Global Policy Forum

Turning a Blind Eye to Rape and Killing in Congo

By Navi Pillay

November 10, 2009

On November 11, the United Nations Security Council will discuss the pressing, but still elusive issue of protection of civilians in armed conflict. Accountability for crimes committed in the course of hostilities should be at the forefront of that debate. History shows that there can neither be durable peace nor meaningful security without a measure of justice. Accountability is not only necessary to address the claims of victims after the fact, but also as a deterrent for future crimes. Yet, all too often, during conflicts, or in their aftermath, the issue of accountability has been considered a dispensable element of peacemaking and has been relegated to the backburner.

Perhaps nowhere is this attitude more blatantly evident than in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) where a long drawn-out conflict has made millions of victims and where sexual violence has been at epidemic levels for many years.

A case in point is the recent admission by Congo Information Minister Lambert Mende that the authorities were aware of the April 2009 massacre of at least 50 civilians perpetrated by the regular army at Shalio in the east of the country. In the same breath, however, the Minister maintained that Congolese authorities were unwilling to arrest the army officer who reportedly ordered the attack, a former Tutsi rebel commander known as Colonel Zimulinda. The rationale the Minister offered for this reprehensible lack of action was that Zimulinda's arrest might destabilize the army's fragile integration of dozens of other former rebel commanders and militias whose brutal actions had been a permanent feature of the conflict.

As a former judge of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and of the International Criminal Court in The Hague, I have seen ample evidence that turning a blind eye to egregious human rights abuses is a recipe for disaster. Impunity only emboldens perpetrators to commit further crimes and encourages others to join their ranks. With no recourse to justice, victims are left to fend for themselves.

This approach is the very negation of the fundamental concept of civilian inviolability in times of peace and in times of war. It enables a State to disregard two of its primary responsibilities, namely the duty to protect civilian in all circumstances and to provide justice when violations occur, irrespective of the perpetrators' roles and affiliations.

Instead, the DRC government seems intent on deflecting the responsibility for massive human rights abuses at the hands of its own officers and soldiers. It also appears to repeat unquestioningly the trite and ill-founded argument that justice can be sacrificed for the sake of peace and that accountability can be waived without consequence.

The DRC has voluntarily signed and ratified numerous human rights treaties, including the Statute of the International Criminal Court which encompasses war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. According to national and international law, legal responsibility is engaged when an individual commits a crime, or aids, abets or otherwise assists in its commission or its attempted commission. This includes providing the means for its commission. Since the massacre in Shalio was carried out by the regular army and the army is deployed by the government, government officials may be deemed responsible on several accounts.

At a minimum, the government has an obligation to investigate allegations. Moreover, the UN Security Council has clearly and unequivocally directed the DRC government to establish a vetting mechanism to prevent those who have committed human rights violations from joining its administrative apparatus and security forces. The Security Council has also called upon the UN force in the DRC to assist the Government in pursuing this objective.

The DRC long-suffering population is entitled to protection from a professional and disciplined army. The government must comply with the Security Council's decisions and with its obligations under international law. Above all, it must show that violations of human rights are no longer tolerated and that victims are given the justice that they have been denied for years. With millions already dead since the mid 1990s, and countless women already subjected to some of the most brutal forms of rape and sex slavery, effectively condoning the actions of mass murderers and rapists is not an acceptable course of action. The Security Council must make patently clear once again that the international community demands full accountability for human rights abuses in the DRC and elsewhere.


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