A group of non-governmental organizations is calling on the U.N. Security Council to do more to protect children and prevent sexual violence in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo.
The umbrella group called "Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict" released statistics in a report on the Congo to coincide with the end of a Security Council mission to the region.
Recently, the Central African conflict has been the focus of increased attention. Security Council members visited the Democratic Republic of Congo and French peacekeepers deployed in the town of Bunia in northeastern Ituri Province have exchanged fire with ethnic rebels for the first time.
But Watchlist's Anne Edgerton says more needs to be done to stop the violence that has claimed an estimated 3.3 million lives, predominantly women and children, since 1998.
"There has been attention and response, however, the gap remains," she said. "This remains the largest humanitarian crisis on the planet right now with the smallest amount of response. If, somehow, the response can be much more appropriate to the actual crisis it could be ended and it is not so large that it can not be done. Again, it is not all of Congo that is at war."
The 36-page report documents atrocities in the town of Kivus and, more recently, in Bunia where hundreds of civilians, both children and adults, were massacred. The report says sexual violence and disfigurement of women and girls are widespread.
Over 12 percent of Congolese children do not reach their first birthday, and an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 children have been recruited as soldiers, the report says.
Watchlist, which includes the New York-based Women's Commission for Refugees and Children, Norwegian Refugee Council and the international organization CARE, says, despite a series of resolutions on the issue, the Security Council must give higher priority to protecting children and holding the perpetrators of the crimes accountable.
Ms. Edgerton says the lightly armed U.N. Mission to the Congo, called MONUC, which was deployed before the French-led force was approved, should have been positioned where the violence was occurring, along Congo's eastern borders with Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi.
"This is where MONUC needs to be, not where it is placed right now on a cease-fire line that runs up the middle of the country, where a shot has not been fired for over two years," she said. "So the actual adequate placement of MONUC troops combined with a mandate to react to violent actions that put civilians in imminent danger would allow them to address some of this violence in a way that may stem combatants from killing them. Again, this is not combatants killing combatants, this is combatants going after civilians."
The approximately 1,400 armed French-led troops are scheduled to remain in Congo until September. At the same time, Watchlist activists say the Security Council should authorize the deployment of all 8,000 authorized MONUC forces and should provide the peacekeepers with the resources to confront violence against children.