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Margot Wallström

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The War in Congo Waged on the Bodies of Women and Girls

Posted: 03/08/11 12:00 AM ET

On the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, March 8, ending sexual violence as a war weapon remains one of the greatest challenges to the protection of women's human rights. Whether the survivor is an eight-year-old girl or an 80-year-old grandmother, we must know that the UN is doing all we can to end this scourge.

I recently visited Bosnia and Herzegovina and met with women survivors of sexual violence during the war in the Balkans. Still today, 15 years after the war, women live without justice. One woman, who together with her then 21-year-old daughter, was held in a rape camp in Bosnia during the war, told me that she runs into her rapist in the local supermarket or at the bank. And still unpunished, he laughs at her. The estimated 20,000 -- 50,000 rapes have resulted in only 12 convictions in national courts.

But perhaps nowhere is the issue more prevalent than in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ground zero in the fight against sexual violence in conflict. In recent history it is difficult to find a case where sexual assault and violence has been as inextricably linked to the perpetuation of conflict and destruction of communities. Unraveling the complexities behind the drivers of this conflict, and reducing the systematic violence is a test case for the international community.

At the crux of this test is ending the culture of impunity to create an environment where communities can recover from conflict. This is why I have made ending impunity for this type of crimes my number one priority.

On a recent trip to Washington, I met with American governmental and non-governmental leaders working on issues related to sexual violence and conflict in Congo, and elsewhere in central Africa. Whether at the White House, the State Department, or on Capitol Hill, policy makers expressed a sense of urgency about reducing violence in eastern Congo. I impressed on them the need to address the root causes. This means regulating the trade in conflict minerals that acts as an economic fuel to the conflict; creating the political will to reform the Congolese national army from predator to protector; and tackling impunity for war criminals and illegal actors that continues to enable those most responsible for mass atrocities.

The United States, in its role on the UN Security Council, recently demonstrated strong leadership on the passage of UN Resolution 1960, which requires the Council and member states to honor commitments to combat sexual violence in conflict, investigate abuses, and hold perpetrators to account. I encourage the United States to continue to lead on this issue by developing its strategy to tackle the root causes of sexual violence and other human rights crimes in eastern Congo.

The United States is the largest contributor to the UN Mission to Congo, or MONUSCO, and the first country to pass a law monitoring publically traded companies using minerals mined in eastern Congo or its neighbors in an effort to reduce the direct or indirect financing of illegal armed groups. Its Departments of Defense and State are engaged in initiatives to build capacity through military professionalism and justice training.

However, without continued leadership at senior levels within the U.S. government and a more robust international effort, these contributions cannot alone deliver a durable peace. Following this model of U.S. leadership, I have pushed for legislation on conflict minerals in Great Britain, Ireland, Sweden, Belgium, and the European Union. Canada is in the process of trying to pass similar legislation. Such action would send a strong signal to armed groups and the traders of conflict minerals, and gain leverage to begin changing the economic calculus of the criminal networks driving conflict in central Africa.

The international community must commit to ending this war waged on the bodies of women and girls. The global trade in conflict minerals that sustains sexual violence and other ongoing mass atrocities in eastern Congo connects us all. These minerals are found in our cell phones, laptops and digital cameras: the technology that advances our communications, commerce, social networking and national security.

During the Nuremberg trials following World War II, the sexual violence inflicted on survivors was deemed unspeakable. For too long, sexual violence in conflict has been seen as inevitable. We must end this distorted outlook, replace our vocabulary and start treating these crimes like other human rights abuses. Let us make sexual violence in conflict unthinkable and unacceptable.

Margot Wallström is the UN's Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, former Vice President of the European Commission and Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders' Ministerial Initiative.