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Reparations for sexual violence survivors in DRC

An estimated 200,000 women have been raped in the Democratic Republic of the Congo during the past 12 years of war. Of these, few ever get the satisfaction of knowing their attackers are punished, and even fewer receive tangible assistance to help rebuild their lives.

UN Panel of experts convened to hear the needs of sexual violence victims © OHCHR PhotoVictims of sexual violence bear the cost of the harm they suffered “with dramatic physical, psychological and material consequences which destroy not only their lives but often also the lives of their children,” said the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay. “This creates irreparable damage to the very fabric of societies and in turn poses serious threats to the prospects of reconciliation and sustainable peace and development.”

To help address this situation, the UN human rights chief convened a panel of experts to hear from the victims themselves about their needs. The panel, in presenting its findings, recommends that efforts be strengthened to ensure that remedies and reparations are effectively available to victims of sexual violence.

In its report, the panel acknowledges the DRC Government’s initiative in establishing a national strategy to combat gender-based violence, which includes a reparations fund for sexual violence victims whose perpetrators are unknown or are not arrested. The panel calls for the speeding up of the fund’s implementation and for the international community to contribute to it as well as the Government. The panel recommends that the Government immediately pay the damages and interest that have already been awarded to victims by the courts.

In its report titled “Remedies and Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)” (PDF), the UN panel cites the failure by the Government to pay victims damages, as undermining the executive and the judiciary. 

“The right to remedy and reparation is enshrined in international human rights law,” the High Commissioner stated at the launch of the report on 3 March 2011. “ It encompasses not only the right to equal and effective access to justice, but also the need to address the consequences of the harm suffered, through restitution, rehabilitation, compensation, satisfaction and guarantee of non-repetition.”

Congo’s Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Bambi Lessa Luzolo, also speaking at the launch said his government wanted to solve the scourge of sexual and gender-based violence in DRC where rape was being used as a weapon of war by heavily armed criminals who continued to spread death and violence against Congolese women and girls. He appealed to the international community to help the government in capacity building to fight against this violence and to help finance a victims’ compensation fund. “Our mothers, sisters, daughters are suffering,” he said speaking in French. “What has been done to them is beyond words. I hear them cry and scream every day. They say how abandoned they are.” Our government alone cannot fight the damage unjustly suffered by these women and children, he said.

“We have heard so much about the mass rapes in the Congo but what has been missing is the voice of the victims,” said Kyung-wha Kang, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights and the panel’s leader. “The international community and concerned people go and listen to the victims’ horrendous stories but then what? What has become of their lives since?”

“The objective of the panel was to hear directly from the victims of sexual violence in the DR Congo regarding their needs and their perceptions of remedies and reparations available to them,” she said. 

In October 2010, the three member panel of experts spent two weeks in the DRC listening to victims of sexual violence recount their difficulties in obtaining justice and their frustrations at not being able to seek remedy and reparation through the formal judicial system if the perpetrators cannot be identified or are not arrested.

The majority of the women and men who spoke to the panel told of their need for support for their children and families through socio-economic development projects, their need for medical and psychological help, and for better access to justice. The survivors also decried the insecurity in their villages and attributed this to the cycle of poverty and lack of development.

The other two members of the High Level Panel are Elizabeth Rehn, former Defence Minister of Finland and Dr. Denis Mukwege, the director of Panzi Hospital in Bukavu (DRC) which treats victims of sexual violence.

Reparations

According to guidelines adopted by the UN General Assembly on the right to a remedy and reparations for victims of gross violations of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law, States have the duty to provide effective remedies including reparations to victims of these violations.

4 March 2011