(Goma, August 10, 2009) – Killings and brutal sexual violence against women, girls and also men have massively increased in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo since the start of military operations in January 2009, the Congo Advocacy Coalition, a group of 88 humanitarian and human rights organizations, said today. The coalition urged Hillary Clinton, the United States secretary of state, who arrives in Congo today, to press the Congolese government and United Nations peacekeepers for more effective measures to protect civilians and to pursue justice for serious crimes.
Since the start of military operations in January, more than 600 civilians have been killed and thousands of women and girls raped by armed rebel groups and government forces. According to UN estimates, the violence has forced more than 800,000 people from their homes, including some 56,000 who fled from Uvira territory, South Kivu, in July.
“The UN-backed offensive that was supposed to make life better for the people of eastern Congo is instead becoming a human tragedy,” said Marcel Stoessel, head of Oxfam in DRC. “Secretary Clinton needs to make it very clear that US support for the UN’s efforts in Congo is not a blank check and that civilians should be protected.”
UN peacekeepers have been backing Congolese military operations, known as Kimia II, against the Rwandan Hutu rebel group, the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), since March. This support followed earlier joint operations between the Congolese and Rwandan armies against the rebel group.
Since the US government is one of the main financial backers of the UN peacekeeping force, the Congo Advocacy Coalition called on Clinton to push for a more thorough assessment of the risks to civilians in the UN’s operations and concrete action by the UN and the Congolese government to mitigate such risks, with specific attention to protecting women and girls from rape.
Since the start of military operations, the FDLR rebels have carried out widespread retaliatory attacks, brutally killing and raping Congolese civilians. In one recent reprisal attack, on July 20, the rebels killed more than 20 civilians in the village of Manje, in Walikale territory, North Kivu province. As in previous similar attacks, the rebels hacked some victims with machetes, shot others, and burned a number to death in their homes.
The Congolese Advocacy Coalition urged Clinton to press the Congolese and Rwandan governments, the UN and its member states to urgently review their strategy against the FDLR rebels and to plan for a new and more comprehensive approach emphasizing protection of civilians.
“So far, these military operations have brought nothing but horrible suffering for the people of eastern Congo,” said Anneke Van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Secretary Clinton should offer high-level US diplomatic engagement to figure out how to address the problem of the FDLR and other armed groups without causing even more harm.”
Congolese army soldiers have committed widespread and serious abuses during the military operations, including rape. The majority of sexual violence cases reported in North Kivu since January have been attributed to government soldiers. On July 4, the Congolese government announced a policy of “zero tolerance” for abuses committed by army soldiers and said that commanders who permit their troops to commit such crimes will be held responsible. To date, only a handful of officers have been arrested.
Widespread impunity, the recent integration of 12,000 militia fighters into the army’s ranks, and problems with salary payments have all compounded the discipline problems that have plagued the army for many years.
“The increase in rape in an area where already so many women and girls have been victims is deplorable,” said Olivia Caeymaex of Enough. “Ending impunity for rape and other serious crimes needs to be at the heart of any strategy to combat sexual violence. Secretary Clinton should ensure US diplomatic and financial assets are focused on bringing to justice those who are most responsible.”
The Congo Advocacy Coalition called on Clinton to use her visit to:
- Ensure that the UN Security Council sets out and stands by clear conditions for continued support for the joint operations with the Congolese army, including ensuring that human rights abusers do not take part in military actions, and guaranteeing rigorous monitoring and application of appropriate sanctions for any violations of international humanitarian law.
- Pressure regional governments and the UN Security Council to review the current strategy against the FDLR rebels and urge a new comprehensive approach emphasizing protection of the civilian population, apprehending those wanted for genocide, and a more effective voluntary disarmament and demobilization program, among other measures.
- Urge the Congolese government to bring to justice those responsible for serious human rights abuses, including sexual violence, within the Congolese army, particularly senior officers engaged in the present military operations.
- Urge and offer support to the Congolese government to undertake comprehensive reforms of the security sector and address the structural causes of conflict in eastern DRC, which include the issues of land, livelihoods, and fair representation of all communities.