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Rape in the Congo: A Story of Monumental UN Failure

In yet another grisly déjà vu, the world has heard about hundreds of rapes in a small area of eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC, or Congo) in late July and early August, many of them in North Kivu, within a few miles of a United Nations encampment of peacekeepers charged with protecting civilians. The UN is not just negligent but complicit in these crimes.

The UN has consistently failed Congolese women, at every level from the troops on the ground to the Security Council that deploys them, from the array of UN agencies present in the DRC to the Secretariat in New York and the Secretary-General charged with leading the bureaucracy. It has failed to understand the problem, to address it, to acknowledge its own mistakes, to assign responsibility, and to substitute effective action for rhetoric.

Hutu members of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) who had participated in the 1994 Rwandan genocide fled that year over the border into the DRC. By 1996 they had penetrated deep into the Congo. Now there are about 6,000 FDLR fighters who use the DRC as a base, and are deeply involved in exploiting that country’s minerals. They have raped women without pause or hesitation since arriving

Since 1996, the eastern regions of the country have known little peace. About 600,000 women have been raped in the DRC, according to UN reports. The Rwandan troops as well as the Congolese army, and a confusing array of other militia groups have earned the DRC the terrible sobriquet, “Rape Capital of the World.” In eastern Congo, rape is so commonplace that hospitals exist almost solely for the purpose of patching up women whose genitals and internal organs have been torn apart.

Against this background, the UN’s actions and inaction over the last 14 years have led to the latest episodes in Luvungi and other areas in eastern Congo. Local Congolese rebels together with the FDLR took over Luvungi from July 30 to August 3 and raped hundreds of women. The world was informed not by the UN, but by an NGO, International Medical Corps, which was approached by victims who sought help. This is astonishing until one looks carefully at the UN’s role in the DRC. You need only go back to January 2009 to understand the immediate background of the attacks.

In early 2009, the UN and the Congolese government initiated a joint military operation named Kimia II. The operation aimed to weaken the FDLR by finding and dispersing or arresting its troops. Before Kimia II was launched, international NGOs and Congolese activists begged the UN not to go ahead with it. The Congolese Advocacy Coalition, comprising 64 aid and activist groups, spoke out against it. The NGOs said the mission would fail because there simply wasn’t enough firepower to defeat the FDLR. They pointed out that joining this action would give the federal DRC troops—with their own record of continuous raping—added power and new opportunities to abuse it. Most urgently, they predicted that Kimia II would trigger a retaliatory response in the form of further sexual violence

Neither the UN Secretariat nor the UN Security Council listened. Kimia II was launched, and led to a year and a half of mass raping, of which the Luvungi incident is just the most recent example. Kimia II has now been abandoned in the face of irrefutable evidence that it caused great harm to the civilian population.

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