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“Europe must stop Congolese warlords with a law on conflict minerals”

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DR of Congo. Photo: The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation.

Europe needs to follow in the footsteps of the United States and adopt a law on the conflict minerals fueling the ongoing conflict in DR Congo, says former UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, in this opinion piece, written together with the Secretary General of the Swedish women and peace organization The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, Lena Ag. New rebel groups, like M23, are once again forcing civilians in eastern Congo to flee for their lives. Groups that are financed by the mineral trading. 

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Behind the vague abbreviation M23 hides a highly sought-after war criminal, a group of feared rebels and a number of armed deserters. And wherever they move, looting, rape and death awaits. Civilians in eastern DRC are hardly hit when Bosco Ntaganda – one of the names already on the UN Security Council’s blacklist – and his supporters kill army soldiers, attack UN peacekeepers, as well as unarmed men, women and children who gets in their way.

When people flee for their lives, children are often separated from their parents. Everything is left behind as the villages are abandoned. We have seen pictures of people brutally and indiscriminately slaughtered, and those who survive bare witness of rape and other horrific abuses.

Rebels were integrated in the national army

M stands for March and 23 is the date when the Congolese government in 2009 signed an agreement with the rebel group CNDP, consisting mainly of Tutsi rebels from Rwanda, many of whom fought with the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) which ended the genocide in 1994. Promising an end to the fighting, the CNDP would be integrated into the national army and get the appropriate military designations, positions in the government and administration, as well as the right to stay in North and South Kivu in eastern Congo. That was how the Congolese government came to accept that offenders like Bosco Ntaganda, and the likes of him, were given high positions in the national army. This allowed them to gain financial control over mining, as well as of various criminal activities. Impunity and the liberation of prisoners from the rebels’ own ranks, who had been caught by the justice system, became the rule rather than the exception. Their working method is to spread terror and fear among local politicians and campaigners for human rights. In fact, during Bosco’s reign of terror, Eastern Congo has become impossible to control.

New groups attacking civilians

But the government’s promises to the CNDP have not been met and the disorder following the last – strongly contested – Presidential elections made the discontent grow stronger. A number of CNDP officers left the army and quickly took control of several villages along the border with Rwanda.

And as if the offensives by the M23 were not enough, new constellations are now being formed with the Mai-Mai rebels and other groups – all of which attack and feed off civilians; raping, murdering, and doing whatever it takes to gain control of the mines that can finance the purchase of more arms.

Conflict minerals used in electronics

The so-called conflict minerals, including the three “t’s”: tungsten, tin and tantalum, in addition to gold – are currently indispensable in electronics manufacturing, such as computers and cell phones – and have become Congo’s greatest asset, but also its curse. These natural resources fund and perpetuate the conflict in eastern Congo, allowing what best can be described as slave labor, including sexual slavery, and giving very little back to the local communities.

The UN Security Council has of course repeatedly discussed the situation in eastern Congo. The Government of Rwanda has also been criticized – even by the United States – for its role as a supporter of the M23. The new Congolese government has, so far, failed to mobilize either internal efforts, or international support to effectively prevent those acts of violence. We are worried about a reaction that would pave a way for a “banalisation of evil”; for a sort of despair or hopelessness; for laconic reports about untold sufferings of entirely innocent and unprotected people; for a world that can no longer handle the responsibility of caring about the number of victims in eastern Congo. But practical policies exists that would help bring an end to violence.

European law to tackle the war economy

We demand a European law on conflict minerals, one like the US law, that would help tackle the war economy, which today fuels the conflict. We want to ensure that the trade paths of these commodities are identified, impose on importers and manufacturers the responsibility of tracking and reporting were the minerals are coming from, and start building a global certification system.

We are aware of the difficulties of implementing the US’s legislation and of predicting the impact of this legislation on the local communities. We have heard concerns that stricter regulations in practice could lead to a boycott of minerals from Eastern Congo, which would affect already struggling miners. But the purpose of the legislation is to decrease revenues to the warlords, who feed off the conflict and who are responsible for the appalling human rights abuses taking place.

