Victims Testify to End Sexual Violence in the Congo

(c) Amnesty International

Unimaginable and unacceptable.” These are the words Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. special envoy for sexual violence and conflict, recently told the U.N. Security Council after finding out that Congolese government soldiers may have been the perpetrators of murder and rape against at least 200 women, in Luvungi, Congo.  And all the while, U.N. peace keepers were stationed 20 miles away.

After the mass rape, the United Nations released a report on the incident detailing the failures of the peacekeeping mission in not acting on reports of increased treatments of rape in a nearby hospital.

Victims are now testifying in front of a U.N. panel, but moving forward, the key to ending mass violence against women in the Congo is ending impunity for the offenders.

The international community and specifically the United States must play a lead role in demanding an end to impunity for the horrific sexual violence that reoccurs in Congo.  We are calling for an urgent investigation of government soldiers who failed to protect civilians or perpetrated crimes themselves.  In addition, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo must implement a plan to better protect Congolese civilians and ensure that an atrocity like this never happens again.

This is it – act NOW to pass the Tribal Law and Order Act

Two Native American women were gang-raped by three non-Native men in Oklahoma. Because they were forced to wear blindfolds, however, support workers were concerned that the women would be unable to say whether the rapes took place on federal, state or tribal land. Because of jurisdictional complexities and the uncertainty of the locations of these crimes, the women may never see justice served.

It is time to help make a difference in the lives of Native American and Alaska Native women and put an end to the sexual violence that Native women face at a rate that is 2.5 times greater than that of women in the U.S. in general. Passage of the Tribal Law and Order Act will help to do just that.

The Tribal Law and Order Act, attached as an amendment to H.R. 725, is now up for a full floor vote in the House. WHEN it passes, the legislation will go straight to the President to be signed into law.

YOU can make a difference!

TAKE ACTION now and send a letter of support urging your Representative to vote for H.R. 725 with Tribal Law and Order provisions attached, when the bill hits the House floor this week!

Policemen Force Entry into Women's Shelter in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

On the afternoon of June 9th, 14 men, including six armed municipal policemen and a state court official, arrived at a shelter that works to protect women and children at grave risk due to extreme violence in Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, northern Mexico. They demanded entry into the shelter, claiming they were searching for a girl who had been kidnapped. They carried with them official court documents, none of which referred to the women’s shelter. The men were denied entry because the shelter’s protocol strictly prohibits men on the premises in an effort to ensure the protection and confidentiality of the women who have sought refuge.

The men repeatedly issued violent threats against the staff at the shelter. One police officer pointed his gun at the coordinator and said, “You’re going to regret this, you’ll get yourself into trouble, it’s better if you cooperate or we will push down the doors and break the locks.” Following repeated threats and fearing for their lives, the staff eventually allowed the men to enter the shelter. They ransacked the shelter, overturning furniture and searching under beds. Once they were satisfied the girl was not there, they left.

This violent breach of the rights of the women seeking protection at this shelter is especially dangerous because many of them have fled violent partners, including various municipal policemen. The forced entry of these policemen has jeopardized the women’s safety by revealing their location and exposing them to potential future reprisals.


Sexual Violence Still Prevalent in the DRC

Displaced people in Kibati camp, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), November 2008. The Kibati site had a population of 6,000 until the recent fighting started just over a week ago when the camp population surged to an estimated 40,000 people. Copyright: UNHCR/P. Taggart

Displaced people in Kibati camp, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), November 2008. Copyright: UNHCR/P. Taggart

Today, Oxfam International and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative released a report on the rampant use of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The news is sobering: tens of thousands of women have been systematically raped by combatant forces between 2004 and 2008.

