This Mother’s Day, It Was Motherhood, Not Rape, That Made Congo the Worst Place to Be a Woman

Save the Children's "State of the World's Mothers" report has named the Democratic Republic of Congo as the world's worst place to be a mother (Photo Credit: Leon Sadiki/City Press/Gallo Images/Getty Images).

Save the Children’s “State of the World’s Mothers” report has named the Democratic Republic of Congo as the world’s worst place to be a mother (Photo Credit: Leon Sadiki/City Press/Gallo Images/Getty Images).

In honor of Mother’s Day, Save the Children released its annual “State of the World’s Mothers” report. I was saddened, but not surprised to see the Democratic Republic of Congo is the worst place to be a mother.

Severe violations of women’s human rights in Congo are, unfortunately, a perennial subject of attention for me and numerous other rights activists. Typically those violations are associated with the long and bloody conflict that has spanned the country and concentrated in its most recent stages in the East.

Indeed, DRC has been plagued by almost two decades of conflict resulting in the suffering and death of millions of men, women and children. Most chillingly, the Congo conflict has become synonymous with rape and other forms of sexual violence, which are committed with impunity by security forces, including the armed forces of the DRC (Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo, FARDC), and other armed groups. For this reason, it was ranked the worst place to be a woman by the United Nations just last year.

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In the Name of My Grandfather: My Personal Search For a Lifesaving Arms Trade Treaty

Delegates to the United Nations General Assembly after passing the first UN treaty regulating the international arms trade (Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

Delegates to the United Nations General Assembly after passing the first UN treaty regulating the international arms trade (Photo credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images).

By Alberto Estévez, Amnesty International’s Advocacy Coordinator for the Arms
Trade Treaty

It was a special moment I’ll never forget.

On Wednesday, March 27, as I walked towards the UN official giving out copies of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), I held my breath wondering how the Golden Rule principle of “No Arms for Atrocities” had been worded in the final treaty text.

I glanced at the preamble, scope and implementation articles and rushed to read
articles 6 and 7, encompassing the Golden Rule. I read it again, in case I had
missed something. Then I had a look at the provisions on reporting, diversion
and how the treaty can be changed in the future. I took a deep breath and said
to myself: “Well done to Amnesty, we’ve got the Golden Rule in.”

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The “Terminator,” War Crimes, and the Obama Administration: All Roads Lead to Rome

DJ-Fugitives-Infographic BOSCO

Click on the image above to access the full-size infographic

As news breaks about the surrender of the “Terminator,” Bosco Ntaganda, to the United States embassy in Kigali today, the US State Department was quick to note that it “strongly support[s] the ICC and their investigations on the atrocities committed in the DRC.” Further, Ambassador Stephen Rapp, head of the Office of Global Criminal Justice, tweeted “Bosco #Ntaganda surrenders in #Rwanda and asks to the taken to the #ICC. We are helping to facilitate his transfer.”

This development, and the U.S. administration’s quick signaling of its intent to adhere to obligations to transfer Ntaganda to the court to answer charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity is welcome, and encouraging. Thus, I will not start with the call that “the US should take all steps to ensure the speedy transfer of Ntaganda to The Hague.”

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Another Year Lost for the Lives and Dignity of Congo’s Women

Rape survivors awaiting surgery, Panzi hospital, Bukavu, South-Kivu province. Copyright Amnesty International

Three years ago when Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton took the unprecedented step of travelling to the Eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to meet with rape survivors of the country’s brutal conflict, I was elated and hopeful. Elated because Secretary Clinton was doing something that had never been done before—sending the message that sexual violence is just as high on America’s foreign policy agenda as trade or traditional capital-to-capital diplomacy, and that the dignity and needs of survivors are a particular priority. Hopeful because I thought it meant perhaps three years later we would see some real change for women in that unending war.

I was wrong.

Tens of thousands of civilians have this very week been displaced following the fall of Goma, a city in Congo’s war-torn east, to the armed group M23, worsening an already dire human rights situation.  Since only April of this year, fighting between the Congolese army and the M23 armed group has displaced 226,000 people in North Kivu province, and 60,000 refugees have fled to Uganda and Rwanda. As with the many other chapters in what’s become known as Africa’s world war, sexual violence has been a trademark of the recent fighting. Amnesty International has documented numerous crimes under international law and other human rights violations committed in the course of fighting between M23 and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) army in recent months.

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Milestone Verdict on Child Soldiers: Will Kony Be Next?

Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanda Dyilo listens at the International Criminal Court. MARCEL ANTONISSE/AFP/Getty Images

Today, the International Criminal Court (ICC) announced a historic decision, finding Thomas Lubanga Dyilo – the alleged founder of a vicious Congolese armed rebel group – guilty of war crimes for his use and abuse of child soldiers during the armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) between 2002 and 2003.

Lubanga’s conviction sets a historic precedent for international justice and accountability for those who commit the most unspeakable of crimes. Crimes like rape. Torture. Enslavement. Crimes common among Lubanda’s Union of Congolese Patriots and its armed wing, the FPLC.

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No Justice for Women in DRC

Rape survivors gather to meet Amnesty International mission delegates, Kindu, Maniema province.

Two years ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton took the unprecedented step of extending a diplomatic visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in order to travel across the country and meet directly with rape survivors in the country’s war-torn eastern region.

The Secretary heard brutal, firsthand accounts of targeted sexual violence women had suffered as part of a systematic campaign by armed groups intended to terrorize civilians and maintain control.

