Congo: Outcry Over ICC’s Scrapping of Congo Rape Charges

Victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo are angered by the International Criminal Court's controversial move to drop all rape charges.
Congolese women who’ve fallen victim to rape and related crimes say they feel badly let down by the decision of the International Criminal Court, ICC, to drop all sexual violence charges relating to the conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, DRC.
The ICC decision followed an internal squabble over witness protection, which was reported by IWPR last week. Charges of sexual slavery were removed from the indictments against militia leaders Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo, who face a confirmation of charges hearing late this month in The Hague.

Four DRC militiamen have so far been indicted by the ICC on charges of playing a leading role in inter-ethnic violence in the Ituri region, where rape has been widely used as a weapon of war, but only Katanga and Ngudjolo were facing counts of sexual violence.

The sexual slavery charges against Katanga and Ngudjolo had been welcomed by human rights groups, who also hailed prosecutors' plans to add counts of rape. Activists are now angry that these alleged crimes have been dropped from the indictments.

In DRC, lawyers, women’s organisations and rape survivors in the troubled North Kivu province – which has also experienced a horrific wave of sexual violence – say the feel betrayed by the court.

“If the ICC does not take into account the crimes related to sexual violence, this [suggests] that perpetrators arrested all over the country should be released,” said attorney Mireille Amani Kahatwa of the American Bar Association in Goma.

According to a United Nations report, North Kivu recorded 7,291 instances of rape in 2006 and 2007, with more than 30 per cent of the victims being children and teenagers. The sexual violence is committed mainly by militia members, but also reportedly by the Congolese national army, police and local officials.

“This is a pitiful decision [by the ICC],” said a 27-year-old rape victim who was interviewed in a hospital in Goma set up by the NGO HEAL Africa, which focuses primarily on victims of sexual violence.

“It shows that our suffering has no more consideration at the international level [and] our situation cannot be taken into account at that [court].”

In 2006, the DRC’s national assembly adopted a law on sexual violence which makes prosecution of the crime a priority and requires cases to be processed within three months. Despite the law, little has changed, say advocates.

“If the Ituri leaders are not charged, the warlords of Kivu will [also get away with] those crimes,” said Esperance Nvano of the NGO Action Sante Femme, ASAF.

Others agreed. “The ICC was our last hope because a law on sexual violence voted in our country in 2006 is hardly implemented. Perpetrators are arrested and, some days after, they are released,” said a survivors’ representative at HEAL Africa.

According to victims, the ICC appears to have ignored the seriousness of the crimes.

“If it knew the situation we [have], it could not take such a decision,” said a 21-year-old girl from Ziralo, an area about 150 kilometres north of Bukavu.

“I was in the field. Six men wearing torn military clothes, armed with knives and guns, raped me,” said the girl. “They damaged [me]. I was taken [for treatment], have had seven unsuccessful operations already … and I am waiting for the 8th intervention.”

“How can this situation be ignored?” asked a rape victim in her 30s from a village in the Masisi area, about 100 km west of Goma. “I’m ready to be a witness. I have already lost my mind. My life has become meaningless. I have nothing to protect anymore.”

The woman also experienced a terrible ordeal at the hands of a militia.

“A group of nyamaswa [wild animals] took me out of my house and raped me. Another group closed my husband and my four children in the house and burned them. I saw them burning. I suffered a lot. I threw myself hopelessly in the fire like a mad [person] to try to rescue them,” she said.

“It is as if the ICC doesn’t really have a good understanding [of] what sexual violence represents for our region,” added Nvano of ASAF.

“All the 7000 raped women of our province have become dependants and a burden for the community,” explained a HEAL Africa representative. “They have no [desire] to work. They also need people to look after them. Most of them cannot give birth anymore.”

“We need explanations from the ICC on the motivation [for their] decision,” said Veronique Matunda, secretary of the Provincial Commission for the Fight Against Sexual Violence.

If the charges are not prosecuted by the ICC, said Matunda, it will only undermine local efforts to thwart the rising tide of sexual violence.

Kahatwa says the court’s decision also threatens to undo all the progress that has been achieved in persuading victims to testify against their alleged abusers, which initially was quite a challenge.

“Most of them were at first fearful of attending [court to testify]. We asked them to [overcome] their fears. Today, it is no longer a problem,” he said.

Matunda, however, said she and other advocates are still hoping that the ICC will change its mind.

“If the ICC ignores the crimes related to sexual violence, we will mobilise women in the province to demonstrate. We will also advocate at the national and the international community.

“Everybody has the right to justice. The ICC should offer protection for the survivors. This can contribute to their healing and discourage the practice of sexual violence in our region.”

By: Jacques Kahorha in Goma (AR No. 173, 3-Jun-08)