For over a decade, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has maintained a reputation for being the worst place in the world to be a woman, and nothing illustrates this more than its widespread sexual violence and the rampant impunity that perpetrators enjoy. The DRC has been identified as the “rape capital of the world” with “impunity being the rule rather than the exception”. While sexualized violence has long accompanied situations of conflict, the scale of the issue in the DRC is nearly unfathomable. Both male and female victims of rape have been recorded, ranging in ages from 2 to 80 years old, and most sexual assaults and rapes take place in homes, fields, and near refugee camps. These crimes against humanity are utilized as a war tactic, with populations targeted near armed conflict and rape often used as a tool of fear and retribution for affiliation with a rival group.
The number of recorded incidents of sexualized violence in the DRC is appalling. Between January 2010 and December 2013 alone, UNJHRO registered 3,635 victims of rape and sexual assault; the organization believes that these numbers are vastly underestimated. Of these reports, 73% were women, 25% were children, and 2% were men, and most occurred within the regions of North Kivu, South Kivu, and Orientale where rebels groups and conflict are concentrated. Women Under Siege Project, an organization committed to reporting on sexual violence in conflict, states that about 1,000 women are raped each day, and the UN estimates that 3% die as a result of their assault, while another 10-12% contract HIV/AIDS. According to a UNJHRO report, over half of sexual violence was perpetrated by armed groups, but the single biggest actor was the Congolese military, FARDC.
Impunity in regards to sexual violence is rampant throughout the DRC and is the result of a weak judicial system and misogynistic societal perceptions. Many rapes are never reported, largely due to the stigma attached to being the victim of a sexual violation: women fear becoming a social outcast if her perceived impurity were to be known, while men fear their assumed loss of masculinity and heteronormativity. Another barrier to reporting is the remoteness of many locations where sexual violence occurs; these areas, often concentrated in the conflict-riddled east, are without proper medical, legal, or judicial services. Victims also fear of retribution if they speak out. The lack of reporting is the greatest obstacle to collecting accurate data and addressing DRC’s problem with impunity.
In the instances where sexual violence is reported, the justice system frequently fails to properly investigate, prosecute, and/or punish perpetrators. The system as a whole faces a myriad of obstacles, including corruption, a lack of training on issues pertaining to sexual violence, poorly paid officials, and a limited presence throughout the country. Furthermore, the military judicial system maintains exclusive jurisdiction of all armed forces, police, and military; as such, it is responsible for bringing army officials to justice for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and criminal offenses, including those of sexual violence. This is problematic because of a pervasive military culture which enshrines protecting its soldiers and refraining from disobeying senior officials. Additionally, if the perpetrator is a member of an armed rebel group, it is difficult to prosecute them; they are often located in remote areas, remain difficult to identify, and seem to be “beyond the reach of justice”.
While it is seldom, there have been cases which were prosecuted and reached a guilty verdict, and yet, this also remains a vulnerable position in the judicial system. The largest discrepancy in sentencing is the lack of payment of reparations. Because this is rarely enforced, most cases are settled out-of-court, which presents its own issues. These settlements are rarely in the best interest of the victim, often ignoring their needs, and can involve forced marriages. If a case is prosecuted and involves time in prison, a perpetrator is unlikely to serve the full term. Due to poor prison infrastructure and easily bribed guards, prison escapes are common.
The Government of the DRC has made efforts towards addressing impunity for sexual violence, particularly in the past several years. The military justice system has prosecuted state agents, provided mobile court hearings to remote areas, and allowed international NGOs into investigations. Furthermore, on March 30, 2013, President Kabila signed a Joint Communique with the UN to address sexual violence, ensure accountability, and stress the importance of protecting victims during the process. On October 23 of that same year, President Kabila announced his intentions to soon appoint a Presidential Representative on Sexual Violence and Child Recruitment. Despite these declarations, the UN has found the Government ineffective in responding to the scale of the issue, and a UNJHRO report stated that political rhetoric had not been translated into action. For example, between July 2011 and December 2013, UNJHRO recorded only 187 convictions for sexual violence by military courts. Of this number, 73% were FARDC agents, although only three of the 136 FARDC convictions were high-level officers.
