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.

She describes sexual abuse as a weapon of war, targeting not only women and girls but also men and boys, as planned and systematic, designed “to control the territory, to instill fear, to terrorize the population,” she said. "When this has happened, if you as a child have seen, maybe, your mother being raped in front of the whole village, do you ever feel safe again? This is often carried over from generation to generation, and this is why it is such an impediment to restoring peace and security in a country."

The peacekeeping operation in Congo—full title: United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or MONUSCO—is the largest such mission in the world, with nearly 20,000 troops, 760 military observers and more than 1,400 police officers. It is commanded by an Indian general, Chander Prakash. Overall supervision of the Congo mission, which includes both civilian and military components, is Roger A. Meece, and American diplomat with years of experience in Congo.

The Congo government, in the far off capital of Kinshasa, demanded early this year that the UN end its mission. The organization, fearing a calamitous result of a quick pullout, had begun to work on a phased exit strategy when a compromise was reached that allowed a re-formed peacekeeping operation to stay for another year, until mid-2011.

Virtually no one connected to the mission would say that the Congolese army is ready or willing to take over the UN role, such as it is. Indeed, Congolese troops and police—and some UN peacekeepers—have been involved in various forms of violence and corruption in an area rich in minerals. Also in the mix is a renegade Rwandan Hutu rebel group, which has been in eastern Congo since fleeing Rwanda after a predominantly Tutsi government came to power following the Hutu-led genocide of 1994.

It was thought that at least 240 recent rapes (in some cases with up to six men attacking one woman) had recently been confined to remote Pinga, Kibua and Walikale in North Kivu province, the UN reported. But Khare told the BBC that he is now hearing of more incidents in South Kivu, bringing the total closer to 500 so far. The entire eastern Congo region—bordering Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Tanzania—where the UN operation is concentrated, is largely inaccessible, without roads, electricity and telecommunications. People cannot run miles to report attacks instantly, even if they were not afraid to do so. In a region without the protection of law and justice, rebel armies or loosely formed armed gangs are free to carry out their campaigns of terror.

Rachel Gerber, program director for human protection at the Stanley Foundation, which follows trends in the United Nations closely, concurs with Wallström in analyzing sexual abuse in contemporary warfare. "Sexual violence in Congo has become so widespread, systematic and horrifically vivid that it has forced observers who would more typically dismiss rape as a natural byproduct of war to recognize it, at least in this case, as a deliberate and highly strategic tool to achieve defined military objectives," Gerber said in an e-mail.

“The reality, however, is that Congo is unique more in terms of scale than substance,” she said. "Sexual violence is a predictable manifestation of mass atrocity violence because it is an extremely efficient means of intimidating entire communities, destroying social structures and ultimately ‘cleansing’ areas then much more easily controlled by militias and/or exploited by elites. As the tool is found to be tactically effective, the scale of sexual violence increases."

Wallström concludes: "It has to be understood that this is a security problem, not just men behaving like men. It’s not an inevitable consequence of war—it’s something that is planned. It can either be commanded, condemned or condoned. We need to say that we can stop it. It’s not inevitable."