Rape in war: the time for 'never again' is now

On October 17th thousands of Congolese women, led by Olive Lembe Kabila marched to end impunity for sexual violence against women. Rape survivors joined the march, many of them from their hospital beds, defying a culture that shames victims rather than perpetrators
Theresa de Langis
25 October 2010


Will the UN Security Council remember the women of the DRC when it meets to commemorate the anniversary of Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security this week?

A few weeks ago Congolese militia commander, Sadoke Kokunda Mayele, was arrested and charged with leading a four-day rampage that left in its wake an estimated 500 victims of gang rape in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. The arrest of Mayele is good news, but not cause for celebration. Arrests mean only so much in a context where sexual violence is committed with widespread impunity, where state penalties are weak and enforcement even weaker, and where the international community, including the UN, has by its own admission been ineffective in its response. For the women of eastern Congo, and women in conflict areas worldwide, what matters now is what happens next.

Rape as a weapon of war has become commonplace, and a well-known characteristic of the conflict in the DRC. The UN’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, declared the DRC as the “rape capital of the world” in April. In the eastern Congo alone, the UN estimates, more than 15,000 women were raped last year as part of the conflict. A report released in early October by the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) presents a catalogue of atrocities committed by all parties to the fighting, and it describes a world where sexual violence is a “daily reality from which Congolese women have no respite.” Widespread rape has been used throughout the conflict to mark victories and defeats, with retreating armies committing rapes during withdrawal, and conquering soldiers committing rapes as commanding officers “offer” rape as a reward to troops. Victims range in age from infants to grandmothers.

The incident in eastern Congo this summer is shocking for its calculated brutality, but it can certainly not be called a surprise. The OHCHR report catalogues an escalation in the open commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity that has gone unchecked by the DRC government and the international community despite the constant warnings from national and transnational civil society groups. At least one organisation, AIDS-Free World, has argued the UN is not simply negligent in its delayed response to the event, but complicit in the crimes for the knowledge it had at its disposal and, ignoring this, the abeyance in which it held the specific security concerns of Congolese women in setting its military policies and strategy. The UN has created instruments to empower states in these very instances: Security Council Resolutions 1325 (2000), 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009) and 1889 (2009) each call in their own way for more concerted efforts to protect women in conflict situations and promote women’s agency in establishing peace and security. SCR 1820 specifically names rape as a weapon of war and sexual violence in conflict as a security issue.

As for the Government of DRC, some of its own security forces are allegedly complicit in committing atrocities they are implicated in this summer’s mass sexual violence. Despite a gruesome inventory of serious violations by state and non-state actors, the level of impunity thus far is striking” Very few cases of sexual violence ever reach the justice system, few of those that do result in decisions, and even fewer in convictions. In the rare cases of convictions, the defendants almost invariably escape from prison. A mere 12 trials have been held in response to the crimes committed between 1993-2003.

Since the rapes this summer, calls for an end to impunity for sexual violence is increasing in volume. In an emergency meeting of the Security Council on the rapes in eastern Congo on August 26, the Council demanded that action be taken to ensure such an event never happens again and called on Kinshasa "to swiftly investigate these attacks and ensure that the perpetrators are brought to justice". A few weeks later, Wallstrom reported to the Security Council that “so far ‘zero tolerance’ has been underpinned by ‘zero consequences’”. The OHCHR stressed one of the aims is to “encourage efforts to break the cycle of impunity and continuing gross violations” and has now formed a high-level panel in response to this summer’s mass rapes. The panel traveled to three provinces in DR Congo from September 30 to October 10 to find out from the victims about the "adequacy of remedies and reparations available to sexual violence survivors.”

Gender-sensitive reparation initiatives in response to sexual violence in conflict and post-conflict settings is the focus of the April 2010 report by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Rashida Manjoo makes two central points about reparations programs for victims of sexual violence. The first is the need for approaches that provoke fundamental societal conversions, 'Since violence perpetrated against individual women generally feeds into patterns of pre-existing and often cross-cutting structural subordination and systematic marginalization, measures of redress need to link individual reparations and structural transformation' Manjoo highlights that restoring the victim to her status prior to the violation is impossible and effectual reparations will require measures that transform cultural understandings about the value of women in wider society. Any return to the status quo ante in fact perpetuates, rather than prevents, the future commission of crimes. Reparations must aspire “not only to restitution, but also to correction.”

Manjoo also argues that guarantees of non-repetition, as covered in the framework of the law of remedy, offer the greatest potential for transforming gender relations. As her report points out: 'In promising to ensure non-recurrence, such guarantees trigger a discussion about the underlying structural causes of the violence and their gendered manifestations and a discussion about the broader institutional or legal reforms that might be called for to ensure non-repetition. A gender-sensitive reparations programme should seize this opportunity to advance, as part of the venture of reconstructing a new and more inclusive democratic order, a society that overcomes the systemic subordination of women.

Such an approach inserts accountability for both past and future violations. It addresses the frequently increased levels of violence against women in families and communities after official peace or democracy has been declared. At the heart of Manjoo’s thesis—and the heart of the UN Security Council Resolutions on women, peace and security—is the centrality of women’s human rights to establishing long-term sustainable peace.

The importance of women’s participation in planning for and implementing remedies, cannot be overestimated. It not only ensures that our experiences and priorities are reflected in redress, but is in itself an important form of rehabilitation as objectified sexual victims gain agency and subject hood as fully recognized human beings and actors of social change. Travelling throughout the DRC, the OHCHR panel heard from victims their need for public recognition, especially from the highest levels of government, for the harm suffered by victims. On October 17th thousands of Congolese women marched to end impunity for sexual violence against women, led by Olive Lembe Kabila, wife of DRC President Joseph Kabila. Rape survivors joined the marched, many of them from their hospital beds, defying a culture that shames victims rather than perpetrators. Their demand: 'Enough, enough, enough, enough.'

The perpetual repeat of mass sexual violence in conflict is a dire marker of how much more needs to be done to implement 1325. This week the UN Security Council will be asked to adopt a set of 26 indicators on SCR 1325 implementation. At the core of the indicators is a 7-point action plan requiring 15% of UN funding for conflict and post-conflict programmes be devoted to women's issues and encouraging the use of temporary special measures to ensure women’s meaningful participation in peace processes. Both the indicators and Action Plan are sorely needed, because the time for “never again” is now.



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