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Rights Groups Ask for UN Inquiry into Congo Conflict - 2003-03-31

Rights organizations are calling for the U.N. Human Rights Commission to put pressure on all sides involved in the fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The commission must do something, they say, to stop the widespread slaughter of civilians. The groups are asking the commission to conduct an inquiry into human rights violations committed by all the warring parties.

The International Rescue Committee says that since 1998 up to three million people have been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Millions more have become internally displaced or have sought asylum in neighboring countries.

Veronique Aubert, a researcher for Amnesty International, says all sides in the Congo, government and rebel forces as well as foreign troops allied with the government or the rebels, are guilty of widespread, systematic violations of human rights.

Ms. Aubert says one of the worst crimes is the recruitment of child soldiers. Since 1996, she says tens of thousands of children, some as young as seven, have been recruited as soldiers by each of the various factions.

"Boys and girls are used as soldiers, often to fight on the front line as porters, messengers or cooks. Girls are used as sexual slaves or are given a gun and are sent into combat," she said. "In all parts of the country, former child soldiers often accused of desertion are put in detention for months, with little access to health care, and some have faced closed and unfair trials before military courts with no legal representation and some have been sentenced to death."

Amnesty International is urging the U.N. Human Rights Commission to put pressure on the various warring factions to stop recruiting child soldiers.

It also is appealing for international help to demobilize these children, teach them job skills and, whenever possible, re-integrate them into their families and communities.

Immaculee Birhaheka is president of a human rights organization in the Congolese town of Goma that fights for women's rights. She says women in her country suffer the most horrendous abuse from militia and rebel groups.

Ms. Birhaheka says civilians are deliberately targeted and women are particularly affected. She says they are raped, mutilated, and treated as sex slaves, causing severe physical and psychological trauma.

Ms. Aubert, the Amnesty official, regrets that events in other parts of world are distracting attention from the tragedies unfolding in Congo.

"It is of concern for Amnesty International that the international community just focuses on Iraq, while millions of people are dying in the Democratic Republic of Congo," she said.

Ms. Aubert says the United Nations and the international community must have a strong presence in Congo so they can fight the abuses that take place every day.