International Policy/United Nations

U.N.'s Wallström Says Congo Will Be Her First Stop

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Margot Wallström starts March 1 her two-year stint as special U.N. representative on ending conflict-zone sexual violence. She says she'll be going right away to the Democratic Republic of Congo, a global epicenter of mass rape.

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Long U.N. Presence

Margot WallstromU.N. peacekeepers first entered the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1960 and returned in 1999. In 2005, the U.N. mission was rocked by scandal following allegations that peacekeepers had sexually exploited Congolese women and children.

Tom Turner, Congo country specialist with Amnesty International USA, said the U.N.'s long history in the country will be both a blessing and a burden for Wallström.

"She'll have the visibility, but the legacy" as well, Turner said.

Marianne Mollmann, women's rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, hopes Wallström will focus on ending impunity among military commanders.

In its 2009 report, Human Rights Watch found that commanders have frequently failed to prevent or halt sexual violence and, as a result, may also be guilty of war crimes or crimes against humanity.

Mollmann said those who ordered the use of sexual violence as a war tactic, or who did nothing to prevent it, should be put on trial.

Mollmann also believes selected high-profile criminal trials would put the judicial system on a better track. "Once you start doing what you should have been doing all along," she said, "it's harder not to do that again."

'A Million Ideas' to Confront Violence

Wallström agreed that ending impunity and prosecuting perpetrators are both essential to quelling sexual violence in conflict, especially in Congo where the situation has not substantially improved for years.

But in confronting violence, she said she had "a million ideas."

Though she called it premature, one idea includes bringing modern technologies to bear on the problem of identifying assailants and improving the protection of women when they seek justice against their assailants.

"Why in Africa can we not use laboratories and DNA to trace perpetrators, why can't we use GPS to track women?" she said of the global positioning systems now commonly used by car drivers. "We can track almost anyone on the planet" with GPS.

Wallström also mentioned providing women with video cameras and perhaps mobile phones to signal when they need protection. She said she favors combining such high-tech approaches with traditional strategies, such as using the radio or soap operas to advocate against sexual violence and help women understand their rights.

Wallström said she is eager, most of all, to show the world, "we can deal with this problem, we can do something about it. I hope we will not just be another talk shop, but make sure that things change on the ground."

Danielle Shapiro is a freelance journalist based in New York City.

For more information:

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1888:

The Comprehensive Strategy on Combating Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo:

Human Rights Watch, Democratic Republic of the Congo:

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