It is clear that impunity derives from a lack of judicial enforcement of national law. The Congolese Criminal Code, the 2006 Constitution, and the Child Protection Law of 2009 define sexual violence as a criminal offense. The low number of investigations, prosecutions, and convictions when compared to the high rates of sexual violence within the country is indicative of a lack of political will to protect its citizens from human rights violations. The Government of DRC has responded to international pressure at times, though: in 2009, a delegation from the UN Security Council visited the DRC and urged President Kabila to investigate five senior FARDC officers on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including sexual violence. One was acquitted, one died prior to investigation, and General Kakwavu was found guilty of rape in November 2014. Donors, NGOs, international institutions, and citizens remain active in the call for greater government response to rampant immunity from sexual violence. Aside from providing legal and medical aid to victims, the international community has also been vocal about the many ways in which impunity can be addressed.
There have been many reports which highlight the ways in which the DRC can eradicate impunity from sexual violence. The top recommendations include:
- The Government should introduce mixed chambers into the judicial system, particularly with the assistance of international judges. This would remove the exclusive judicial authority of the military judicial system in regards to crimes against humanity and war crimes.
- Reparations should be enforced as they are outlined in national law.
- The Government should invest in better resources for the judicial system and services for victims which are free of cost.
- Victims and witnesses should be given protections and violations punished.
- The international community should support efforts on behalf of the DRC by contributing logistics where needed within the judicial system and by providing assistance for the development of a reparations fund.
While the recommendations could provide lasting solutions, the DRC faces great insecurity in the eastern portion of the country, weak borders, poor perceptions of women and sexuality, and a lack of ability to implement and enforce such efforts. Investments are needed in national security, both in regards to borders and domestic concerns; while the conflict rages on and armed forces evade justice byway of porous borders, human rights violations continue. Furthermore, gender empowerment programs should also be given top priority; issues involving sexual violence are rooted in cultural norms of misogyny and hypermasculinity. By addressing these greater political and social issues, efforts made to combat impunity for sexual violence would have greater chances for success. If such measures are not taken, the situation will continue to deteriorate and human rights will experience increased violations. In addition, conflict and food insecurity will escalate, natural resources will continue to be exploited, and an entire female population will experience unnatural and unjust violence, loss of dignity, trauma, and an overall distrust of the government, justice system, and police.
In the context of human rights, it is imperative that the state play the role of protector rather than predator. When a state fails to do so, it bears the responsibility for depriving its populace from a life of dignity and freedoms which are inherent to their rights as humans. Although the DRC has made rhetorical commitments and legislative efforts to address its ailing human rights record, its actions remain hollow. As illustrated in the case of sexualized violence, human rights violations continue to occur, even on behalf of State actors. Furthermore, perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity from crimes against humanity, to which the fault falls on the Government. Until the DRC addresses its discrepancies in human rights practice, its record will continue to shock those around the world.
This article has been edited from a complete research paper. As such, it pulls heavily from two reports which have been linked throughout the piece: HRW’s Ending Impunity for Sexual Violence: New Judicial Mechanism Needed to Bring Perpetrators to Justice and UNJHRO’s Progress and Obstacles in the Fight against Impunity for Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
About the author: Natalie Burikhanov is an M.A. Candidate at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce where she is studying Diplomacy and International Development. Her primary interest of study is women’s issues, particularly sexualized violence in conflict. She is currently working as a Policy Intern at Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs and as an Graduate Intern at an anti-human trafficking organization, Kentucky Rescue & Restore. Prior to graduate school, Natalie worked as a Legislative Assistant at the Kentucky Legislative Research Commission. She hopes to continue working with women’s advocacy upon completion of her degree. You can contact her at email@example.com or check out her LinkedIn profile.