UNITED NATIONS -- The UN Security Council was told that the best way to stop rapes in the Congo was to arrest and sanction commanders who permitted it, exclude perpetrators from any future amnesty and do something about the root of the violence -- the looting of minerals.
Margot Wallström of Sweden, the UN envoy in charge of reporting on sexual violence in combat zones, said Congolese government troops were raping and pillaging in the same areas where militia carried out mass rapes during the summer and where natural resources are sold to the highest bidder.
Her speech on Thursday, after a trip to the region, was among the most graphic and frank by a senior official since the mass rapes, lasting three days in July and August, and revealed only last month. Unclear is what action the Council will take, in addition to arrests various governments have made in Europe and in the Congo.
At least 303 civilians, including 235 women, 13 men, 52 girls and 3 boys, were raped and tortured in 13 villages in the Walikale area in North Kivu, an eastern province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations reported. Many were gang-raped. More shocking is that an estimated 15,000 people have been raped in the eastern areas over the past year, a UN official reported.
The rapes have been blamed on Rwandan Hutu rebels from the FDLR (Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda) and factions of the Mai Mai clan. But Wallström said on-going military operations by the Congolese army in the Walikale area were of grave concern.
"The possibility that the same communities who were brutalized in July and August by FDLR and Mai Mai elements are now also suffering at the hands of the FARDC troops (Congolese army) is unimaginable and unacceptable," she said.
Congolese President Joseph Kabila has ordered a moratorium on mining in the eastern Kivu and sent in thousands of army troops to reassert government control, although enforcing such a ban is difficult. The government troops have been known to take charge of mines and sell the minerals. (Human Rights Watch a year ago documented killings by Congolese soldiers, including women and children.)
Wallström told of her own trip through villages only to find them deserted:
Families prefer to sleep in the forest since they don't feel safe in their own homes... The rapes of elderly women left the communities reeling with shock. It served to shatter the social taboos and the shared heritage that holds people together. We must insist that where sexual violence is planned and orchestrated as a tactic of war, it must be viewed as preventable.
The Security Council, Wallström said, should impose sanctions against perpetrators of sexual violence, beginning with "Lieutenant Colonel" Serafim of the Rwandan rebel group, one of the commanders of militia who carried out the mass rapes that took place from July 30 to Aug. 2. She said she could offer "credible information" from witnesses on the scene.
Scramble for Minerals
Wallström said the communities in lucrative mining areas were at a particular high risk. "The competition over mining interests (was) one of the root causes of conflict and sexual violence." European countries and others should enact legislation that requires companies to disclose whether their products contain minerals from the Congo, she proposed.
The Congolese government should initiate wide-ranging investigations and send police guards to the affected areas to enforce its "zero-tolerance" policy for sexual abuse. But she said that "so far 'zero tolerance' has been underpinned largely by 'zero consequences' for such crimes."
Wallström praised UN peacekeepers for last week's arrest of Sadoke Kokunda Mayele, who is accused of coordinating a series of attacks and mass rapes in Walikale by the Mai-Mai militia. He was turned in by his own group (although he is not considered to have controlled all the men who carried out the attack, Reuters reported.)
When commanders can no longer rest easy in the certainty of impunity; when it begins to cross their mind that they may be turned in by their own for commissioning or condoning rape; this is the moment when we open a new front in the battle to end impunity.
UN peacekeepers were not far from Walikale during the mass rapes but Wallström said they were overstretched and under-financed as well as demoralized by the "constant barrage of criticism from all quarters."
The situation is bound to get worse before it gets better. Part of 40-plus mandates of the peacekeepers is to work with the Congolese army. And at the request of President Kabila, the Security Council agreed in May to allow a phased withdrawal of the troops, led by India. This triggered a $73 million cut to the $1.3 billion budget for the 18,000-man operation, which is already short of equipment.
The force has always been too small for the large country, a former Belgian colony with absurdly-drawn borders, and the government in Kinshasa, nearly a continent away in the West, is still too fragile.