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Women in Congo seek justice

Germain Bitaragazi and his neighbour live in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They returned home from cultivating their fields two years ago, to find their 8 children from the two families aged between 4 and 11 had been sexually abused by a soldier from the government forces, The Armed Forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo FARDC. Theirs is a tragic story but not an unusual one in a country where rape is commonplace. But what followed is almost unheard of and it offers reason for optimism that the rule of law in DRC still survives.

Bitaragazi and his neighbor were determined to bring to justice the person who had perpetrated the crimes and they were partially successful.
“We went to court. He is now in prison but we never got the money,” Germain Bitaragazi says.

The soldier who attacked the children is now behind bars. But the families have never received the amount of 40,000 Congolese francs equivalent to less than 50 US dollars awarded by the court.  

DRC-Walikale Official visit of SRSG Sexual Violence Margot Wallstrom visit Kampala village open meeting with community 2th October 2010 / Photo MONUSCO Myriam Asmani

Women in Walikale, DRC during visit of UN Envoy against sexual violence, October 2010.
Photo: MONUSCO Myriam Asmani.

Sexual violence is a hallmark of the conflict in Eastern Congo. It is a region with few hospitals to care for the victims and a weak judicial system. Astonishingly though, many of the sexual violence victims are now seeking medical care and some are going further and pursuing justice through the courts.
The Medical director at Walungu hospital Dr Jean Mukingeka says increasingly women and girls are seeking medical help. “Not all women victims of sexual violence seek help, out of shame or fear of stigmatization. But we are seeing more women come to seek treatment.”

The local police acknowledge the high numbers of rape cases against women. But say they don’t have the capacity to deal with so many cases. “When you are arresting someone and have to walk long distances, and there is only one policeman to handle the criminal, they will run away,” Willy Lukangu the police commandant at Walungu says.

“Violence against women is a weapon of war in armed conflict,” says UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay. “We work to combat sexual violence and to bring perpetrators to account. Rendering justice to the victims is not only a moral imperative, but also a legal obligation without which communal welfare is compromised.”

The United Nations system has created initiatives to address the protection of women and children from rape and other acts of sexual violence. These include appointment of women as protection officers to follow the cases. The UN human rights’ Office in DRC is helping communities to access justice. Luc Hekinbrant is the chair of the United Nations human rights office task force on impunity and sexual violence. “We are trying to fight the main causes of impunity and sexual violence,” he says “One of the many obstacles that victims of rape are facing when they are willing to seek justice are fear of stigmatization, fear of reprisals, so we are trying to support them through a network of local NGO’s to provide assistance to these victims.”

The Congolese government has begun holding public hearings to explain its zero tolerance policy on sexual violence by the national army other security forces also commit sexual violence – which so often have been implicated in large scale pillage and killings against the very citizens it is supposed to protect. 
But Hekinbrant says a lot more needs to be done. “Government needs to do much more in ensuring effective prosecution. We would like to see higher ranking officials prosecuted.”

The international 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence Campaign symbolically links 25 November, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, with 10 December, Human Rights Day. This 16-day period also highlights other significant dates. 

Enforced disappearances still a major human rights challenge 30 years on

Over the past 30 years, the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID) has brought to the former Commission on Human Rights and now the Human Rights Council around 50,000 cases of enforced disappearances from some 80 countries.

Enforced disappearances occur when, with the involvement of State authorities, a person is forcibly removed from public view and his or her whereabouts is intentionally undisclosed. As a consequence, victims are placed outside the protection of the law. In most cases, the only verifiable information provided will relate to the circumstances in which the victim was last seen alive and free. This was the challenge facing the international community when the first disappearance cases were reported in the early 1970s first in Chile , under military dictatorship at the time, and soon after in Argentina , Guatemala , the Philippines, Cyprus and other countries.

The decision by the General Assembly to condemn the practice of “enforced or involuntary disappearances” in December 1978 was one of the first steps that led to the creation of the Working Group in 1980 by the former Commission on Human Rights. The Working Group was given a clear mandate to establish channels of communication between the families and State authorities in order to gather information on the victims. A historic milestone had been passed and the first UN thematic special procedure was established.

Patrick Rice, an Irish victim of enforced disappearance and former Executive Secretary of the Latin American Federation for Relatives of the Disappeared-Detainees (FEDEFAM) from 1981 to 1987, recalls the beginnings of the Working Group's intervention in Latin America . “I was privileged to have participated in the first dialogues between the relatives of FEDEFAM and the WGEID. Many times I had to explain my own experience as a survivor of such an experience in Argentina in October 1976, thanks to the intervention of my Ambassador, while the families and mothers explained their endless efforts to get news. It was not easy for them to understand but they listened to our stories and in that way could begin to comprehend the phenomenon of enforced disappearances. That ongoing dialogue is at the basis for the main achievements of WGEID.”

The Working Group contributed to the adoption of a clear definition concentrating on disappearances by State actors and to a comprehensive analysis of the human rights involved including the right to life, liberty, personal integrity, a fair judicial process and welfare of the family.

In 1992, the Declaration on the Protection of all Persons from Enforced Disappearances was adopted by the General Assembly and key elements such as the continuous nature of the crime of enforced disappearance were developed. “What always impacts me when I hear relatives tell the story of the enforced disappearance of their loved one, is their focus or even obsession with the last moment when that person was taken”, says Rice.” In fact that threshold moment is when their normal life ends and their anguished search to know the fate of their loved one begins.”

Even though positive results with the reappearance of victims who are alive are rare, their significance can never be underestimated. In March 2010, Francisco Madariaga, a 32 year old Argentine, was reunited with his father Abel for the first time. Francisco was born during the captivity of his mother Silvia Monica Quintela in a clandestine detention centre and then appropriated under a false identity by a military officer and his family. The WGEID had filed petitions for her and her baby but also for many disappeared children of Argentina. 

On 20 December 2006, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances was adopted by the General Assembly. The Working Group has argued through the years of the need for a new international instrument to effectively combat disappearances. On receiving the necessary ratifications, the Convention will soon come into force with its corresponding monitoring body the Committee on Enforced Disappearances.

“Looking today at what is happening especially in the so-called war on terror, we have reason to be concerned as many practices associated with enforced disappearances appear in the news”, Patrick Rice said. “That is why it is so important not only to look at cases that have happened in the past but are going on right now under our own eyes. The WGEID special procedure has a vital humanitarian role to play in the most critical issues facing human rights today.”