The law would help make visible, both to purchasers and consumers, what conflict minerals are, as well as create incentives for the industry to develop a healthier and more sustainable trading system. And what is the alternative? The political signal has already had an effect, and it would only grow stronger if Europe, especially within the EU, partners with the United States on the issue of conflict minerals. There are already some voluntary initiatives by the electronics industry, and as consumers we can only keep pushing forward, for example, by requiring companies that use these ingredients in their products to account for where they come from.

So, what are we waiting for?

Margot Wallström
Former UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

Lena Ag
Secretary General, The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation

“There is so much hope in these women” – Wallström summarizes time as Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict

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Margot Wallström at The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, Sweden.

Her last day in office Margot Wallström (middle in flowery blouse) visited the Swedish women's right and peace organization The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation. The crossed armes is the symbol for the UN campaign Stop rape now! Photo: Sara Lüdtke/The Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation.

After two years as the first ever UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström on May 31st left her office. We met up with her on her last day, to talk about the achievements made and the many things still left to be done.

- Somehow it feels like this mission starts and ends with Congo, Margot Wallström says.

She is sitting in her homecountry of Sweden, trying to prepare for her new life as a non-UN worker. But her mind is filled with gruesome images sent to her as late as the day before.

- It was a lot due to the terrible situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with mass rapes and increasing sexual violence, that this office and its mandate came into place. And now, again, we recieve these horrifying photos of massacres that have taken place in Eastern DRC; photos of dead women whom I believe also had been raped. I am really worried that this will escalate into a genocide. They are hacking each other to death with machetes now, just like in Rwanda. The international community has to react, and not just with words, but physically go there and put pressure on the government.

250 prosecutions

The DRC has gotten the not so flattering nickname ”the rape capital of the world”, and crimes of sexual violence has continued in the country also during ceasefires. But Margot Wallström points out that there have been achievements made as well.

- We have managed to get military courts in the DRC to try cases of sexual violence. There have been 250 prosecutions so far. But I would really like the Congolese government to do a lot more. Like in the cases of the massacres taking place right now, where are the governmental officials? Noone seems to be putting any demands on them.

Breakthrough with Resolution 1960

Margot WallströmBorn: 28 September 1954, in Kåge in northern Sweden.

Family: Married, two children.

Career in short: Active in the Swedish Social Democratic Party 1977-1988. Minister of cultural affairs 1994-1996 and Minister of health and social affairs 1996-1998. 1999-2004 Member of the European Commission, in charge of issues regarding the environment and sustainability. 2004 appointed first Vice President of the European Commission, a position she held until 2010, when she became the first UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.

On future plans: – I have accepted to become Chairman of the board at Lund’s University in Sweden. Otherwise I’m not sure. I will spend some time at home now to figure out what I want to do next.

The widespread problem of impunity for crimes of sexual violence and rape has been one of the main issues on Margot Wallström’s agenda as Special Representative. And one of the major breakthroughs during her period in office was the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1960 in 2010, that requests the provision of detailed information on suspected perpetrators of sexual violence during armed conflict..

-When I started out I remember talking to a colleague at UNICEF about how we would be able to define success. You know, there are no easy ways to define and quantify objectives like these. She said that it would be a huge success if we were to get the UN Security Council to state that they are prepared to use the same methods to stop these types of crimes, as when it comes to crimes of violence against children. And with Resolution 1960 we actually got there, she says.

With the support of UNSCR 1960 the Special Representative can produce a ”name and shame” list in her annual report. This means putting names and faces to the warlords and armed groups suspected of crimes of sexual violence in conflict. Resolution 1960 also gives the Security Council the option to exercise sanctions against groups or nations in order to put a stop to ongoing crimes of this nature. In short it underlined sexual violence as an important part of the Security Council’s agenda.

- Now they make statements about these issues and incorporate them when writing new mandates. Of course, now and then they do still forget about them – as recently, regarding Syria. I called Kofi Annan up personally and told him that I thought it strange that they had put together a peace mission group without including any gender experts. And he agreed right away, so now we have sent one, who will be part of his team of UN observers, Margot Wallström says.

