From June 30th to August 3rd, over 200 women and baby boys were gang-raped by rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. After initial reports indicated around 150 women, girls and babies had been raped, by September 4th the number of confirmed cases had risen to 240. It is believed that members of the rebel force Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (F.D.L.R.) are responsible for the rapes (the F.D.L.R. has denied any involvement). Though the attacks occurred in a village just 10 miles from a UN peacekeepers base, the UN initially told reporters that they had not learned of the rapes until over a week after they happened. A spokeswoman for the International Medical Corps (IMC) told CNN that the IMC had informed the UN on August 6th, rather than on the 12th as the UN reported. Another member of IMC told the Associated Press that aid and UN workers were aware of the rebel occupation the day after the attacks began. Still, the UN peacekeeping mission spokesman said, “Unfortunately, the villagers and local authorities never brought this issue to our knowledge.”
On September 1st, The New York Times reported that an internal email sent within UN agencies on June 30th, the first day of the attack, shows that while the peacekeepers may not have been aware of the scale of the travesty occurring, they knew something was happening. “The town of Mpofi…has just fallen into the hands of the F.D.L.R. A woman was raped there,” the email reads, according to the Times.
Sickeningly, it is all too believable that in the DR Congo, where humanitarian officials have said “the intensity and frequency [of sexual violence] is worse than anywhere else in the world,” peacekeepers might consider a single rape as par for the course. Still, the mounting evidence reported by The New York Times and the Associated Press – the UN knew about the rebel occupation, the UN knew a roadblock had gone up, the UN knew a woman had been raped, the first patrol to a village (which the UN has cited to prove their innocence) happened three days after the first indications of rebel forces marauding — indicates not just a lack of knowledge but a lack of will to act.
It is no surprise that the UN would not intervene to save a few, or even many, Congolese women and children from rape. Systematic rape in the DR Congo has happened, and happened, and happened. The UN has denounced these rapes, warning the perpetrators that there will be consequences and calling for justice as they have before, but the horror of everyday sexual violence continues unabated. In the past few years, there have even been allegations that UN peacekeepers themselves have been raping women and girls in the DR Congo. UN officials speculated that in this case, perhaps villagers feared reprisals from rebels if they reported the attacks. That seems very probable. But perhaps the villagers have learned that they cannot depend on the peacekeepers for any kind of trustworthy protection — the fear of reprisals does not let the UN off the hook, it illustrates how totally ineffective their presence is.
After all, who can depend on the peacekeepers? UN peacekeeping has not been an unmitigated string of disasters, but the disasters they have overseen have been so horrific and their response so atrocious that it is a wonder villagers throughout the world do not flee at the sight of the blue helmets. Romeo Dallaire’s account of the UN steadfastly, even smugly, refusing to twitch a finger to save thousands of Rwandans as they were raped to death and hacked to pieces with machetes is horribly affecting. In A Problem from Hell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the world’s response to genocide, Samantha Powers describes the UN complacently setting aside Srebrenica as a “safe area” and then standing by as thousands of Bosnian Serbs who had fled to the city for UN protection were raped and murdered. As a force for humanitarian intervention, the UN has frequently not only failed to save the people it is supposed to protect, its spurious promises of protection have ended in even more bloodshed. In March, the DR Congo’s government requested that 20,000 UN troops be removed by 2011 — but though officials insisted, “We will do it ourselves,” the widespread violence and seemingly ineffective Congolese armed forces do not bode well for the prospects of peace and stability if all foreign forces withdraw. (As the linked stories point out, the government’s calls for UN withdrawal may even be domestic political posturing rather than earnest requests.)
But what are the solutions to mitigate such horrific, systemic sexual violence? Frankly, it does not seem likely that the DR Congo can stymie the flood of rapes and killings alone. The UN’s proposed solution, to have villages regularly report to UN headquarters, seems to hold some promise but is, as Salon points out, an attempt at solving bureaucracy with more bureaucracy. In any case, it would only be effective if the UN was genuinely prepared to intervene if they did discover a problem. Changing the UN’s mandate to encourage more active intervention could help save women and children from attacks like these in the short-term, but is it a sustainable solution? The United States is war sick and coming to realize the impossibility of using soldiers to build stable democracies that embrace women’s rights. While I cannot help but feel that Belgium, which exploited and brutalized the country for years, should take some responsibility for helping the DR Congo get back on its feet, I completely understand why the Congolese want absolutely nothing to do with the Belgians — or indeed, any interference that smacks of colonialism. Foreign aid groups, though providing valuable services, are relatively helpless. For instance, International Medical Corps, which reported these current attacks to the UN, was on the scene of the current atrocity but was only allowed into the village once the rebels had left. I would like to see regional organizations like the African Union take a hand in stabilizing the DR Congo or shutting down groups like the F.D.L.R., but at this point that too seems like a forlorn hope.
I admit the complexity and scale of this atrocity, and the helplessness and seemingly practical indifference of the peacekeepers, puts me at the brink of despair. What I can offer is this: while we may not have the ability to impose peace unilaterally or throughout the UN, we do have the domestic peace, relative prosperity, and educational system to nurture brilliant political and economic minds of U.S. and foreign citizens. That’s a power that needs to be leveraged to look for solutions — in trade, in development, in community-based aid projects, in effectively supporting the African Union, in answers that have not even been considered. It is still a tenuous hope, but right now that is all I’ve got. And this: the United States has a seat on the UN Security Council. We should be using it to encourage other UN nations to actively look for solutions too, instead of merely supporting a “peacekeeping” force specializing in ignoring emails, inaction and after-the-fact denouncements and rationalizations.