Sexual violence in armed conflicts: the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo

Even though the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has a history of instability and sexual violence, the rate of sexual crimes increased during the armed conflicts, beginning in the early 1990’s. Rape and sexual violence have been used as war weapons. As said by Major-General Patrick Cammaert “Warring groups use rape as a weapon because it destroys communities totally.” (UNHR, 2008). It is a tactic to simultaneously humiliate and dominate the opponent. Women are often the main target of this violence, but children and men are also targeted.

Historical context

The D.R. Congo, particularly the eastern part of the country, has been subject to many armed conflicts and wars, both internal and external. The first armed conflict, known as the First Congo War, began in 1996. It was an invasion of Zaire (former name of DRC) led by Rebel leader Laurent-Désiré Kabila supported by Rwanda and Uganda. After the dictatorship of Mobutu was overthrown, Kabila kicked all Rwandese and Ugandan troops out of the country. This war led to the Second Congo War the following year. The Second Congo War, also known as the Great African War, directly involved 8 countries and more than 20 armed groups. These conflicts established a tradition of constant violence in this region and hostilities have been ongoing since in the regions of Kivu and Ituri. In total, conflicts in DRC have caused 6 million deaths between 1996 and today, but the violence afflicting to the civilian population was beyond imaginable.

In 1999, DRC brought two cases to the International Court of Justice (ICJ): one against Rwanda and another against Uganda on account of “acts of armed aggression perpetrated by Uganda [and Rwanda] on the territory of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, in flagrant violation of the United Nations Charter and of the Charter of the Organization of African Unity.” (Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Uganda) (Application) [1999] ICJ Rep 168). DRC considered this as a “violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity, violations of international humanitarian law and massive human rights violations.” (Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo: New application 2002 (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Rwanda) (Application) [2002] ICJ Rep 6). On 19 December 2005, the ICJ reached a decision that the Democratic Republic of Congo’s sovereignty was violated (Armed Activities on the Territory of the Congo (Democratic Republic of the Congo v. Uganda) (Advisory opinion) [2005] ICJ Rep 168). The Congolese government asked for 10 billion dollars in compensation for stolen resources. This compensation was never paid due to relief packages offered by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This can be viewed as an inducement by these institutions, neglecting war crimes in favor of economic growth.  The ICJ also ensured that it would prosecute all crimes against civilians, like sexual violence, even though no real steps were taken.

Legal Framework Prohibiting Sexual Violence

Since the 1920’s, rape as a war weapon was made illegal by the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. It was the first international law instrument to address rape, stating in article 3 that women should be especially protected in times of war, in particular against rape. Unfortunately, it was still used in conflicts in the 1990’s (Yugoslav war and Congo war). As specified in the statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), according to Article 8(2)(b), rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization and other forms of sexual violence during conflicts are war crimes. If committed “as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”, they may also constitute crimes against humanity (Article 7(1)(g)) they may also constitute crimes against humanity. But often in area such as eastern Congo, rape and other sexual violence are perpetuated and even encouraged, leaving the perpetuators unpunished.

In 2014, the ICC convicted Germain Katanga, a former militia leader and warlord on six counts of war crimes and three counts of crimes against humanity. “On 7 March 2014, Trial Chamber II found German Katanga guilty, as an accessory, within the meaning of article 25(3)(d) of the Rome Statute, of one count of crime against humanity (murder) and four counts of war crimes (murder, attacking a civilian population, destruction of property and pillaging) committed on 24 February 2003 during the attack on the village of Bogoro, in the Ituri district of the DRC. The Chamber acquitted Germain Katanga of the other charges that he was facing”. (Prosecutor v Germain Katanga (Judgment) ICC-01/04-01/07 (7 March 2014)). He was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He was acquitted from charges of rape and sexual slavery, due to lack of evidence. The inability of the ICC to incriminate a war criminal for rape and sexual violence shows the difficulty of convicting individuals on the account of these crimes. The lack of international law on the subject of sexual violence makes it easier to commit these crimes without fearing the consequences. Tackling sexual violence in the eastern region of Congo, a region torn by perpetual conflict, becomes even more difficult. Many organs of the United Nations have attempted to tackle this issue. In 2008, the Security Council passed a resolution (1820) in an attempt to effectively reduce sexual violence in times of conflict, especially in DRC, and punish its perpetuators. This resolution was to put an end to the culture of impunity, especially in amnesty provisions, as these acts shouldn’t be left unpunished. But as seen in the example of Katanga, even after the reinforcement of international law in reducing sexual violence, it is still difficult to account someone for these crimes.