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Mass Rapes in Congo Must Be Stopped

Today the BBC reported that a Congolese army commander led an attack that saw up to 50 women raped over the new year in Fizi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.  This devastating report comes on the heels of another account of mass rape in the DRC last summer.  The need to end impunity in the Congo has never been more urgent.

The Fizi events are another telling example of the consequences of the virtual impunity the Congolese forces benefit from. The failure to hold the Congolese army to account when they fail to carry out their protection role or commit crimes themselves in turn encourages further violations.

Amnesty International welcomes the initial commitment shown by the Congolese authorities to ensure that those responsible for these recent violations are held to account – notably the arrest of 12 officers of the 43rd sector of Amani Leo and initial investigations by the Military Prosecutor of South Kivu. Such steps must however be taken forward – more often than not investigations in the DRC are never brought to a conclusion. A recent example of this is the investigation into the mass rapes that occurred in Walikale, North Kivu, in August 2010 which have now stalled.

The Congolese authorities must ensure that those responsible for these violations are held to account- through thorough investigations and free and fair trials. No one, regardless of their status, should be above the law.

Join us in calling for justice for survivors of sexual violence in the DRC.

Standing Up for Women in the DRC

This post is part of our Write for Rights Series

Yesterday, the UN Group of Experts on the DRC just released their newest report. In it, they describe how army units have been accused by local populations of “looting and burning entire villages and torturing and raping civilians in the course of their operations.” 
The recent mass rapes in the territory of Walikale this past August were a sharp reminder that this type of violence happens on a frighteningly regular basis in the DRC and at an equally frightening scale: at least 15,000 rapes were reported in the DRC last year – a figure which is likely to be much higher, as most survivors are too afraid of stigmatization and thus do not report the crimes.

What these rapes tell us is that both the DRC government and the United Nations have failed to protect civilians and to respond effectively to these crimes. Until we take the right action to ensure these crimes are effectively stopped, countless women will continue to be at risk of such violence.

This year, we’re highlighting the issue of sexual and gender-based violence in the DRC during our annual Global Write-a-thon. Starting tomorrow, the United Nations is rotating into the Presidency of the UN Security Council. So we’re asking Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to use that opportunity to ensure that measures aimed at ending widespread sexual violence in the DRC are implemented.

Here’s what you can do to make a difference:

1. Participate in a local write-a-thon event
2. Send an email to Secretary Clinton today
3. Tweet to Stop Violence Against Women

Rounded Up and Raped in the Congo

A woman sits in a tent in a camp for the internally displaced after she was allegedly raped. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

During four terrible days in July and August, armed groups raped more than 300 women, girls, men and boys in the Walikale territory of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The perpetrators moved through 13 villages, looting, raping and abducting the local population. The rapes were planned and organized: victims were rounded up and prevented from fleeing before being raped by armed men acting under the orders of their commanding officers.

Even though United Nations peacekeepers were stationed nearby, they failed to protect these communities.

What happened in Walikale demonstrates the utter failure of both the DRC government and the United Nations to protect civilians from violence.

We can do something about this. In just two weeks, the United States will assume the presidency of the UN Security Council for the month of December– giving Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the opportunity to demand strong measures to protect civilians in the DRC from sexual violence.

We need you to let Secretary Clinton know that concerned citizens want the U.S. to take a strong stand in the Council to fully protect civilians in the DRC.

The suffering endured by the survivors in Walikale is, tragically, only one example of what the Congolese people have to endure. Sexual violence in the DRC has sometimes been referred to as “the war within the war”.

Last year alone, 15,000 cases of rape were reported. The actual figure is likely much higher, as many survivors do not report rape out of fear of being stigmatized within their communities.

Secretary Clinton has witnessed first-hand the extent of sexual violence in the DRC. In September 2009, following her mission to the DRC, she told the UN Security Council that “it is time for us…to go beyond condemning this behavior, to taking concrete steps to end it.

She also pushed the Council to adopt the concrete measures necessary to bring perpetrators of this violence to justice.

Now that the United States has another opportunity to lead the UN Security Council in taking action to protect civilians in the DRC, we can’t afford to sit quietly!

Good News for International Justice

For years, rebel group leader Callixte Mbarushimana has been living in France, enjoying impunity for heinous crimes committed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).   Callixte leads the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a rebel group operating in the eastern part of the DRC, that has been responsible for innumerable killings of civilians, rape, abductions of women and girls for sexual slavery, recruitment of child soldiers, destruction of villages and other human rights abuses.

But fortunately, Mbarushimana’s spate of good luck may be ending. On October 11, French police arrested him on a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC has charged him with five counts of crimes against humanity (murder, torture, rape, inhumane acts and persecution) and six counts of war crimes (attacks against the civilian population, destruction of property, murder, torture, rape and inhuman treatment). France’s actions have signaled its commitment to the ICC and to arresting war criminals.

In addition to France’s move, there are two other positive developments in the fight for international justice.  Moldova recently became the 114th country to join the ICC.  And the ICC trial of Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo is finally set to begin on November 22, 2010, despite his last-ditch effort to appeal his case as inadmissible.  Bemba is charged with two counts of crimes against humanity (murder and rape) and three counts of war crimes (murder, rape and pillaging) for his role in crimes committed in the Central African Republic in 2002 and 2003.

You can join us in the fight for international justice. Ask the US to support the ICC’s investigations.