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The DRC and sexual violence: too often forgotten

Published: Thursday, 18th April 2013

International attention is fickle. The spotlight effect, where the full glare of publicity suddenly turns on to a particular issue or country for a while, then switches away, leaving where it was in complete darkness again, is a striking feature of today’s political and media culture. The Korean peninsula is having its moment in the light as I write, but can expect to fall rapidly off the agenda if and when it becomes clear (as I hope) that the North is not going to do something completely barmy and suicidal.

However, some places almost never get the attention they deserve. One of these is the Democratic Republic of Congo. A vast country of some 80 million people, at the heart of Africa – it is surrounded by no less than nine neighbours – it has struggled since independence in 1960 with a poor colonial legacy, cold war manipulations, venal and incompetent governments, and a succession of wars. Its people are mostly very poor indeed, but the country is not – it has plenty of natural resources of all kinds, and is also a vital carbon sink because of its huge tropical forests. The problem is that virtually none of this wealth reaches the people themselves, either directly or in the form of taxation on production which could be used to improve basic services.

I visited the DRC several times as UN Emergency Relief Coordinator because of the vast humanitarian needs there, particularly in the east of the country. It was hard not to come away depressed. This was not because the country was an irretrievable basket case, but because the chances of rescuing it from a combination of poor governance and cynical exploitation of its underground wealth by an alphabet soup of armed groups, including its own awful armed forces, still seemed remote. The east of the country was where the problems came together in their most toxic form, aggravated by the fact that the Hutu groups responsible for the Rwanda genocide of 1994 had fled there, continued to terrorise the local population, and invited constant interference from Rwanda – and from Tutsi groups on both sides of the border anxious to make sure there could be no repetition, but also helping themselves to DRC’s natural wealth in the process. To cap the misery, the remnants of the Lord’s Resistance Army, which had been pushed out of Northern Uganda some years ago, resumed their reign of terror in the north-east of the DRC, with their trademark atrocities, sexual slavery, and child abductions.

I remain depressed about what is happening in the DRC, almost three years after leaving my UN role. The fighting continues, with the so-called M23 group the latest militia to assert their rights and their military muscle, amid more accusations of interference from Rwanda. As usual, the civilian population are the main victims – there are few if any real military battles. The UN continue to struggle to establish some kind of stability through the peacekeeping force there, apparently large in number but pitifully small compared to the territory they are trying to patrol. In an interesting twist, the Security Council recently voted to establish a new kind of more robust intervention force in DRC, in addition to the normal peacekeepers, to try to reverse an apparent habit of standing by while terrible things are happening. We will have to see whether this force can begin to make a difference.

Another interesting and potentially hopeful development came recently when the M23 leader, Bosco Ntaganda, indicted some years ago by the International Criminal Court, decided to hand himself in to the authorities in The Hague – not I suspect because of a sudden rush of penitence or love of justice, but because he had lost out in a leadership struggle and risked being killed otherwise. He is certainly a brutal figure DRC can do without. But it is less clear that his departure from the scene will change anything fundamentally. The various militias competing for territory and access to mining riches continue their depredations against the civilian population. The writ of the central government means more or less nothing in most of the east. But most of all, and worst of all, the sexual violence which has been the scourge of this area for decades also continues – not just rapes, but systematic attacks which are so inhuman as to defy description and belief. They are not the inevitable by-product of conflict but a deliberate attempt to humiliate, to intimidate, and to terrorise, for wider political and commercial aims.

My point is that if this was happening in some other parts of the world, the international community would surely have found a way to stop it by now. It is not that nothing at all has been done. Awareness has been raised. Money for treatment of the victims has been found. UN strategies have been drawn up. But the atrocities have continued. This is intolerable.

The good news is that there is now a new effort, spearheaded by the British government, called the Prevention of Sexual Violence Initiative, launched properly at a meeting of the G8 foreign ministers last week. It aims above all at ending impunity for the perpetrators of this violence. It is not only aimed at DRC. Somalia and other places where sexual violence is a tragic part of the scene are also on the agenda. Most recently it has become clear that Syrian women are victims on a large scale of sexual violence used as a weapon of war.

A G8 initiative alone will not stop this, but it does put the issue on the international agenda in a way it has not been before. William Hague has called the fight against sexual violence in the 21st century the equivalent of the fight against slavery in previous centuries. Resources and diplomatic muscle are promised to back it up. The initiative deserves all our support. If it is accompanied by a renewed effort to solve some of DRC’s wider problems, that would be even better. Joseph Kony, the leader of the LRA, has killed and terrorised far more people than Osama bin Laden ever managed. They just weren’t visible or considered important in the same way. That too is intolerable.

Sir John Holmes GCVO, KBE, CM
Director
The Ditchley Foundation