A decade after the United Nations Security Council demanded for the first time that sexual violence in conflict had to stop, a top UN peacekeeping official was in the council chamber this week trying to explain, again, how it was that hundreds of women, and children as young as 7, had been raped this summer within reach of peacekeeping troops in the lawless eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, now an epicenter of misery and abuse.
“Our actions were not adequate, resulting in unacceptable brutalization of the population of the villages in the area,” said Atul Khare, an assistant secretary-general in the UN’s peacekeeping department, who had just returned from investigating the latest atrocities. “We must do better,” he said.
To which Margot Wallström would add, Not just do better, do more, and in path-breaking new ways. A Swedish politician and a vice president of the European Commission who was recently appointed a special representative of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to deal with sexual abuse in conflict, Wallström said in an interview last week, while Khare was on his Congo mission, that one necessary step is to treat the perpetrators of rape as dangerous criminals and pursue them to bring them to justice, as any mass rapist would be tracked down anywhere else in the world.
The UN has been focused on prevention, with obviously mixed results, but that’s only part of the picture, Wallström said. Postmortems about where the UN went wrong are also fine, but equally limited in impact, apart from hammering the organization’s reputation.
“We must go after the perpetrators, because if you think that we have only one spotlight, and you go after the UN system—were they slow, all those relevant questions—the spotlight turns on the UN,” she said.” Meanwhile, we allow the perpetrators to walk free. Where are they now? They go to the next village and continue to rape and loot and pillage.”
Wallström said that while it is necessary to look hard at how the UN system can do better at preventing abuse and protecting civilians, at the same time it must be prepared to respond, and respond quickly, since the abusers are usually long gone by the time peacekeepers get reports of the crimes—which they then rarely act on. “We have to prosecute the perpetrators, because otherwise the whole talk about ending impunity means nothing,” she said. “We have to start being serious about how we go after them.”
Unlike many in the UN who would rather hide peacekeepers’ shortcomings, Wallström encourages NGOs, the media and others to report abuse, and argues that the UN needs better monitoring. She thinks that the numbers in the thousands of rapes and other acts of sexual abuse in Congo in recent years may well be just "the tip of the iceberg in some places." Because fear of stigma or reprisal keeps many women from reporting abuse, she said, true numbers may not be known "until we say it’s OK to come forward, and we are asking the right questions."
Wallström says that it appears that sexual violence is now a premeditated, central tactic of guerrillas and other forces out of the reach of an effective army, which by wide agreement the forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo are not. The tactic has also entered political conflict, most recently in Guinea, Kenya and Kyrgyzstan, where sexual abuse was used to intimidate opposition groups. In Congo, there are economic overtones, as areas are cleared of villagers by terror tactics to make room for the often-illegal exploitations of valuable minerals.