UNITED NATIONS | Beyond climate change, nuclear proliferation and other hot topics of this month’s annual U.N. gathering of world leaders, the international body will address another threat to humanity: the epidemic of rape in conflict-afflicted areas, especially the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who appeared genuinely moved after her August visit to rape victims in eastern Congo, is expected to chair a special U.N. Security Council session at the end of the month to review U.N. efforts to curb the epidemic.
“Meeting with survivors of rape, which is now used increasingly as a tool of war, was shattering,” Mrs. Clinton told a New York audience Friday. “The atrocities described to me distill evil to its basest form. These are crimes against humanity. They don’t just harm a single individual, or a single family, or village or group. They shred the fabric that weaves us together as human beings. This criminal outrage against women must be stopped.”
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan E. Rice, who also visited Congo in May along with the other members of the U.N. Security Council, told reporters in Washington on Friday:
“The issue of sexual violence in conflict is a hugely important one and one that the United States takes extremely seriously and one that the U.N. Security Council takes extremely seriously.”
The Washington Times last week published a three-day series about rape in Congo, examining the spread of sexual violence from military to civilian communities and the culture of impunity that has made gang rape so commonplace in that country.
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The United Nations has sought to deal with the issue in part by stationing its largest peacekeeping force - more than 16,000 troops - in the eastern region of Congo that borders Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania across the majestic Great Lakes.
In a new approach, two U.N. reports issued last week could lay a basis for war crimes prosecutions against individual soldiers.
One report assesses raids by a major rebel group, known by its French initials as the CNDP. The other evaluates the behavior of the notoriously undisciplined Congolese national army, the FARDC.
Assembled by specialists in the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the reports detail events in two towns, Goma and Rutshuru, during two months in 2008.
The analyses describe specific violations of human rights and name the high-ranking officers whose military units are thought to be responsible.
The assessments say Congolese army troops raped, raided and burned villages as they retreated from battles with the rebels.
“The looting had a psychological impact on victims,” according to the U.N. Joint Human Rights Office, which is based in Goma. “It represents a perversion of duty by soldiers of the FARDC, and greatly undermines both efforts to achieve sustainable peace and to foster respect for the rule of law.”
Investigators found that in a two-month period, the CNDP was responsible for at least 67 rapes in Goma and Rutshuru, where fighting was intense. The investigators said that men as well as women were raped.
“The actions of the CNDP could well amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity, and are part of a self-perpetuating pattern of brutality in eastern [Congo] which continues to go largely unpunished,” wrote U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay of South Africa.
CNDP for years was led by Laurent Nkunda, an ethnic Tutsi with ties to Rwanda, where ethnic Hutus committed genocide against Tutsis in 1994. After the genocide, numerous Rwandan Hutus fled into Congo and continued their ethnic conflict with Congolese Tutsis, feeding a civil war that has killed 5 million people in the past decade.
Mr. Nkunda’s former CNDP deputy, Jean Bosco Ntaganda, has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes and other charges. Yet he has still been seen eating at expensive restaurants in and around Bukavu in eastern Congo, said former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, who is now the U.N. special envoy for the Great Lakes region.
Mr. Nkunda also has been indicted for war crimes, Ms. Rice said. However, the general, whose forces largely merged into the Congolese army earlier this year, is living in or near the Rwandan capital of Kigali as a guest of the Rwandan government.
Ms. Rice called Mr. Nkunda “one of the most vicious of the warlords … whose forces have been responsible for much of the sexual violence” in Congo.
The Hague-based International Criminal Court said it is continuing to collect “information about crimes committed in the North and South Kivu [in eastern Congo],” according to the court Web site. “We are also considering the role of those who organized and financed the militia.”
Ms. Rice said the U.N. Security Council meeting Sept. 30 would review implementation of Resolution 1820, passed last year explicitly to outlaw sexual violence in conflict and afterward. Women’s groups praised the 2008 text for designating rape as a threat to international peace and security.
“We intend to pass a follow-on resolution to strengthen implementation of 1820 and we expect Secretary Clinton to chair that session,” Ms. Rice said.
• Barbara Slavin contributed to this report from Washington.