The South African government has been urged to re-engage in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to help stop an increasing epidemic of violence against civilians – especially women – in the chronically unstable east of the country.
And no one was doing anything effective to help the civilians, not the DRC government, the UN peacekeepers nor the wider international community, said Human Rights Watch’s DRC expert Anneke van Woudenberg.
Government soldiers, and even senior officers up to the rank of general, were responsible for most of the rapes in the growing epidemic of sexual violence in the eastern DRC, Van Woudenberg said.
She said South Africa had a crucial role to play in pressuring DRC President Joseph Kabila to arrest the senior officers guilty of war crimes and do more to stop the violence.
South Africa had greater legitimacy in the DRC than other countries because of its critical role in guiding the negotiations which led to the 2006 elections.
“Their phone calls and visits can’t be refused,” she said. But she added that South Africa’s engagement in the DRC had begun to fade towards the end of former president Thabo Mbeki’s term because of the internal problems in the ANC.
She urged President Jacob Zuma to re-engage in the DRC, and said South Africa should use its position as an important trainer of DRC soldiers to say: “We won’t train rapists or killers.” There should be a process of vetting to weed out these culprits.
“Or we will just be training rapists and killers to be more efficient rapists and killers.”
Human Rights Watch had documented at least 800 civilians massacred in eastern DRC, but this was probably just the tip of the iceberg, Van Woudenberg said.
And it had estimated that 200 000 women and girls had been raped in the eastern DRC this year alone.
Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups had appealed to Kabila in vain to take action against government soldiers raping, murdering and looting civilians..
Van Woudenberg blamed the UN mission in the DRC for a lack of creativity in tackling the violence, especially the sexual crimes. It should, for instance, outlaw roadblocks, which were the site of many of the rapes.
She also blamed the international community for failing to issue even strong statements of concern about the violence against civilian.