Rape is an extremely effective wartime weapon. It is strategically used to shame, demoralize and humiliate the enemy. By systematically raping women and girls, armed groups assert power and domination over not only the women, but their men as well (page 7)

Perhaps most shocking of all their findings is that gang rape is widespread and prevalent, especially in rapes committed by armed combatants. And while many rapes are still being committed by armed combatants, the report also found that the incidence of rape by civilians had greatly increased since 2004, increasing by 1733%, while incidence of rape by armed combatants are actually decreased. The authors of the report grimly call this trend a “civilian adoption of rape.”


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

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


Given the widespread violence perpetrated by armed combatants in the DRC, a withdrawal of United Nations peacekeeping mission (MONUC) troops is likely to lead to increased violence and even less protection for women and girls. The debate to extend MONUC, whose mandate is up for renewal at the end of May, has already begun in the United Nations Security Council.

Amnesty strongly opposes any withdrawal or drawdown in MONUC troops. Instead of requiring the peacekeepers to leave, the government should work with the UN in resolving the many protection challenges that remain. Especially with regards to sexual violence, government forces do not have the capacity to assume the security functions currently fulfilled by MONUC, and the government has not shown the political will to make its forces capable. A withdrawal of MONUC troops will severely hurt the DRC’s chances for peace, and further limit the potential for justice and protection of victims of sexual violence.

Take action now to help protect Justine Masika Bihamba, a women’s rights defender in the DRC who has been repeatedly threatened and attacked because of her work on behalf of survivors of sexual violence.

Kristin Ghazarians contributed to this blog post

Congress Moves on the 2009 Tribal Law and Order Act

On Thursday, December 10th, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security held a hearing to discuss the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2009, for which AIUSA was invited to submit written testimony. The bill, a close approximation of the early Senate draft of the bill, would make crucial and desperately needed reforms in tribal justice systems, helping to address the epidemic of sexual violence against Native American and Alaska Native women and girls.

Over the last few years, Amnesty International USA (AIUSA) has worked to document the disconcerting realities of law enforcement in Indian Country, especially as they impact the capacity and ability to prevent and respond to sexual violence against women and girls. Our research found that Native American and Alaska Native women are more than 2.5 times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women in the United States in general. In recent months, as both the House and Senate have made headway in pushing their respective bills through committee, it seems that Congressional leaders are finally realizing the true urgency of reforming tribal law enforcement.

Both bills would make crucial steps in ensuring justice in Indian Country. These bills mandate and create structures for improving communication, transparency, and data sharing between tribal, state, and Federal agencies, increase tribal prosecutorial authorities, expand and emphasize the importance of data collection and analysis, and call for the US Attorney General’s Office to document cases it refuses to prosecute. The bills also require training for law enforcement personnel on how to respond to domestic and sexual violent crimes and require Indian Health Services to improve services for victims of sexual assault.


Darfur Refugees Raped in Chad Camps

A new Amnesty International report draws a shocking picture of the fate of women and girls who fled the violence in Darfur to neighboring Chad: Instead of finding safety in refugee camps across the border, many become victims of sexual violence. Chadian police, trained and supported by UN forces, do little to protect women from sexual attacks in and outside the camps. In a statement to the Associated Press, a spokesman for the Chadian government denied any responsibility for protecting the refugees: “If there are cases of rape in the camps we cannot prevent them. The government is not responsible for security in the camps.”

The conclusion of the report – titled No place for us here. Violence against refugee women in eastern Chad (pdf) – is devastating and speaks for itself:

Refugee women and girls continue to face the risk of rape and other serious violence in and outside refugee camps in eastern Chad despite the presence of the MINURCAT and the full deployment of the DIS [Detachement Integre de Securite; UN trained Chadian police force] in the 12 refugee camps in eastern Chad.

Outside refugee camps, women and girls face a range of abuses, from harassment and threats of physical attacks to rape and other forms of violence. Within the camps there is little safety from rape and other violence at the hands of other refugees, including members of their own families. In some cases women and girls even face the risk of rape and other violence from staff of humanitarian organizations, whose task is to provide them with assistance and support.

