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Going beyond impunity for rape in the DRC

February 23, 2011

Like others I welcome the conviction this week of a number of soldiers, including their commanding officer Lt-Col Kibibi Mutware, for crimes against humanity for their part in the horrific rape of more than sixty women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The attack took place at the beginning of January in Fizi in the province of South Kivu. It appears to have been essentially an act of terror, designed to intimidate and keep the people of Fizi under the thumb of Lt-Col Mutware’s forces.

Unfortunately this kind of incident is all too common in eastern DRC. Rape has been called an act of war there, and in many cases this is an accurate label, since soldiers of all sides appear to have used – and been encouraged or even ordered to use – rape as a way of humiliating their enemies. But in the not-war/not-peace situation which prevails in large parts of eastern DRC, rape is not so much an act of war as an act of domination in the exercise of governance by military forces, whose hold over local populations is a way to control and benefit from the local economy in their own interests while supposedly representing the interests of the state.

Lt-Col Muware is an ex-rebel who has been “integrated” into the government’s army as part of the peace process, and as such is supposed to represent the Congolese state. But the atrocious behaviour of his soldiers in Fizi is a grotesque caricature of Weber’s concept of the state exercising the monopoly of violence. As one women quoted in The Times yesterday put it, “Most of the rapists are still right here in our village. If we go to the river for water, we get raped; if we go to the fields for food, we get raped; if we go to the market to sell our goods, we get raped. There is no peace.” So by her account, in Fizi rape is now the normal price to be paid for access to water and food, the very stuff of life.

The special military court which convicted Mutware and others this week was paid for and assisted by George Soros’ Open Society Institute, and we should applaud their willingness and initiative to put resources and action behind what has otherwise become a largely hollow call by the international community for an end to impunity for rape in the DRC. This is at least one instance of people being held to account, under the DRC’s own laws, for their role in a serious crime committed in a context where it would normally have gone unpunished.

But one trial does not create sufficient disincentive to stop others from doing what Mutware did, in a context where rape has become a norm. The woman of Fizi quoted above clearly believes that it will not prevent the same behaviour from being repeated there. We should salute the courage of those who gave evidence at the trial, many of whom now face the double injustice of being excluded from their communities for the shame of having been the victim of violent rape, and the risk of revenge being taken against them by Mutware’s allies who are still at liberty. There is a strong case for the UN to beef up its police and military presence in Fizi to provide greater protection for these witnesses and their families against future reprisals.

It’s also very important that people in the DRC see that those who are convicted in cases such as this do actually serve the sentences which the courts have imposed. As such courts continue to do their work, they must also be seen to act against any and all perpetrators. Some people have claimed that Mutware had fallen foul of the powers that be, hence was a convenient scapegoat. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But my opinion doesn’t much matter. What is essential is that Congolese people see and believe that all those who abuse their positions of power are subject to justice, and all those who rape are subject to justice. Whoever they may be, and whomever they may know.

Meanwhile, there’s a deep and complex transformation process needed. Practically everyone in eastern DRC is caught up in a situation not of their own devising. Even soldiers who commit crimes like the ones in Fizi are in a sense victims – committing acts which they know are wrong. A new report soon out by International Alert explores this issue, and shows that increased incidence of sexual violence is not just an act of war, as it is sometimes simplistically reported, but rather a specific and explicit element of the social and political economy of the area which has both led to and grown out of war, and which must change significantly, for there to be a chance of sustainable peace.

Further court cases are an essential part of any strategy to address the issue of impunity. But rape and sexual violence will only be substantially addressed through a process of comprehensive transformation, based on a thorough and honest understanding of how thing are. Clearly this cannot be imposed from outside, but those Congolese who are trying to bring it about can be supported with resources, with ideas and with solidarity. For example by help with further research to better understand and explain the part sexual violence plays in the social and political economy, and identify realistic ways to change this.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Helen Mulcahy permalink
    February 24, 2011 11:32 pm

    This makes very depressing reading, perhaps especially for women? In spite of the constructive suggestions you make for working towards a solution/attempt at reducing the hideous issue of regular mass rape, it is hard to imagine any short-, or even long-term positive outcome. We have been hearing about this issue for so long and yet still, as recently as January, (and probably even more recently), this has been continuing. We don’t have to go back far to remember rape as a weapon of war being reported in non-Congolese and non-African conflicts. Is this nevertheless a particularly acute problem in DRC? And if so, why? This must seem like an enormous, dare I say, impossible challenge to all of you working in this field.

    I have always been against corporal and capital punishment as means of national/international justice, but a voice inside nevertheless wonders whether such perpetrators (and particularly the senior officers who condone the practice of rape as weapon of war or act of domination in the exercise of governance by military forces) should not, in fact, experience some very unpleasant physical consequences of their behaviour, both as punishment and as a deterrent. Just a thought that needs voicing!

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