The U.N. envoy charged with combating sexual violence in conflict zones says the Democratic Republic of Congo's "zero tolerance" policy toward rapists must be backed by consequences for the perpetrators. Margot Wallström said Tuesday that those who carry out sexual attacks on women, such as the reported gang rape of nearly 200 women in the eastern DRC earlier this month, must be brought to justice.
The United Nations has blamed Rwandan rebels and an eastern Congolese militia for the gang rapes in Livungi that took place from July 30 to August 3.
These attacks are part of an endemic problem in the DRC. In the first three months of this year alone, the United Nations estimates that more than 1,200 women were sexually assaulted in the Congo -- an average of almost 14 rapes each day. U.N. agencies say the true numbers could be even higher because many survivors stay silent out of fear and shame.
U.N. Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallström visited the DRC recently. She says it is the Congolese government that has the first responsibility to protect its civilians and that impunity must end.
"So long as rapists remain at large they hold the whole reputation of the Congo hostage. The latest atrocities really enforce a key finding from my mission -- you cannot have a policy of zero tolerance backed by zero consequences. And the government's zero tolerance policy on sexual violence must be backed by consistent and visible consequences for the perpetrators of sexual violence on their territory," she said.
Wallström warns that such acts can constitute war crimes for both the perpetrators and those in command, adding the time when sexual violence is tolerated as a by-product of war is over.
Although it is the primary responsibility of the government to protect its citizens, U.N. peacekeepers based in the DRC came under criticism for not intervening to stop the attacks. The United Nations says its troops were not informed of the attacks when they happened and that they did not learn of them until nearly two weeks after they had occurred. Wallström says she did not know about the attacks until August 21st.
She defended the peacekeepers -- whose numbers have begun to shrink at the request of the Congolese government -- saying that it is unrealistic to expect them to protect all of the women in the vast area of the eastern DRC. But she accepted that the United Nations must improve its response in such situations.
"So, of course, they can't be everywhere. That doesn't mean to say we shouldn't look at were there early warning signals that were not picked up. And how can we improve that understanding of early warning signals? What can we do to better communicate? Can we equip the women in those villages better to actually report on their fears and to pick up the early warning signs? So I think this is part of the follow up," she said.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says he was "outraged" by the Luvungi attacks. He has dispatched an envoy to the DRC to investigate the incident.