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UN report outlines stark situation of victims of sexual violence in DR Congo

GENEVA (3 March 2011) – A new UN report, based on testimonies by some of the hundreds of thousands of victims of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, paints an extremely stark picture of the at best inadequate, and at worst non-existent, resources and efforts to meet their needs, ranging from medical and psychological treatment, to their socio-economic situation, and lack of access to justice, compensation and other forms of remedies and reparations.

The 55-page report, published Thursday by a special high-level panel appointed by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, is the product of a 17-day field visit by the panel’s three members and their support team to seven locations in three different provinces and the capital Kinshasa.

During their visit, the panel heard directly from 61 survivors of sexual violence, ranging from a girl raped when she was three years old to a 61-year-old grandmother, about what they perceived their actual needs to be, and what they felt about the remedies and reparations currently available to them. Many of them also described in graphic detail to the panel members what had happened to them and to other victims in their neighbourhoods. In each location, the panel held talks with provincial and local government officials, and convened roundtables with officials in the justice sector, members of civil society and UN representatives.

The panel met with some individuals and groups, the report says, “including victims who had contracted HIV/AIDS as a result of rape, victims who had become pregnant and had children as a result of rape, victims whose husbands had rejected them following their rape, child victims of rape, victims of rape who had taken their cases to court seeking justice, and victims of rape by civilian perpetrators. Among the victims with special needs whom the panel met were a girl with sensory disabilities, a young woman who is blind, and four men, two of whom were raped and two of whom were sexually assaulted in other ways.”

Peace and security are seen as the precondition to any restoration of normal life, the report says, noting that “victims expressed concern that whatever they are given now to restore their lives can be again destroyed if there is no peace.”

Health care and education were among the highest priorities conveyed to the panel by victims. “They are determined, but in many cases unable, to send their children to school. Those who have contracted HIV/AIDS are deeply troubled by concern over what will happen to their children when they die. Many victims who met with the panel have been displaced from their homes. They expressed the need for socio-economic reintegration programmes.”

“The panel was struck by the difference between the urban centres and the villages it visited,” the report says. “In remote areas there is so little infrastructure that access to any form of assistance or reparation is virtually non-existent. Most women outside the cities are unable to get medical assistance within 72 hours of rape. Nor are there prisons and courts within reachable distance, making detention and trial of perpetrators very challenging and rendering justice unattainable.”

Even in Bukavu, the main city in South Kivu, the panel noted that “the police officer responsible for sexual violence investigations has only a motorcycle, which makes it impossible for her to transport arrested persons to detention facilities.”

Many women never report the rapes, either due to fear of stigmatization or lack of faith in the judicial system. “There is no point in making an accusation,” one woman said. “I learned by example from most people raped before me that there is no justice.”

The panel also met victims who have been able to overcome the many challenges of bringing a case to court and getting a judgment that condemns the perpetrators and awards them reparations in the form of damages and interest.

However the report says “these victims expressed great frustration because their perpetrators have escaped from prison while they have not been paid the damages…even in those cases where the state has been held liable.”

“This is a matter of widespread concern to judicial officers and provincial government authorities, as well as civil society and the victims themselves. The failure to pay these awards is undermining the judiciary and the confidence of victims in the justice system,” the report states, calling for immediate action to pay awarded damages.

The report notes, however, that most victims interviewed were unable to seek justice through the courts because they cannot identify their perpetrators, or in some cases, because perpetrators have not been arrested. “Victims have a right to reparations, which include restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, satisfaction, and guarantees of non-repetition. There is a need to highlight the responsibility of the government in this regard, with support from the international community.”

The panel heard many views on the relative benefits and drawbacks of individual vs. collective reparations, and repeatedly the suggestion was made that both collective and individual reparations should be provided for. The panel recommends that a fund to support reparations be established as a matter of priority, with the governance of the fund to include representatives of the Government of the DRC, the United Nations, donors, civil society, and survivors themselves. Such a fund should benefit victims of sexual violence in all parts of the country.

“Shifting the stigma from the victims to the perpetrators would have a great impact on the ability of victims to reclaim their dignity and rebuild their lives,” the report says. “Breaking the silence and mobilizing public support for these victims could be the single most important form of reparation.”

The organization of the hearings, including the identification and selection of victims who met with the panel, was undertaken jointly by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Panzi Hospital, in consultation with the Joint Human Rights Office of the UN mission in DRC (MONUSCO). The potential security risks to each victim were assessed, and measures were taken to ensure their safety and confidentiality. Psychologists were hired to pre-screen each witness and to be available to the witnesses before, during and after the hearings.

The panel was composed of Kyung-wha Kang, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Elisabeth Rehn, former Minister of Defense of Finland and co-author of the UNIFEM report on Women, War and Peace, and Dr. Denis Mukwege, Medical Director of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu.

The full report can be accessed on: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/AfricaRegion/Pages/ZRIndex.aspx

Broadcasters can access free video footage, including first-hand accounts by victims, on: http://www.unmultimedia.org/tv/unifeed/d/17112.html

For interview requests or other media information, contact Ravina Shamdasani, Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Media Unit: +41-22-917-9310 or +41-79-618-3430 or by email at rshamdasani@ohchr.org