare said. Included in this figure are 10 rapes committed by the official Congolese armed forces, known as the FARDC.

Members of the FARDC, a largely undisciplined military, are known to commit human rights abuses themselves. One of the most notorious examples is former rebel commander Bosco Ntaganda, who is wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, yet is still currently a general in the FARDC, according to aid groups.

"This has been an issue that the council has been seized with for years," Rice said. "Focusing on the FARDC is not new."

Khare and Margot Wallstrom, the U.N.'s special representative for sexual violence in conflict, also urged the use of targeted sanctions against the FDLR and Mai Mai Cheka as a crucial first step in ending impunity for sexual violence and human rights abuses in the conflict-ridden country. However, DRC Ambassador Ileka Atoki believes that sanctions will be futile.

"Delegations will be tempted to seek the easy way out – that would be to establish an entire series of sanctions that… in the depths of the equatorial forest will have no impact and will be entirely ineffective and would not be able to bring relief to us from this horror that we, the men and women of the Congo, have been in… for more than a decade," Atoki said during the council meeting.

Marcel Stoessel, Oxfam International country director for the DRC, told IPS that the only long-term solution to impunity is an overhaul of its security sector. The DRC has instituted a zero-tolerance policy for sexual violence, yet systematic rape is still a common occurrence.

"The government must walk their talk," Stoessel told IPS. "The international community must also show true commitment… There is no willingness by the government or a coordinated effort by donor countries [for comprehensive security sector reform], yet these are the only real solutions to avoid these kinds of atrocities we have seen."

Meanwhile, the U.N. has come under fire for failing to prevent the Jul. 30 to Aug. 2 raid despite knowledge on the first day of rebel activity in the area and at least one reported rape. Peacekeepers also passed through the affected villages on the last day of the raid, but were not alerted to the violence, generating dialogue during the council meeting of enhancing communication and early-warning capabilities.

According to Khare, the densely wooded area in question lacks cell phone coverage, has only one interpreter and only one satellite phone.

"While the primary responsibility for protection of civilians lies with the state, its national army and police force, clearly, we have also failed," Khare admitted. "Our actions were not adequate, resulting in unacceptable brutalisation of the population of the villages in the area. We must do better."

The one-billion-dollar MONUSCO force has the strongest mandate to protect civilians among the world body's peacekeeping troops and is the largest. Yet, when the council renewed its mandate in May, it was with the understanding that the mission would be downsized and eventually phased out, at the wishes of the DRC government. Two thousand blue helmets were removed from the more stable western part of the country beginning in June.

"If [the peacekeepers] don't act, we don't need them," Atoki told IPS after the meeting. "We don't need 10,000 tourists in the DRC."

An assessment of the need for MONUSCO has been ongoing since the council renewed its mandate. On the basis of this assessment process, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to submit a report on the "reconfiguration" of peacekeeping forces in the DRC to the Security Council in early October.

"The process has demonstrated the need for a cautious approach regarding the next stages of the drawdown of the mission," Khare told council members.

Additionally, Khare acknowledged that while one rape is too many, the numbers reported thus far are not unusual. Some 15,000 rapes were reported in the country in both 2008 and 2009, he told the reporters after the meeting, which equates to over 41 rapes per day, or about 1,233 rapes per month.

"For [the women of the DRC], there is no safe place," Wallstrom said. "They are raped when harvesting crops; when going to market; when fetching water and firewood; when carrying their babies; when in their homes at night, among their loved ones. Rape does not end when the violence is over."

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