Perpetrators of rape and other forms of violence against refugee women and girls are very rarely brought to justice. This is the case even when survivors report instances of rape and other violence to the local Chadian authorities, the DIS or to refugee camps leaders. There is a deeply entrenched culture of impunity throughout eastern Chad when it comes to rape and other forms of violence against women.

Nicaragua's Abortion Ban Is Endangering Women's Lives

Since July 2008, abortion in all circumstances has been banned in Nicaragua. The new law makes no exceptions for terminating pregnancies that endanger the health or life of the woman, or that result from rape or incest. Girls or women seeking or obtaining abortions are subject to imprisonment. Health care professionals providing abortions — or even unintentionally injuring a fetus — face jail time and being barred from practice.

A new Amnesty International report, The Total Abortion Ban in Nicaragua, details the effects of the new measures. Medical professionals are put in an impossible situation: they’re prevented, on pain of criminal prosecution, from providing essential medical services — in direct contradiction of best-practice guidelines from the Ministry of Health. Women who need abortions to preserve their health — or lives — have to find doctors willing to risk prosecution and suspension of their license, or seek out dangerous back-alley terminations.

The ban has a chilling effect, too, on women suffering obstetric complications: one woman admitted to a hospital following a miscarriage was so frightened that she would be charged with having an abortion that she asked doctors not to intervene. The rate of maternal deaths in Nicaragua has increased: Official figures show that 33 girls and women have died in pregnancy or childbirth so far this year, up from 20 in the same period a year ago.

Finally, girls and women who become pregnant as a result of sexual violence must either carry the pregnancy to term, or look for risky, clandestine abortions. Our researchers spoke with women, raped by relatives, who were forced to give birth — sometimes to their own brothers or sisters. In every case, it’s low-income women who are hit hardest — richer Nicaraguans are able to travel abroad to escape the ban.

Now, all of this was shockingly, appallingly predictable — but the full litany of violations makes terrible reading. That the Nicaraguan health minister is dismissing the report just shows how hard human rights supporters will have to push to overturn the ban.

Take action today!

Read the whole report (or the digest), o en Español (digest).

Lilli Evans contributed to this post.

Exploitation in the DRC fuels mining trade: Apple, Dell look the other way

Prominent US and multinational companies such as Apple, Dell, Motorola, Nokia, and Hewlett-Packard are among the businesses pinpointed as culprits in an unflinching, new report released by Global Witness that details the often noxious connections between the illegal mining trade, widespread human rights abuses and tech and mining firms.

The detailed analysis provides excellent current background on the situation, and names the names of companies operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) that trade in minerals in ways that ignore corporate social responsibility and perpetuate the conflict.

High-tech human rights abuses

The illegal mining and horrific human rights abuses against civilians – including the use of child soldiers and sexual violence as a weapon of war – have previously prompted a UN Expert Panel review that resulted in a large number of companies reforming their activities or leaving the country.  Yet the new Global Witness report is clear: “no effective action has been taken to stop this murderous trade.” Global Witness states that it is not calling for a complete trade embargo or targeting artisanal mining per se, but is focusing on stopping the mining intertwined with conflict and abuse.

In many ways, the DRC’s plight hearkens back to colonialism and chartered companies empowered to make war in order to capture resources.  But today’s neo-colonialism is more indirect and up-to-date, being linked to some of the world’s most sophisticated new technologies.  The minerals cassiterite (tin ore) and coltan are important components in cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices, and the DRC is a primary global source.

Violations in the region have continued despite the recent rapprochement between the DRC and Rwanda and the integration into the Congolese army of one of the leading rebel groups (the Congrès national pour la défense du people, or CNDP, whose leader Bosco Ntaganda is wanted by the International Criminal Court).  Both the army and remaining rebel groups such as the Forces démocratiques pour la libération du Rwanda (FDLR) are implicated in the illegal mining and abuses – even cooperating at times with each other as well as with the companies to share the spoils.  Rule of law in the DRC is either weak or, in many provinces, effectively absent.

