Congo: No Peace Without Women

On September 2012, a Congolese doctor stood before the world's leaders at the United Nations General Assembly and denounced the mass rapes of women and girls in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and the impunity enjoyed by those responsible. Dr. Mukwege said he was ashamed of the international community's failure to stop these atrocities. A month later, he was attacked in his residence in Bakavu, DRC, and was forced into exile. Dr. Mukwege, who was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 and in 2013, returned to the Congo earlier this year in January to resume his work at the Panzi Hospital. There, he treats victims of sexual violence in a country ripped apart by sixteen years of conflict. According to the UN, "Sexual violence in the Congo is the worst in the world." Around 500,000 women have been raped in the country since 1996. Dr. Mukwege shared his insights with the Journal about the Congolese crisis and the role of women in conflict.1

Editor's note:

This interview is a condensed and edited version of the exchange between the Journal and Dr. Denis Mukwege. 

Denis Mukwege
March 04, 2014

Journal of International Affairs: You have argued that violence against women and rape in the Congo is a "strategy of war." However, some experts believe that a wider social problem has developed during the extended conflict. Do you think that there are other non-strategic factors that are contributing to an extraordinary high level of rape in the Congo today?

Denis Mukwege: Yes, there are other factors that are contributing to the problem. This has been happening for fifteen years, and of course it has a tremendous impact on younger generations. When a child witnesses his mother or his sister being raped, tortured, and killed, what impact does this have on him? What view will he have of women? How is he going to respect them?

But there is also a legal problem. There is a culture of impunity and the law enforcement does not help to prosecute rapists. The international community is indifferent, and the government is incapable of bringing perpetrators to justice.

The culture of impunity prevailing in the Congo has seriously undermined efforts to establish the rule of law and the confidence of the population in their institutions, leading to an erosion of public morality. The absence of proper reintegration mechanisms in DDR (disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration)processes has also further exposed society as many former combatants and child soldiers are still perpetrating their bad habits, including sexual crimes and abuses, once they return to civilian life. Poverty, isolated communities, and exposure to conflict are among various factors influencing gender in equality and sexual violence. This climate has been conducive to criminality, notably violent sexual crimes among the civilian population.

But I think sexual violence against women in the Congo is mainly a strategy of war. I have been the direct and sad witness of this brutal reality. The international community has also recognized this phenomenon—notably during debates on women, peace, security, and by the adoption of UN Council resolutions 1820 (2008), 1888 (2009), 1960 (2010), and 2106 (2013)—as a threat to international security and peace. The physical, psychological, and social effects of this type of sexual torture are horrendous.

Rape as a weapon of war is even more destructive than a classical weapon. Ithe Congo, rape with extreme violence has been used in a systematic and wispread manner, not only to destroy women in their most intimate integrity, but also to harm the family and society as a whole. 

We can outline indications of this intention: women are often raped in public in front of their families; the rapes are performed by a militia group or army; an they injure the victim with the clear intention of causing severe harm. In many cases, women or girls are forced to flee their local communities out of shame which has led to a massive displacement of people and a rural exodus. This has a significant impact on the economy and seriously impedes not only durable peace and security, but also sustainable development. In addition, a serious sourceconcern are children born out of rape who face huge identity issues: they enjoy neither recognition nor legal status. 

Violence against women and girls is a human rights violation, a public health epidemic, and a barrier to solving global challenges such as HIV/AIDS, extreme poverty, and violent conflict. It devastates the lives of millions of women and girls in conflict and post-conflict societies and continues into peacetime. Violence against women knows no social or cultural barriers. It includes harmful practice that range from rape and domestic violence to sexual harassment and abuses by teachers or employers. Rape is probably history's oldest and least condemned crime.

Journal: What additional efforts may he needed to address the crisis?

Mukwege: Fighting impunity is key to addressing past and present mass atrocities. When the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Courtentered into force in July 2002, it created a lot of hope in the Congo. Those responsible for the most serious crimes of concern to the international community, including sexual violence crimes, shall be prosecuted and face justice. In addition, other transitional justice initiatives shall be envisaged, such as the creation of a mixed Tribunal—on the model of the Special Tribunals for Sierra Leone or Cambodia—to prosecute international crimes committed in the Congo between 1993 and 2003. The Victims Compensation Fund will also be established to alloreparation and redress for victims and survivors.

