The trial of 11 Congolese soldiers, those accused of raping dozens of women in the town of Fizi, South Kivu on New Year’s Day, is an encouraging first step in ending impunity for sexual violence in eastern Congo. It remains to be seen whether these trials will effectively punish all the perpetrators involved, from the commanding officer to the soldiers who committed the violations. But the fact that they are even taking place sends an overdue message that there will be repercussions for those committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Reports from journalists indicate that the 11 members of the Congolese army taken into custody and charged include Lt. Col. Kibibi Mutware, who is said to have ordered his troops to commit the atrocities, an allegation he denies. The trials are taking place over a 10-day period by a special mobile military court in the town of Barkara, neighboring Fizi. The BBC reported that the U.N. mission in Congo, the American Bar Association, and Lawyers Without Borders are assisting with the proceedings.
Sexual violence has been used as a weapon of war at an astonishingly high rate for over a decade in eastern Congo, with no accountability for those perpetrating these crimes. Abuses have been reported to be carried out by both foreign and Congolese armed groups, including members of the Congolese army who by profession are recruited to protect Congolese civilians. The fact that commanders or soldiers have been able to commit such grave atrocities as a means to intimidate or exert control over civilian populations with no action by the Congolese government until now is both shocking and unacceptable.
Military justice is an essential component to tackling the violent conflict that has been raging in eastern Congo for over a decade. Without military justice, incidents of mass atrocities and rape will continue unabated.
Civil society groups and human rights monitors should follow these trials closely to ensure that justice is delivered to those responsible. These trials could set a strong and legitimate precedent for ending impunity for acts of sexual violence and crimes against humanity, and as such, they will be important to follow.
Photo: A woman passes by Congolese soldiers (AP)