Rape as a weapon of war is not unique to the Democratic Republic of Congo
(DRC), but the scope and degree to which it occurs in this part of the world
, especially in the resource-rich eastern provinces
– an epicenter of violence during the war – is alarming and unprecedented.
Walikale, the site of a recent scourge of rapes and violence is not unlike several other cities and villages in the Kivus and in the DRC in general. Rich in both tin and gold, Walikale is beset by a convergence of several opposing military factions
: the rebel Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple
, (CNDP), whose members have supposedly been reintegrated into the official Congolese army; the FARDC, who have been accused of crimes as egregious as those committed by rebel armies
; the Rwandan FDLR; Tutsi rebel factions; and numerous other smaller rebel groups and non-Congolese military groups.
The raping of more than 300 women, children, and men that occurred between July 31 and August 2 in the area of Walikale and the village of Ruvungi has made international news headlines and caused an uproar about the role and responsibilities of the United Nation mission in the DRC – MONUSCO (formerly MONUC) – and their capacity to actually keep the peace. UN peacekeepers, stationed about 30 kilometers away from the attacks, were reportedly aware of rebel activity in the area, but were not aware of the mass raping until after the crimes had been committed. Officials went on a fact-finding mission several days later once the rapes were reported by the International Medical Corps. Some, however, argue that officials should have acted differently, dispatching peacekeepers to the Walikale area as soon as they were made aware of rebel activity.
UN workers and other international organizations may have known about the rapes while they were occurring, and in retrospect the international community can criticize their inaction during the perpetration of this massive atrocity, but there are larger questions that loom: Why has the DRC become the “rape capital of the world?” And what can we do to enable UN peacekeeping forces to actually keep the peace?
More than two months after these crimes were perpetrated, rapes are no doubt still occurring across the region. The UN has declared that militias will be charged for the crimes in Walikale, arrests have already been made, and there are people doing good work to help the victims of sexual crimes after the fact. But despite these efforts and the ongoing presence of MONUSCO and efforts to integrate and train the FARDC as a legitimate army that protects the citizens of the country, sexual violence against civilians, and especially against women, has continued at an outrageous level.
The mandate of MONUSCO, carried over in part from its predecessor, MONUC, is to both protect civilians and backstop the efforts of the FARDC – a sometimes conflicting mandate. Designed to keep the peace and monitor the implementation of the ceasefire agreement, to “facilitate humanitarian assistance and human rights monitoring, with particular attention to vulnerable groups including women, children and demobilized child soldiers” (emphasis added), the UN mission has clearly not been able to successfully fulfill this mandate, even after almost 12 years on the ground. While the UN charter does not explicitly include the word “peacekeeping,” and there are those who argue that it is not properly structured to act as a peacekeeping body, the UN has more than 60 peacekeeping missions under its belt since its first mission in 1948 and the DRC is its largest ever. Still, the weak record of success of MONUC and of its successor MONUSCO together with the unreliability of the FARDC does not inspire confidence for the safety or security of civilians in the DRC.
Why the rapes continue and why neither MONUSCO nor the Congolese authorities are unable to stop them are complicated questions. Explanations range from political complications preventing peacekeepers from becoming involved in day-to-day human security to a simple lack of mission resources. The rapes in Walikale occurred in an area with abundant tin deposits and some of the largest gold mines in the country. The DRC, and the east in particular, is ripe with resources, and historically, underdeveloped regions characterized by such a heavy concentration of natural resources are often more cursed than they are blessed. The competition over resources and violence spurred by an unequal distribution of rents is perhaps part of the reason for such intense violence; it does not, however, explain why rape has become a weapon of choice, why women have become a target of war crimes in general, or why the level of violence against women in the DRC in particular has risen to such a horrifying level.
Justine Lindemann is program assistant with the Africa Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
Sources: AFP, AFRICOM, AllAfrica, BBC, Congo Siasa, IPS News, The New York Times, Panzi Hospital of Bukavu, UN, UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, VII Photo Agency.
Photo Credit: “Congo kivu,” courtesy of flickr user andré thiel.