Still seen as “women stuff”

But it is far from that easy all the time, to get the people (mostly men) in power to recognize the sincerity of what her office is working with.

- It is not uncontroversial, I mean there are countries that doesn’t like these kind of special mandates. Pakistan, India and China, for example, constantly try to push back these issues. For them it’s like: ”is this really relevant for the Security Council? We are working with peace and security here, this women stuff, should we concern ourselves with that?”.

Stories of violence

But they should, and they have to, because the severe situation for women all over the world is not changing at any high speed. Margot Wallström’s last trip when in office, was to Colombia, a country that most people normally don’t associate with conflict-related sexual violence. But conflict situations aren’t limited to what you regularly perceive as war.

- In Colombia women are being subjected to these crimes by all armed groups within the country.  The sexual violence is present everywhere, from the mass rapes conducted by the FARC guerilla, to the everyday threats and violence.

- We went to an area where a lot of IDPs (internally displaced persons) were living and it turned into a kind of reception. They placed us in a local store and I sat there with two garden chairs and a long cue of women lining up to tell me their stories: ”My husband is trying to kill me, he chokes me every night”, ”he has knocked my teeth out”, ”I lock the door to my bedroom every night at six, because he always comes home ragingly drunk”.

Hope in spite of the pain

Of course this situation isn’t unique for Colombia. Everywhere Margot Wallström has travelled during these two years, she has seen the same patterns of women being held back, beaten and tortured.  And it is not always an easy task to listen to all these painful testimonials.

- Sometimes we almost censor our own reports, because there are such appalling atrocities taking place that you feel like people just won’t believe they are true. I have gotten really depressed and walked with a heavy heart, for sure. But at the same time these women carry on, they pick up their burdens and continue working for human rights. There is so much inspiration and hope in that.

Footnote: The mandate of the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict has been prolonged indefinitely. Margot Wallström’s successor has not yet been announced.

Malin Ekerstedt

Civilians risk being targets of sexual violence in recent fighting in DR Congo

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Margot Wallstrom, United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual, Violence in Conflict. Photo: UN Photo/Jean-Marc Ferré

Civilians are in great danger of being targeted with acts of sexual violence in the new wave of fighting taking place in the province of North Kivu, in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, says UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström. She is supported by the UN Security Council who has urged all armed groups to ”immediately cease all forms of violence…lay down their arms and demobilize”.

The fighting in North Kivu resumed a couple of weeks ago, when fractions from the former armed group CNDP, who was integrated with the Congolese government forces as part of the peace treaty in 2009, broke out of the army to again form its own militia. The increased violence has forced thousands of civilians to flee from their homes. Goma – the main city in North Kivu – has up to date recieved over 15 000 IDP:s (Internally Displaced Persons).

The Congolese women- and peace organisation CAFED -  Collectif des Associations des Femmes pour le Développement – who has visited refugee camps outside of Goma, reports that the refugees haven’t recieved any help, not even food or basic hygiene products. Several women among the refugees where survivors of sexual violence and many hade seen their husbands getting killed.

Same perpetrators

- Once again, a new wave of violence is being perpetrated by actors such as the Mai Mai leader Sheka Ntabo Ntaberi and General Bosco Ntaganda, both of whom have been sanctioned by the United Nations Security Council for various violations including sexual violence crimes, said Margot Wallström.

Bosco Ntaganda, who became a leader within the government forces after the peace treaty, was the former leader of CNDP and has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes.

Some of the now targeted villages, in the Walikali territory, were as late as in July and August 2010 the scenes of horrendous crimes, when more than 380 women, men and children were subjected to sexual violence by the Mai Mai Sheka group. And the whole history of conflict in DR Congo is filled with acts of rape and sexual violence. More than 400,000 women ages 15 to 49 experienced rape between 2006 and 2007. That is equivalent to 1,152 women raped every day, 48 women raped every hour, or four women raped every five minutes. (If Numbers Could Scream: Estimates and Determinants of Sexual Violence in the Republic of the Congo, American Public Health Association, 2011)

International campaign against rape

Because of this, DR Congo is also one of four focus countries in a new international campaign initiatied by the Nobel Women’s Peace Initiative: Stop rape and gender violence in conflict.