The new report states that the named companies exploiting this lack of oversight had almost no controls or due diligence processes to ensure that their supply chain contained no conflict minerals.

Global brands such as many of these companies  participate in industry initiatives including the Electronic Industry Code of Conduct which require them to hold suppliers to high standards.  Yet “suppliers” has often been interpreted to apply to middlemen but not suppliers further down the supply chain.

Apple’s stance leaves much to be desired

When questioned about these specific practices and their obligations to uphold certain standards, companies generally pointed to generic corporate social responsibility statements.  Only in rare cases did companies seem to recognize the need for greater due diligence.  In most cases, no sense of urgency or clear commitment to applying checks to the entire supply chain was expressed.  Instead, companies relied frequently on the fact that they purchased from licensed exporters.

In a statement accompanying release of the report, Global Witness Director Patrick Alley stated:

It is not good enough for companies to say they buy only from licensed exporters, when they know full well that their middlemen buy from armed groups. The failure of governments to hold companies to account, of Burundi and Rwanda to restrict the trade across their borders, and of donors and diplomats to address explicitly the role of the mineral trade, have all contributed to the continuation of a conflict that has killed millions and displaced many more.

Apple’s response was a bare bones reference to its supplier responsibility policy (via a web link that no longer works).  Nokia, at least, gave the more commendable explanation that while it purchases raw materials through suppliers rather than directly, this “does not change the fact that we have the responsibility over everything that goes into making a Nokia product.”

Hewlett-Packard has room for improvement

Hewlett-Packard’s response shows similar progress in understanding the issue, with the company explaining that it has focused on first-tier suppliers where it thinks it “has the most influence” (an assumption that may be questioned when the underlying harms and their locations are considered).  But HP has successfully reached down to many second-tier suppliers as well, via its first tier suppliers (who have told HP that DRC coltan is “not used in their products supplied to HP”).  HP presumably does not merely accept such assertions (which would be akin to the U.S. government accepting diplomatic assurances that the countries to whom it sends terror suspects “do not torture”), but audits them to some extent.  And HP has the reputation of being better than most companies at such audit processes, stating that it is working with the first-tier suppliers of notebook computers to “map their supply chain down to the extractives level.”

Lukewarm responses Motorola and Dell

The responses from Motorola and Dell were in-between the extremes represented by the nonchalant reply from Apple, on the one hand, and the more detailed and responsive replies from Nokia and HP, on the other.  Motorola and Dell stated that they require high standards in their supply chains, expect their suppliers to do the same, and participate in industry initiatives to that end.

Moving toward real social corporate responsibility

Laudable industry initiatives such as the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) do aim to enhance traceability of minerals beyond supplier certifications to the actual mines involved, but thus far have failed to change what Nokia rightly calls a status quo that is “not  . . . acceptable.”

The continued corporate role in this conflict remains shameful and underappreciated but fundamental.  The new Global Witness report usefully reawakens slumbering attention, and clearly demonstrates the need for strengthened accountability mechanisms that truly end what the report calls “the impunity protecting those engaged in illicit mineral exploitation and trade.”

In addition to illustrating the grave risks faced by the extractive industry and companies active in conflict situations, the new report provides sensible recommendations for direly needed urgent actions by governments, corporations, individuals, the UN, and the international community at large to finally call a halt to the ongoing tragedy in the DRC.

Chip Pitts is a lecturer at Stanford Law School, former Chief Legal Officer of Nokia Inc., and former Chair of Amnesty International USA.  He is the co-author and editor of the new book, Corporate Accountability: A Legal Analysis (Lexis Nexis 2009); all the royalties from book sales will benefit human rights and sustainability charities.

