Villagers fleeing their homes in Sake, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)?s North Kivu province, after fighting erupted between FARDC Government forces and rebel groups. UN Photo/Sylvain Liechti
8 May 2013 ? Congolese armed forces, known by the French acronym FARDC, raped more than 102 women and 33 girls, some as young as six years old, as they fled the advance M23 rebels in country?s restive eastern region in November 2012, according to a joint UN report released today.
The report, which details victim and eyewitness accounts of mass rape, killings, arbitrary executions and other gross violations of human rights, was authored by the UN Joint Human Rights Office comprised of the UN Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) and the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the DRC.
While the report also cites M23 rebels for committing atrocities, it notes that the serious rights violations committed by FARDC soldiers, in particular, were ?perpetrated in a systematic manner and with extreme violence? and may constitute international crimes under human rights law, as well as crimes under Congolese criminal law.
?Those responsible for such crimes must know that they will be prosecuted,? UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said in a statement, calling the sexual violence outlined in the report ?horrifying? in scale and systematic nature.
The joint investigation attributes poor discipline among soldiers and officers, as well as improper training and inadequate vetting mechanisms for what happened.
The investigation also expresses serous concern about the failure of the Congolese army to protect civilians, which it says stems from a lack of vetting procedures which allowed former rebels to integrate into the national army without verification of the human rights records.
Most of the cases documented happened on 22 and 23 November 2012 in and around the town of Minova in South Kivu and followed a similar modus operandi: ?FARDC soldiers entered houses, usually in groups of three to six, and, after threatening the inhabitants, looted whatever they could find. One or two of the soldiers would leave with the looted goods and at least one would stand guard as the remaining FARDC soldiers raped women and girls in the house.?
?Victims were threatened with death if they shouted; some were raped at gunpoint. Most victims were raped by more than one soldier. Almost all cases of rape documented by the UNJHRO were accompanied by death threats and additional acts of physical violence,? the report continued.
During the period of their occupation of the towns of Goma and Sake in North Kivu, M23 combatants also perpetrated serious violations of international humanitarian law and gross human rights violations, according to the report. The UN investigation documented at least 59 cases of sexual violence, 11 arbitrary executions, recruitment of children, forced labour, cruel inhuman and degrading treatment and looting by M23 combatants.
Noting that the DRC authorities have made efforts to investigate the violations, Ms. Pillay urged DRC authorities do more to ensure justice for the victims and re-establish the confidence of the civilian population in the Congolese justice system.
Authorities suspended for further investigation the commanding officers of two of the battalions implicated in the rapes after MONUSCO sent a letter to FARDC’s chief of staff requesting the formal suspension of support to these units.
Since then, the Government said it had launched investigations and recorded some 400 testimonies from victims, witnesses and suspects. It added that several arrests had been made as an interim internal disciplinary measure, and a number of officers allegedly involved in these acts had been suspended and put at the disposal of the Military Prosecutor for the purposes of the investigation.
Among these officers are the commanding officers and deputy commanding officers of the two main battalions suspected of committing these acts, as well as officers of eight other units.
The head of MONUSCO and the UN Secretary-General?s Special Representative in the DRC, Roger Meece welcomed the measures taken by the authorities and affirmed UN?s continued support for an independent, credible judicial investigation and the Congolese armed forces.
Mr. Meece added that future efforts to reform the security sector must include a systematic verification of the human rights records of combatants and their commanders in order for the Congolese army to fully ensure the protection of civilians.
On 30 March, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, signed an agreement with Prime Minister Augustin Matata Ponyo Mapon to prevent sexual violence.
The Joint Communiqu? lists commitments made by the Government, including fighting impunity for crimes of sexual violence, accelerating security sector reform efforts, creating vetting mechanisms when integrating former combatants into the national army, ensuring a better control of mineral resources, and greater support for services to survivors.