Beyond Outrage -- Bringing Sexual Terrorists to Justice

08/26/2010 12:35 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

NEW YORK - The United Nations' recent pledge to combat sexual violence in conflict zones was put to the test once again this month, with the mass rape of at least 154 women in Eastern Congo. And once again the UN is failing that test.

It is not for lack of good intentions. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and his Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, condemned the attacks and expressed their outrage at the widespread level and systematic nature of sexual violence in the DRC.

But the UN cannot hope to put a dent in this phenomenon merely by condemning it. Outrage is no substitute for action.

Having recognized the systematic nature of the horror, the UN has a responsibility to design an equally systematic, and global, response to it. Ban Ki-Moon cannot stop at simply "calling" for perpetrators of such acts to be brought to justice. He knows full well that Congo's justice system is too corrupt and powerless to touch the militia leaders who order such attacks.

Lest we misunderstand the true nature of the phenomenon, we must be clear about the fact that these rapes are well organized and planned. In this case the attackers, far from being a "mob" (as The New York Times misleadingly branded them in its initial report), were members of the Mai-Mai militia and the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (commonly known by its french acronym FDLR), a group of ethnic Hutu fighters linked to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. The crimes occurred along a 21-kilometre stretch of road in North Kivu's Banamukira territory between 30 July and 2 August, with the attackers blocking the road and preventing the villagers from reaching outside communications, all of which suggests careful planning and coordination.

What is more, their actions constitute more than just rape in the classic sense, but a deliberate act of political violence devised to destroy the already fragile social fabric of Congolese society. According to Will F. Cragin, a coordinator for the International Medical Corps in North Kivu province, the viciousness of the sexual attacks was beyond compare. "Most women were raped by two to six men at a time," he said. The attackers often brought the victims into their homes, raping them "in front of their children and their families," Mr. Cragin said, leaving many of them bloodied and sexually mutilated, or "ruined" to use the expression that gave the Pulitzer Prize winning play about this tragic phenomenon its name.

According to witness reports, 200 to 400 militiamen were involved in this organized act of sexual terrorism. It occurred only 20 miles away from a UN peacekeeping base. Over three weeks after the attack, the UN is still unable to say whether any of its troops in the area were even aware of what was going on. What is sure is that they left it to exposed NGO workers like Cragin to sound the alarm.

While it is too late to stop the individual perpetrators of this horror, it is not too late to take their leadership to task, and begin the process of bringing them to justice in an internationally mandated court, should it not be feasible to have them tried in Congo itself.

Such a process begins with naming names. Major General Sylvestre Mudacumura is the overall commander of the "military wing" of the FDLR. He was the deputy commander of the Presidential Guard of the Rwandan Armed Forces during the 1994 genocide. If this latest tragedy is to be a turning point in the fight against sexual violence in conflict zones, Ban Ki-Moon must step up to the challenge, and match his expressed outrage with action. The UN chief has the option of officially naming Sylvestre Mudacumura as the de-facto leader of the militia responsible for this latest act of mass sexual terror. He can additionally push for a specific Security Council resolution to either set up a mandated tribunal to try him and any other leaders responsible for this organized act of sexual terror. To accelerate this process he could order his peacekeepers to investigate this crime and build a case that could lead to an indictment of Maducumura, either by the International Criminal Court, or by a specially mandated tribunal.

Options abound that would allow the UN to make an example of this tragedy and bring severe consequences to its perpetrators. The question is whether this secretary-general has the courage to match his outrage, and lead the way in a fight that has only just begun, against the worldwide spread of organized, politically motivated sexual terror.

Marisa Tramontano and Michael Soussan are at work on a documentary aiming to expose the political nature of sexual violence against women globally. Tramontano coordinates the Off-the-Record Lecture Series at the Foreign Policy Association, the oldest and largest women's foreign policy group in the US. Michael Soussan is the author of "Backstabbing for Beginners: My Crash Course in international Diplomacy" now in paperback from Nation Books. He teaches international relations at New York University's Center for Global Affairs.