Visit to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation Tribal Offices

It’s been a long time since I’ve had access to the internet.  As it turns out, internet, let alone wireless internet, and even regular cell services are minimal when you’re working in a rural area like Standing Rock Sioux Nation.  Signals come in as you reach the tips of the buttes, but fade away as you continue driving.

The other day we were traveling along a stretch of highway in route to Fort Yates, North Dakota, where the tribal offices are located.  This building stands majestically atop a hill and looks out over a large body of water.  We came across a mated pair of bald eagles, just some of the wildlife who call Standing Rock home.  In Native culture, the sighting of a bald eagle is a sign of good fortune and things to come.  It couldn’t have been a better indicator of the meeting I was about to have at the Tribal office.

Standing Rock Reservation Tribal Office

Standing Rock Reservation Tribal Office

The Tribal building is artistic and authentic in its design.  It is one of few buildings on the Reservation that looks this nice and has been preserved over the years.  Inside the Tribal offices, you’ll find many similarities to our US state capitol buildings.  This is the place where Tribal leaders have offices and where the Tribal Council meets every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month. 

I was able to examine up close the operations of the Judiciary side of Tribal government.  Recently, there was a new judge appointed to service Standing Rock Tribal Courts.  As highlighted in the Amnesty International Maze of Injustice report, this is one area where we felt there could be significant improvement.  After meeting new Chief Associate Judge El Marie Conklin, I am happy to report that forward progress is being made in this area.

In the short time she has been here, the domestic violence code has gone under review.  The paperwork required to apply for protection orders of any kind has been standardized and updated.  She is a strong Native woman with clear expectations and uses direct communication to get the job done.  It’s clear that as long as she continues to hold this position (she’s up for re-election in September 2009), that the Judicial side of Tribal government will continue to make large steps towards addressing the high levels of sexual violence occurring on Standing Rock Reservation.

Stopping Violence against Women in Standing Rock Sioux Reservation

Welcome to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation--a sign on one of the border points that indicates you're now on tribal land in North Dakota.

Welcome to Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. This is a sign on one of the border points that indicates you are entering tribal land in North Dakota.

That sign says it all.  As you cross this bridge entering tribal land and tribal jurisdiction, this is the only indication you’ll have.  While it may seem insignificant to the regular driver cruising U.S. highway 1806, this sign along with many other border points along the Reservation is where the maze of injustice begins for the women of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation.

For the last three years, I’ve been the Amnesty International organizer working in this community in partnership with local Native women to accomplish our Maze of Injustice report goals.  As I travel around the Reservation over the next week having meetings and participating in traditional ceremonies, I hope to provide you with a glimpse into the everyday lives of the many survivors, local advocates and tribal leaders who have been instrumental in beginning to stop this cycle of violence against women living here.

Standing Rock Sioux Reservation was one of three Reservations that were examined in the 2006 Amnesty International report “Maze of Injustice: the Failure to Protect Indigenous Women from Sexual Violence in the USA.” According to the report, Native women are 2.5 times more likely to raped or sexually assaulted than any other woman in the USA. Of the women of Standing Rock that I’ve worked with, I haven’t met one who could think of a woman in their community who hadn’t experienced this violence. This is a direct result of a tangled mess of jurisdictional issues, insufficient levels of law enforcement, lack of protocols for handling cases of sexual assault and domestic violence and very few trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) available to perform rape kits at the local Indian Health Services hospitals.

While we’ve had many successes here over the last few years, we still have a long way to go.  The largest local success being the establishment of the only operational safe house called Pretty Bird Woman House. This is the only shelter serving an area of over one million square miles in either direction located in McLaughlin, SD.  In the last year alone, this shelter has seen over 100 women walk through the doors to receive necessary support, counseling and legal advocacy in an effort to bring their perpetrators to justice.

With that, I invite you to stay tuned over the next few days for your very own first eye view of the amazing and courageous women of Standing Rock Reservation. Women, that everyday are faced with the unknown fear of when this will happen to them.