Via Feminist Peace Network, The Nation recently published a blistering speech from former UN AIDS envoy (and current co-director of AIDS-Free World) Stephen Lewis that highlights the lackluster, indifferent international response to endemic rape and sexual violence against women in the Congo.
I want to set out an argument that essentially says that what’s happening in the Congo is an act of criminal international misogyny, sustained by the indifference of nation states and by the delinquency of the United Nations.
The sordid saga ebbs and flows. But it was brought back into sudden, vivid public notoriety by Eve Ensler’s trip to the Congo in July and August of last year, her visit to the Panzi Hospital, her interviews with the women survivors of rape, and her visceral piece of writing in Glamour magazine which began with the words “I have just returned from Hell.”
Eve set off an extraordinary chain reaction: her visit was followed by a fact-finding mission by the current UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs who, upon his return, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in which he said that the Congo was the worst place in the world for women. Those views were then echoed everywhere (including by the EU Parliament), triggering front page stories in the New York Times, the Washington Postand the Los Angeles Times, and a lengthy segment on 60 Minutes by Anderson Cooper of CNN.
Largely as a result of this growing clamor against the war on women in the Congo, and the fact that Eve Ensler herself testified before the Security Council, the United Nations resolution that renewed the mandate for the UN Peacekeeping force in the Congo (MONUC, as it’s called) contained some of the strongest language condemning rape and sexual violence ever to appear in a Security Council resolution, and obliged MONUC, in no uncertain terms, to protect the women of the Congo. The resolution was passed at the end of December last year.
In January of this year, scarce one month later, there was an “Act of Engagement”–a so-called peace commitment signed amongst the warring parties. I use “so-called” advisedly because evidence of peace is hard to find. But that’s not the point: the point is much more revelatory and much more damning.
The peace commitment is a fairly lengthy document. Unbelievably, from beginning to end, the word “rape” never appears. Unbelievably, from beginning to end, the phrase “sexual violence” never appears. Unbelievably, “women” are mentioned but once, lumped in with children, the elderly and the disabled. It’s as if the organizers of the peace conference had never heard of the Security Council resolution.
But it gets worse. The peace document actually grants amnesty–I repeat, amnesty–to those who have participated in the fighting. To be sure, it makes a deliberate legal distinction, stating that war crimes or crimes against humanity will not be excused. But who’s kidding whom? This arcane legal dancing on the head of a pin is not likely to weigh heavily on the troops in the field, who have now been given every reason to believe that since the rapes they committed up to now have been officially forgiven and forgotten, they can rape with impunity again. And indeed, as Dr. Mukwege testified before Congress just last week, the raping and sexual violence continues.
The war may stutter; the raping is unabated.
But the most absurd dimension of this whole discreditable process is the fact that the peace talks were “facilitated”–they were effectively orchestrated–by MONUC, that is to say, by the United Nations. And perhaps most unconscionable of all, despite the existence for seven years of another Security Council resolution 1325, calling for women to be active participants in all peace deliberations, there was no one at that peace table directly representing the women, the more than 200,000 women, whose lives and anatomies were torn to shreds by the very war that the peace talks were meant to resolve.
Thus does the United Nations violate its own principles.
But, as FPN rightly notes,
While voices like Lewis’ are most welcome, the reality is male-dominated governments and organizations they run are not going to stop this misogynistic carnage, it is the women that must speak out and take action.
Related: More from elle, Liss and Pizza Diavola, all of whom link to a number of other excellent posts that provide further information on the situation in the DRC, including this powerful and inspiring offering from SheCodes. Also see Sokari @ Black Looks (h/t Anxious Black Woman, who has also compiled a wide variety of must-click links on the subject), who notes the irony of Eve Ensler’s “visceral piece of writing” having been published in an inherently misogynistic venue like Glamour Magazine. Sokari also decries the vain hypocrisy of humanitarian ventures that “literally feed on the suffering of others, assigning guilt to victims whilst managing to remove their white selves, their corporate money and power from any responsibility in that suffering.”