- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

UNITED NATIONS | There will be no end to the ravages imposed on women and girls in eastern Congo until firm laws are put into place and enforced with trained police and honest judges, the U.N. human rights chief says.

Navanethem Pillay will be one step closer to getting her wish after the U.N. Security Council meets Wednesday to pass a resolution focusing the world’s attention on one of the most devastating yet unresolved aspects of conflicts around the world - calculated sexual brutality.

With Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton presiding, delegates say, the 15-nation council will unanimously approve a U.S.-sponsored resolution that would create a U.N. envoy to help the victims of such abuse and take steps to prosecute the perpetrators.

While the problem is widespread - reports of large-scale rape accompanied the massacre of dozens of people when soldiers set upon an opposition rally in Guinea this week - nowhere is it more common than in eastern Congo, where militia rule and lawlessness have reigned since the 1994 genocide in neighboring Rwanda.

“You know, I have 8 1/2 years of listening to those stories” of unspeakable crimes against women, said Ms. Pillay, a prominent human rights activist and lawyer who served as a judge on the international tribunal for Rwanda.

Describing the treatment of women and girls in the conflict zone as “almost unbelievable,” she told The Washington Times in an interview that Congo “needs laws to end impunity. It is almost as simple as that to start with.”

The former South African jurist said her legal training had led her to be skeptical about the kinds of stories she heard from Congo.

“I had no patience for any of these women’s stories. I was a lawyer and I felt everybody should just be strong and fight all their problems, until I listened to the women who came to me.

“They said, ‘You’re a woman lawyer - please help us.’ It was other women who got me to understand what it was like.

“Judges say, ‘Why didn’t you run?’ I perfectly understand why they cannot run. They are trapped.”

Wednesday’s proposal follows on the heels of Resolution 1820, passed last year, which said for the first time that rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes.

The latest resolution, which council delegates said should pass without opposition, says there is no way to eliminate violence against women and girls as long as the perpetrators know they are immune and unaccountable.

Although the resolution does not single out countries of concern, many passages are pointed directly at the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a broken country that leads the world in wartime rapes, sexual slavery and other gender-based savagery.

Awareness of the problem has been slowly rising since Mrs. Clinton visited a refugee camp in Goma, a provincial capital in eastern Congo, during an 11-day tour of Africa in August. The Times documented much of the horror earlier this month in a three-part series based on six weeks of reporting in the region.

Rarely at a loss for words, Mrs. Clinton struggled to put her thoughts into writing.

“They live in tents, one next to the other, row after row, some clinging to life, others hanging on to whatever glimmer of hope remains in a region plagued by years of brutality. Many of these people have been robbed of their homes, possessions, families and, worst of all, their dignity,” she wrote in a commentary for People.com that was published on the State Department’s Web site.

“Women and girls in particular have been victimized on an unimaginable scale, as sexual and gender-based violence has become a tactic of war and has reached epidemic proportions.”

Mrs. Clinton has discussed the issue on the sidelines of U.N. General Assembly meetings over the past week, telling one group that the protection of women and children “is the heart of foreign policy.”

“When [violence] is part of the cultural fabric of too many societies, when it is an assumption of the way things are supposed to be, then it is absolutely a cause for our action collectively,” Mrs. Clinton said.

The Obama administration has included Africa’s economic and social problems among its many priorities. Mrs. Clinton and the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice have visited eastern Congo. Both said they left feeling shaken by what they saw.

• Betsy Pisik can be reached at bpisik@washingtontimes.com.

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