The campaign calls for:

  • Powerful and urgent leadership on the local, national, regional, and international levels to prevent and stop rape and gender violence and conflict situations;
  • A dramatic increase in resources for prevention and protection and for psychosocial and physical healing for survivors, their families, and communities, including concerted efforts to end stigma of survivors;
  • Justice for victims, including prosecution of perpetrators at national, regional, and international levels, and comprehensive reparation for survivors.

You can join in with your own pledge here.

DR Congo: UN envoy concerned about possible sexual violence amid latest fighting (statement by UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence)

50 000 rapes – 30 prosecutions

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23 February the UN Secretary General presented the third annual report from his Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Margot Wallström, for the UN Security Council. It contained some elements of hope, like the fact that over 150 members of the national army and national police of the Democratic Republic of Congo were sentenced for rape and other acts of sexual violence during last year. But Margot Wallström stressed the fact that, overall, these crimes are not being punished.

Margot Wallström

Margot Wallström, UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflicts. Photo: UN/Rick Bajornas.

- When I met with women in Bosnia and Herzegovina I thought we would be talking about the development and women’s role in politics. But 16 years after the war, what they wanted to talk about was the rapes they had been subjected to and kept re-living. The lack of redress and justice is staggering. An estimated 50 000 rapes has lead to just 30 prosecutions, she said.

- Yes preventive diplomacy is important, and yes zero tolerance policies matter. But ultimately rape must carry consequences.

Arguing over mandate

Many of the Security Council’s members applauded the report and gave it their support. But some countries representatives objected to what they called the Special Representative “overstepping her mandate”. This due to the fact that the report also mentions incidents of sexual violence taking place outside the  context of armed conflict – for instance women protesters in Egypt being arrested and subjected to so called virginity tests. But Margot Wallström withheld the importance of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict being able to address also these crimes.

- The word that kept coming back in the debate was “prevention”. And if we want to do prevention we can not only focus on armed conflict, but we should look at post-conflict situations and of course that situations that are being discussed regularly in the Security Council, she said.

In the end the Security Council decided that there would be no restrictions in the mandate of the Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and the Representative’s mission, that was due to end in March, was also prolonged.

List of perpetrators

Besides mentioning crimes committed, the report for the first time contains a list of the worst perpetrators. According to Margot Wallström this is an important tool to show everyone that it’s no longer possible to get away with acts of sexual violence.

- Yes preventive diplomacy is important, and yes zero tolerance policies matter. But ultimately rape must carry consequences. It has become more dangerous to be a woman fetching water or collecting firewood than a fighter on the frontline, she said.

Examples from the report:

  • In April 2009 the Constitutional Court of Colombia ordered the Attorney-General’s Office to pursue investigations into 183 specific cases of sexual violence against women and girls. To date only four of those cases have been brought to trial.
  • In Cote d’Ivoire an increase in rape and gang rape targeting civilians were witnessed during the resent post-election crisis. These crimes were committed by all parties to the conflict. Between January and September of 2011, 478 cases of rape were documented across the country. Only 13 arrests have been made and to date there have been no convictions.
  • In Liberia post-war sexual violence has taken on new characteristics, such as gang rapes and the sexual abuse of very young children. Between April 2010 and March 2011 only 38 of 903 reported cases of sexual violence reached trial. 17 of the 38 ended in convictions.
  • In Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), more than 16 years after the end of the conflict, only 30 cases of wartime crimes of sexual violence have been prosecuted. BiH’s definition of war crimes of sexual violence is also inconsistent with international standards, which results in leap-holes for perpetrators. And violence experienced during the war has manifested itself in increased and more severe cases of domestic violence in the country.
  • In the Democratic Republic of Congo several incidents of mass rapes by elements of the national army were reported. These were said to be acts of retaliation against the population for their alleged collaboration with the “enemy”. A total of 625 cases of sexual violence, with different parties of the conflict as perpetrators, were documented during the reporting period.

Download the 2012 annual report by the UN Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict.