Q&A: 'There Is Almost Total Impunity for Rape in Congo'

  • Jennie Lorentsson interviews MARGOT WALLSTRÖM, Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict (united nations)
  • Monday, June 28, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

On Apr. 1, Margot Wallström became the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict for U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Her job is to investigate abuses and make recommendations to the Security Council.

The appointment of Wallström, currently a vice president of the European Commission, comes amidst continued reports of gender violence, including rape and sexual abuse both locally and by humanitarian aid workers and U.N. peacekeepers, mostly in war zones and in post-conflict societies.

The incidents of sexual attacks, both on women and children, have come from several countries, including Cote d'Ivoire, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Haiti, Burundi, Guinea and Liberia.

One of Wallström's first assignments was a trip to the DRC, a nation she calls 'the rape capital' of the world. Excerpts from the interview with Wallström follow.

Q: Tell us about your trip. A: Congo has attracted attention in the media [as a place that is suffering] systematic rape in war. One statistic quoted is 200,000 rapes since the beginning of the war 14 years ago, and it is certainly an underestimate.

When in Congo, I met government representatives and particularly women who had been raped and violated. It was interesting but also disappointing - nothing is getting better and more and more civilians are committing rapes.

But I should be fair and say that there has been progress, the government has introduced laws against rape, it has a national plan and there is political will. There is a lot to do to implement the legislation, but now there is an ambitious legal ground to stand on to be implemented by the police, judiciary and health care.

Q: What are the roots of the problem? A: The sexual violence in Congo is the result of the war between the many armed groups. To put women in the front line has become a part of modern warfare.

Men often feel threatened in times of conflict and stay inside, but the women have to go out and get water and firewood and go to the fields to find food. In many cases they'll be the first to be attacked. Especially if there is no paid national army that can protect civilians, rape is a part of the looting and crimes against the innocent. In addition, there is almost total impunity for rape in the Congo.

Q: The U.N. has its own force, MONUC, in Congo to protect civilians. What is being done to help women? A: MONUC has had to adjust their operations after the conditions in the country. For example, MONUC has special patrols which escort women to health care clinics and markets.

Q: The U.N. and the Congolese government are discussing when the U.N. should leave the country. What would happen if the U.N. left the Congo now? A: We have reason to be worried if the United Nations would leave the Congo. It is still unsettled in some parts of the country and the U.N. provides logistics for many of the NGOs operating in the country, and they rely in the U.N.

What is happening right now is that [the government] wants to show that it can protect the country itself - it's a part of the debate on independence.

Q: How do feel when you hear about U.N. peacekeepers committing atrocities? A: Just one example is too much. It destroys our confidence in the U.N.'s ability to do great things.

Q: There is criticism that the U.N. is a bureaucratic and inflexible organisation. Do you agree? A: In every large organisation there is critisism like this. After 10 years in the European Commission, I can recognise such trends here, there is always. But basically, there are high hopes and great confidence in the U.N. and the energy and passion that exists for the U.N. is very useful.

Q: The Security Council has promised to focus even more on the issue of violence against women. Which countries should be focused on? A: Congo is a given, also Darfur and a number of other countries in Africa. We will also focus on Liberia, where it is more a post-conflict society which has been brutalised and where rape is the most common offence. We cannot be in all countries with conflicts, we will comply with the Security Council agenda. This is a problem that not only exists in Africa.

Q: What can your staff do on site? A: Our team of legal experts can help a country to establish a modern legislation. Impunity is the foundation of the problem, the women have to go with guilt and the men go free. We must try to understand how such a culture is created and how it can be a method of warfare. Then we can stop it.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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