The Congolese people are yearning for peace and justice. The Framework Agreement for Peace, Security, and Cooperation in the DRC and the Region, signed by eleven states and four intergovernmental organizations on 24 February 2013 in Addis Ababa, is the first peace initiative aimed at addressing the underlying ca of violence and recurring conflict in the Congo and in the region. The next step is to ensure the effective implementation of the Framework for Hope. Developmant aid, notably from the World Bank, should be subject to the states' compliance the reforms and commitments agreed upon in Addis Ababa.

Security sector reform is also one of the most important institutional reforms. It is at the heart of efforts to make the protection of civilians a responsibility of the state. DDR programs must be accompanied by support in mental health care for the demobilized, and by inclusive projects based on the needs of affected commnities. Public services, especially the security forces, should be vetted of all people who were involved in abuses and violations of international humanitarian law and human rights. This is the only viable option to ensure the safety and protection of civilians and to create a positive environment for construction of a state based on the rule of law, which would promote economic and social development in the Congo.

Journal: In your speech at the UN, you said the international community was not doing enough to solve the Congolese crisis. What is the international community afraid of?

Mukwege: I do not know what they are afraid of, but what is true is that the international community has remained indifferent about what was happening in the Congo for fifteen years. That's actually a good question: what are they afraid of? Why don't they want to solve the problem? Why are thousands of women still raped in the Congo?

But I am happy to say that there has been some progress in the last few months. Six months ago, the determination of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moonled to the signature of the Addis Ababa Framework Agreement. The World Bank is engaged in supproting this process with development programs. The newly established UN intervention brigade now has a more robust mandate to deter violence, and special envoys from the Congo from the UN and the United States have been appointed to promote the peace process. These steps are encouraging and this positive momentum needs to be seized wthout delay. 

Previous attempts to settle peace in the Congo, from Sun City to Goma via Lusaka, contained the seeds of new conflicts: choosing short-term political solutions rather than investing in the long term guaranteed this. Congolese authorities and the international community cannot repeat the mistakes of the past, and must have the moral and legal responsibility to protect the civilian population and build a better future in accordance with the commitments made in Addis Ababa.

Journal: Why is political will so difficult to muster? What are the risks and/or the costs of an intervention?

Mukwege: I am not in favor of a military intervention. I think the intertional community should pursue diplomatic efforts to solve the crisis in Congo. I do not know why it is so difficult to build consensus on this and act.

Peace and stability are in the interest of everybody in the long term. And diplomats need to use all their leverage to pressure those with responsibility to ensure that these goals will be reached. Violence is not the solution, as it just fuels more violence. Short-term political solutions will lead to the same errors made in the past—integrating militia and fostering impunity—and encourage more instability.

The cost of non-intervention is chaos. There is an urgent need to take actions toward sustainable peace and development in the Congo. 

Journal: Who specifically has the power and influence to help resolve the crisis?

Mukwege: The authorities of the Congo bear the primary responsibility to ensure protection of civilians and uphold the rule of law. But such a crisis requires support from a variety of stakeholders, state, and non-state actors.

We need political will from the states of the Great Lakes area as well as from the international community. We need the engagement of community and religious leaders. We need the implication of civil society organizations and society as a whole. We need mutual respect and solidarity among nations and among people. We need to stand up for our rights. We need to break the silence. We need to denounce the inacceptable.

In particular, the Security Council has the influence and the power to put diplomatic pressure on and to negotiate a solution for the Congo.

Journal: It has been reported that you are guarded by twenty unarmed women. Could this be a metaphor for women's potential role in helping to end the crisis?

Mukwege: My life has been put at risk more than once, and security upgradess have been taken for my own security, as well as for Panzi Hospital staff and patients.

I was not guarded by twenty unarmed women, but what is true is that a group of women convinced me to return to Congo after the attack, and they even raised funds to pay for my air ticket. While 1 was abroad, they protested about the attack to the authorities, and I was really touched and inspired by their determination.

I believe the voices of women should be heard at all stages of the peace process. They have a crucial role to play in restoring the peace and promoting development, as is clearly emphasized by Resolution 1325 of the Security Council and recently strengthened through the adoption of Resolution 2106.