04/10/2013 13:23 BST | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

Despite Challenges, UN Security Council Cannot Miss Opportunity to Tackle Sexual Violence in Trip to Central Africa

Sexual violence has been a central feature of the conflicts that have raged through the region for decades. Thousands of men, women and children are affected each year in activities that constitute war crimes under the Geneva Conventions.


Today is the first of six days that a delegation from the UN Security Council is to spend in the Great Lakes region of Central Africa. The members are set to discuss the implementation of the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework Agreement that was signed in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 24th February 2013. As part of its stabilisation mission, the UN Security Council cannot miss the opportunity to bring special attention to the widespread atrocities involving sexual violence in the region. In doing so, however, it will face significant challenges.

Sexual violence has been a central feature of the conflicts that have raged through the region for decades. Thousands of men, women and children are affected each year in activities that constitute war crimes under the Geneva Conventions. Despite this, attempts by the international community to bring perpetrators to account have failed repeatedly.

The problem affects all states in the region but has been a particularly dominant aspect of conflict in the eastern Congo. Daniel Bekele, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Africa Division, commented: "Civilians in eastern Congo have suffered atrocities without end, but very few of those responsible are ever brought to justice." Tackling sexual violence must, therefore, be a priority for the UN Security Council delegation in its visits to the central African states.

Three particular points on the delegation's agenda provide ample opportunity to address the issue: the visit to an IDP (internally-displaced persons) camp in Goma, eastern Congo; the meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Kigali, Rwanda; and the meeting with Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and the African Union Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. There will, however, be challenges at each stage.

After meeting Congolese President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa in the early days of the trip, the delegation will travel to Goma, eastern Congo, where they will visit a camp established to house internally-displaced persons. Sexual violence is known to be rife in IDP camps yet to fully understand the extent of the problem, the delegation must make talking to the victims and documenting their ordeals a priority. This in itself is a difficult task. Hostility towards 'outsiders' reigns strong in many African communities and those individuals who do speak to UN personnel are put at risk of condemnation from their peers. IDPs are vulnerable enough as it is, without the additional risk brought in by the involvement of foreign organisation's personnel.

Following Goma, the group will move on to a meeting with Rwandan President Paul Kagame in Kigali. Here, the delegation needs to address the Rwandan government's support of the M23 rebel group which has committed countless violent and sexual crimes in the region. Human Rights Watch has argued that the UN Security Council should pass a resolution requiring that the Rwandan government end all support to the M23 group and impose sanctions on those senior Rwandan officials that choose to maintain support for the group regardless. Despite the obvious need for this pressure, the impetus does not seem to be strong within the delegation itself. Mark Lyall Grant, the British Ambassador who is co-heading the visit, has acknowledged the importance of the trip, and the significance of the its timing, but has not expressed any evidence of a keen desire to pressure problematic governments. He commented that the Security Council would be able to "put a little bit of pressure on all the governments . . . to come together and resolve some of these issues." Lyall Grant's comments are uninspiring, to say the least, and reveal the challenge of balancing and unifying the motivations of the delegation.

On their final stop in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the delegation will meet Ethiopian President Hailemariam Desalegn and the African Union Peace and Security Council to discuss the work of the International Criminal Court (ICC). This meeting presents a welcome opportunity to discuss the fact that the ICC does not have a strong record in recognising and prosecuting crimes of sexual violence. The most pertinent example of this was the ICC's trial of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo; despite a huge body of evidence detailing the acts of sexual violence committed by those under Lubanga's command, the charges were never sustained at trial, namely owing to problems in the collection of evidence. The Security Council should take this opportunity to address this problem in order that, in future cases, sexual violence is suitably recognised as the severe and atrocious war crime that it is. Unfortunately, however, the meeting is likely to be dominated by the upset of many states who see the ICC as deliberately targeting African leaders in its work, and, following recent expressions from Kenya, by the calls for African countries to withdraw from the Court altogether.

Finding solutions to these challenges is undoubtedly a challenge in itself. The delegation could seek the support of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) already operating in the IDP camps to reduce the risk of putting individuals in danger, but this in itself carries risks for NGO staff. In meetings with the Rwandan government, the delegation could highlight the punitive measures and sanctions available to it in the event of continued governmental support for rebel groups, but this risks fracturing the existing state of co-operation between the parties. Finally, the delegation could stress the importance of tackling sexual violence as a way of bringing some stability to the region in its Addis Ababa meeting, but the issues concerning the possibility of a mass African withdrawal from the ICC is likely to overshadow this, not least because of its immediacy.

The UN Security Council delegation, therefore, must approach its tasks in central Africa with caution: push the issue of sexual violence too much and it risks upsetting the relatively co-operative status quo, but fail to push the issue enough and the delegation becomes yet another international body that has failed the region's victims of sexual violence.