William Hague, the foreign secretary, with Angelina Jolie, actor and UNHCR special envoy, travelled to the DRC to raise awareness of warzone rape. Source:

The actual situation of DRC

The ineffectiveness of international institutions and law has pushed the situation in DRC to reach a level of violence that is no longer possible to control. In 2011, some sources reported that more than 2000 women were raped per day in the conflict zone. This has become a humanitarian crisis that had been for a long time ignored. It has been only recently been slowly acknowledged on the international level. Even though it is still widely unknown to a vast majority, some have made it their goal to raise awareness about the sexual violence that has been taking place in Congo for almost 20 years. Actress and UNHCR ambassador Angelina Jolie has been trying to put to light these crimes to help bring justice to the women who have witnessed and lived this violence. National and international law haven’t been able to correctly formulate laws to prevent and punish these crimes, leading to humanitarian disasters. Rape and sexual violence as a weapon during war times should be, just like genocide, completely out of bounds. Just like genocide, The prohibition of these crimes should be jus cogens. Maybe the conflict in Congo will, just like the Jewish genocide during World War II, create better jurisdiction at the international level to prosecute sexual violence during war times.

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4 Responses to Sexual violence in armed conflicts: the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo

  1. I strongly agree upon the devastation that raping can cause to a society; psychological damage is very adequate to destroy people and their state. Rape is associated with a sequence of consequences that will indeed portray death very honoring and peaceful. Therefore, very firm actions should be taken by international law and UN in order to maintain peace and security in the world.
    Such a crime is a reason for the existence of laws such as Geneva Law, which seeks the protection of civilians during an armed conflict by many methods, one of which is prohibiting torture. Furthermore, appears here the principles of Hague Law which conduct rules of how an attack should be. I don’t think the principles of distinction and military necessity are taking place here; women are neither combatants nor violent participants to be targeted, and the suffering that is caused for them by raping is not also to achieve a military advantage. Therefore, it should be limited. Raping has been a long-standing catastrophe during wars since a very long time and it occurred in many spots in the world, and I find it very desperately strange that no measures are capable of ending this phenomenon.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hazem Hammam says:

    This article shades the light over the inefficiency of the international law which is a major controversy that is being discussed frequently. The idealistic vision of the international law make it inconsistent with the world’s dim reality ,and this article gave a perfect example for that. The international law’s attempts to create peace and security all over the world will always be obstructed by the legal procedures that are required to convict criminals which raises the question about the efficiency of the law. I believe that the international law should be more strict regarding these issues that requires a lot of evidence in order to convict someone. In other words , the international law should convict groups instead of individuals because in the armed conflicts it is extremely impossible to spot the individuals who committed sexual assaults.Thus, the whole group will hold responsibility for its individuals’ deeds. By convicting the whole group ,it will be much easier to punish it and reduce this phenomena. This should be included in the “Hague Law” that if any individual from the contesting parties committed any of these assaults ,after investigating the case, the security council should take clear actions towards the convicted group.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. ingyhigazy16 says:

    Thank you Nadine for this very informative article. It raised numerous questions for me concerning the legal mechanisms that can be placed in order to punish, and effectively prohibit, sexual crimes during times of war. As you mentioned, perpetrators are usually acquitted due to lack of evidence, and that is usually and unfortunately the case with sexual crimes. The fact that the United Nations and other international organizations are taking the toll and trying to spread awareness is a significant endeavor. Nonetheless, as you implied, they are never enough. Strong and legal mechanisms to effectively counter such crimes, and to hold criminals responsible, must be put in place. Therefore, I was wondering if you came across any possible solutions or recommendations for such a debacle, by legal scholars or lawyers? Thanks again!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. pakinamshibl says:

    I agree with this article as it highlights the crime of sexual violence that happens during conflict, which leads to psychological issues in the society and its really hard to get over it, human rights shed lights to this issue as it really concerns and knows what damage it can cause and we need to protect women from this during political conflicts. Thus international law seems to be inefficient in solving this dilemma as you were claiming in your blog, international law view should be realistic and relate to reality not to the ideal perspective. UN should take action and severe sanctions to maintain peace and non-violence atmosphere in the conflict zone, specially the sexual one which is the most devastating kind of violence and may cause death as well. You mentioned, perpetrators are usually acquitted due to lack of evidence, and that is usually and unfortunately the case with sexual crimes. Unless no one witness it its never happened. There must be a whole new body that be created for ensuring those animals that commit such crimes will be punished. Thanks for enlightening us with such a great issue that should be put in our concerns.


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