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AIDS Activist Accuses UN, Western Nations of Ignoring Congo Sexual Abuse

The chairman of an anti-AIDS group has accused the U.N. Security Council and the West in general for ignoring what he calls a litany of horror against women in eastern Congo. For VOA, Nick Wadhams has the story from Nariobi.

In a blistering statement, Stephen Lewis, a former U.N. envoy on AIDS in Africa, said sexual violence against women and girls is endemic in the eastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions of people are still suffering from the aftershocks of years of civil war and unrest.

He cited thousands of rapes each month, as well as torture and killings by militias, and the miserable funding of limited health care in eastern Congo. While the crisis in Sudan's Darfur province has received attention from both the U.N. and Hollywood stars, the plight of women in eastern Congo has been largely ignored despite numerous reports, journalist accounts, and visits by diplomats.

"The entire world is preoccupied with Darfur, understandably," Lewis said. "But it must be said that between 10 and 20 times the number of people have died in the eastern Congo as have died in Darfur. There are more displaced persons in the eastern Congo than in Darfur. Darfur has been going on for four years, the eastern Congo has been ravaged for ten. And nowhere on this planet is there such a holocaust of horror visited on women and girls."

Lewis, who is Canadian, heads his own foundation which works to fight the spread of AIDS across Africa. He spoke after a trip to the region. His comments came days after the U.N. emergency relief coordinator, John Holmes, relayed similar concerns after visiting Congo.

Some analysts fear that Congo is on the brink of a new civil war. Tens of thousands of people have fled the east in recent months because of fighting between government forces and various militias that have taken shelter there.

Lewis said the ongoing violence against Congolese women, including sexual assault and murder, proves how badly the U.N. has failed to confront the country's problems. He said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon must press the International Criminal Court to declare rape a crime against humanity and indict suspected war criminals on charges of committing it.

"Neither the United Nations nor the international community has the faintest idea what to do about the catastrophe for women in the Congo," Lewis said. "Where the Congo is concerned, all the Security Council is really concerned about, as evidenced in their most recent discussions, is questions of troop numbers, arms embargoes and sanctions. Rape is not on the agenda."

Lewis argues that the world's leaders, mostly men, have applied what he called a "spectacular lack of energy" in ending the abuse of women in Congo. He suggests it is time these men turned to women to solve the problem.