The United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has taken several measures to improve the protection of civilians in the east of the country following the recent incidents of mass rape, but establishing State authority in conflict-affected areas would be the most effective way to end lawlessness and violence, a senior UN official said today.
Outlining to the Security Council some of the actions that the mission, known as MONUSCO, had taken, Atul Khare, Assistant Secretary-General in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), said the force last week launched an operation known as Shop Window, intended as a show of force and protection civilians measure in the areas of Pinga, Kibua and Walikale in North Kivu province, where the latest mass rapes took place.
The operation, carried out by some 750 peacekeepers with the support of attack and observation helicopters, is also aimed at providing security cover to efforts by national authorities to apprehend those suspected of committing the rapes of at least 242 civilians, including 28 children, in villages along a 21-kilometre stretch of road in North Kivu province's Banamukira territory between 30 July and 2 August.
Mr. Khare, who has just returned from the DRC, told the Council that MONUSCO is continuing efforts to improve relations with local communities to strengthen information-gathering with a review to improving response to threats to civilian safety.
“It has been decided that more evening/night patrols should be undertaken,” Mr. Khare told the Council. “The Force Commander has further directed that COBs [Company Operating Bases] to undertake more random and spot-check patrols,” Mr. Khare said.
Mr. Khare pointed out the remoteness of eastern DRC made patrols and communications extremely difficult and told the Council that MONUSCO was making efforts to boost radio coverage in areas without mobile telephone coverage, but said more resources would be necessary.
The Assistant Secretary-General voiced disappointment that the UN was unable to offer protection to the victims of the recent rapes.
“While the primary responsibility for protection of civilians lies with the State, its national army and police force, clearly we have also failed. Our actions were not adequate, resulting in unacceptable brutalisation of the population of the population of the villages in the area. We must do better,” he said.
Mr. Khare stressed that the perpetrators of rampant sexual violence in eastern DRC must be quickly brought to justice.
“MONUSCO will make all efforts, including a more aggressive posture of peacekeepers, force multipliers such as [MONUSCO's] Radio Okapi, information-gathering on these people [suspects] and the like, to assist the efforts of the Government of DRC in this direction.”
He recommended that the Council consider the imposition of targeted sanctions on the leaders of the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a group of ethnic Hutu fighters linked to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and one of the factions blamed for the mass rape.
The sanctions should target both FDLR leaders inside and outside the country if a clear chain of command is proven, Mr. Khare added.
“I must also stress that, considering the temporary nature of the presence and efforts of the blue helmets, the long-term solution to eradicating the increasing entrenchment of a culture of sexual violence in the DRC lies in building the capacity of the country's security and rule of law institutions, and in particular transforming the armed and police forces into protectors of the civilian population,” Mr. Khare said.
He said the lack of State presence on the ground was directly related to the lack of capacity, including limited ability to deploy police and administrative personnel and pay their salaries.
Mr. Khare also recommended the maintaining of military pressure on illegal armed groups in eastern DRC, the implementation of non-military measures to tackle the FDLR problem and addressing illegal exploitation of DRC natural resources, which, he said, was exacerbating the violence.
The Secretary-General's Special Representative on Sexual Violence, Margot Wallström, made an impassioned plea for justice and protection of those subjected to the brutality of rape, urging the UN and the international community to act decisively.
“We can not turn back time for the victims of Kibua, or for countless other survivors of brutal acts of organised sexual violence. As we strive to help these survivors, we must do our utmost to ensure there are no more victims,” said Ms. Wallström.
‘These unconscionable acts must spur every one of us as protection ‘duty bearers' to immediate and concerted action. This is our collective responsibility to the survivors; and, our collective signal to the perpetrators who are watching and waiting to see how the world will react. Our policies of ‘zero tolerance' cannot be backed by a reality of ‘zero consequences',” she said.
Ms. Wallström said the UN cannot afford to shy away from confronting its own shortcomings, saying an examination of its actions, in a spirit of transparency and accountability, must form the basis for improving civilian protection in future.
“We must confront squarely the fact that we were slow top respond to existing information. We should examine the UN's response, including that of our peacekeepers on the ground, not in the spirit of self-recrimination but with a determination and resolve to do better to protect civilians in what is undoubtedly one of the most complex, vast and volatile conflict zones in the world,” she said.
Speaking to the press after today's meeting, Ambassador Ertugrul Apakan of Turkey, which holds the Council presidency this meeting, reiterated the 15-member panel's condemnation of the rapes.
He urged all parties to the fighting in the eastern DRC to immediate cease their human rights violations and called on the Government to launch an inquiry into the rapes.