By Amy Lieberman
Friday, August 27, 2010
Margot Wallstrom, U.N. envoy on sexual violence in conflict, was slow to learn of mass rapes in the DRC in July, which were carried out despite U.N. peacekeeping patrols. Now her first task as leader of the U.N.'s response is finding out exactly what happened.
The attacks were planned, said Letitia Anderson, advocacy and women's rights specialist of the U.N. Action Against Sexual Violence in Conflict. She said this was demonstrated by rebels blocking entrances before they swarmed the villages.
Anderson emphasized that this type of sexual violence is not a secondary matter, but a central security concern.
"This incident shows, yet again, that we can't draw a line between conflict and rape," she said. "Sexual violence is the conflict--a conflict fought on the bodies of women and children, rather than on the battlefield."
The U.N. Security Council on Aug. 26 held a closed emergency meeting on the attacks where Wallstrom's Chief of Staff Nancee Oku Bright gave a briefing.
Afterwards, Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., called the briefing disturbing.
"The fact is that many questions were posed, some very poignant questions, including by me and others," Rice told reporters. "The secretariat was clear in acknowledging that things did not occur as they should have, but we await answers… as to what was the actual sequence of events, where there may have been shortcomings in processes and procedures and what steps can be taken going forward."
Wallstrom's office has drawn attention to its slow-footed response. She didn't receive word until the weekend of Aug. 21-22, "like the rest of the world," said Anderson.
That was more than a week after the U.N. peacekeeping force in the country learned about the violence on Aug. 12 and two weeks from when the health organization that treated the victims reported the incidents to a U.N. humanitarian liaison on Aug. 6.
The secretary-general appointed Wallstrom in March for a two-year term; nearly six months later, she has filled the two positions of her six-staff office. Still not a regular presence at U.N. headquarters in New York, Wallstrom is in Europe this week, Anderson said, and has been communicating through conference calls.
The poor pace of communication has been surprising, said Sarah Mosely, who is based in the Democratic Republic of Congo's capital city Kinshasa and oversees the International Rescue Committee's program for rape survivors. "If I were Congolese, I would be my asking myself, 'Who can I count on?' That isn't clear."
"Sexual violence is all too common in the DRC," said Amnesty International's Country Specialist Tom Turner. "But this was a large scale, systematic event and the people who carried it out may well have calculated that they could count on U.N. troops not being able to intervene."
"It makes the U.N. look bad and it's sending a strong message right back," Turner added.
More than 9,000 Congolese women were raped in 2009, according to the U.N. Population Fund.
In recent months, the U.N. has withdrawn 1,770 peacekeepers from a force that formerly numbered around 20,000, responding to demands from the Democratic Republic of Congo's federal government, which wants a full withdrawal by next summer before its presidential elections.
While the U.N.'s failure to protect the women is coming under fire, Mosely, of the International Rescue Committee, is quick to commend Wallstrom's plans to visit the area soon.
"There was a delay and there are reasons for the lack of response and that will become clear, but sending Wallstrom out here sends a message saying, 'We are taking this seriously and we have to figure out what the obstacles are here,'" said Mosely.
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Amy Lieberman is a freelance journalist based out of the United Nations Secretariat.
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