By Amy Lieberman
Thursday, March 10, 2011
A U.N. rapid-response team for mass outbreaks of sexual violence is pulling together. Here, its leader describes his first assignment to the DRC and warns that the four-person unit, which works by government invitation, can only do so much.
UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)--Innocent Zahinda recently started his new job here as the last of six members to be appointed to the staff of Margot Wallstrom, the U.N. special representative for sexual violence in conflict.
His January arrival marked the partial implementation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1888. Approved in September 2009, it calls for the creation of a ready-to-deploy team of experts to aid consenting governments with response to sexual violence.
But given the scale of conflict-zone sex assaults, Zahinda warns that his four-person unit --with two positions yet to be filled--can't possibly respond to every incident of mass rape.
"If we were going to respond to individual cases we would be responding every second," he told Women's eNews in a recent phone interview. "People are raped every day in eastern Congo."
A recent example of the cases that Zahinda's group will not be able to address are the 147 cases of rape perpetuated by unknown armed men between Jan. 19 and Feb. 17 in the eastern Fizi region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
"All those cases were mass rapes, most of them happening during attacks on large groups of people coming back from or going to the market," Charlotte Burton, a public information officer for the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs in the Democratic Republic of Congo's South Kivu, said in an e-mail. The attacks occurred in an area of Fizi where Burton said the combination of poor roads and active rebel groups hinders their monitoring ability.
Zahinda said those incidents were outside his team's purview because they only engage when government institutions are involved or security barriers are breached.
"We have to work directly with the government so they could investigate the security situation and with regard to the individual cases of sexual violence committed," he said.
The U.N. Human Rights Commission underscored the magnitude of sexual violence in conflict zones on March 3 with the publication of a 55-page report about the unmet needs of such victims in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was based on the testimonies of hundreds of thousands of victims.
The other member of Zahinda's team now in place is an official drawn from the U.N. Development Program. Zahinda expects the other two members--also drawn from U.N. agencies--to be in place by the end of the month, in time for the group's first field mission to Liberia.
Wallstrom, a 56-year-old politician from Sweden, was appointed in March 2010. Five months later she was caught off guard by an outbreak of mass rapes in an area of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where U.N. peacekeepers are stationed.
Wallstrom only heard about the attacks two weeks after a health organization reported the incidents to a U.N. humanitarian liaison.
Zahinda said that his team, had it been in the area beforehand, could have trained security officials to spot village barricades as a clear danger sign.
"If we can be there before, to establish early warning indicators, working with the government beforehand, that can prevent the incident altogether," he said.
But to set up those early warning indicators Zahinda emphasized that his group first needs an invitation to come and stay for about two months.
"They have to understand that they are in the driving seat and we are only coming in for support, but that they are also accountable," he said.
Zahinda's only current invitations are from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Liberia, where rape was commonplace during the country's 14 years of civil war.
When the full team is in place they will jointly monitor countries with high degrees of sexual violence and look for opportunities to collaborate with the governments, militaries, police, as well as U.N. agencies and peacekeeping missions on the ground to prevent sexual violence
Zahinda expects the team will also focus on Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia, Timor-Leste and Nepal.
Before this assignment Zahinda, a native of South Kivu, worked for nongovernmental organizations and U.N. agencies in Chad and Darfur that focus on human rights and gender-based violence.
At the end of January he began the mission to his homeland during the trial of 11 army soldiers charged with a gang rape.
Zahinda met with Lt. Col. Mutuare Daniel Kibibi, who told him that he'd tried on New Year's Day but failed to stop his soldiers from attacking and raping 62 women in the village of Baraka, in the region of Fizi.
A number of civil society groups--George Soros' Open Society Initiative, Lawyers Without Borders, the American Bar Association and the U.N. Mission for Congo--paid to send prosecutors and lawyers to the remote region, the Associated Press reported.
On Feb. 21 the mobile court convicted Kibibi of crimes against humanity and sentenced him to a maximum 20 years in prison. Three of his soldiers received the same sentence, while five others got lesser terms, one was acquitted and a minor will be tried in juvenile court.
It was the first time a commanding officer in the Democratic Republic of Congo's army, the FARDC, was tried and convicted of conflict-related sexual violence.
"The sentences send a strong signal to all perpetrators in the DRC and beyond that conflict-related sexual violence is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. It also shows that accountability for sexual violence is possible," Wallstrom said in a statement.
Zahinda closely monitored the case. He met with Congolese President Joseph Kabila and other officials, including the country's minister of gender. He made sure legal aid was provided to victims, 49 of whom testified in court.
Zahinda is now working with partners--including the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known as MONUSCO, and the U.N. Joint eastern provinces of the country.
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Amy Lieberman is a correspondent at the United Nations Secretariat.
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