Sexual violence against women is rampant in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) but the majority of perpetrators, especially in "no-law" zones, go unpunished, according to a UN independent human rights expert.
In South Kivu Province, for example, 14,200 rape cases were registered between 2005 and 2007 but only 287 were taken to court, Titinga Frederic Pacere, the UN Human Rights Council's independent expert on the state of human rights in the DRC, told reporters on 14 March.
He expressed concern over the human rights situation in the DRC, saying insecurity was almost everywhere, especially in the east, and state authority had not reached all areas.
Calling for the creation of an international jurisdiction for the DRC that would do more than just judging but also "scare", Pacere added: "If we have a court, warlords would be cautious."
Human Rights Watch (HRW) had urged the Council to intensify its engagement on "the neglected human rights crisis" in countries such as the DRC.
"The DRC still has to overcome serious and widespread human rights violations, including arbitrary arrest and detention of people linked to the political opposition in Kinshasa, the use of torture, and accountability for war crimes committed during the armed conflict," HRW noted in a statement issued on 3 March.
"Recent events in eastern DRC demand targeted action by the Council," it added. "A peace deal was reached in late January with the government and all armed groups in North and South Kivu, following a renewal of armed conflict in which more than 400,000 people were displaced, scores of civilians were killed or abducted, and widespread rape and looting and destruction of property occurred.
"That deal has seemed increasingly fragile in recent weeks, and the Council could play a crucial role by creating a separate mechanism to monitor the implementation of the human rights commitments contained in the agreement."
Weapon of war
Aid organisations working in DRC have decried the high incidence of rape and called for more action to combat it. According to Oxfam GB, rape and sexual slavery in DRC are used "as a systematic weapon of war", which has led to the rapid advance of HIV/AIDS.
Médecins Sans Frontières-Suisse has noted that since 2003, between 30 and 500 patients reported sexual assaults each month in Ituri. Panzi general hospital in Bukavu, South Kivu's capital, admits at least 10 victims of sexual assault daily, an average of 3,600 cases a year, according to its director, Denis Mukwege Mukengere. Since 2000, an estimated 16,000 victims of rape, some suffering from obstetric fistula, have been treated at the hospital.
Yakin Erturk, special rapporteur of the UN Human Rights Council on violence against women, has estimated that 4,500 cases of rape were reported in South Kivu in the first six months of 2007 alone, with many more going unreported. Sexual violence, she noted, was perceived as "normal" by local communities.
According to the UN World Food Programme: "Rape remains a daily threat for women in eastern DRC: in the fields, on their way back from market or in their own homes. Victims say all the armed groups are responsible."
Following a visit to the region in 2007, John Holmes, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, called for a response to the scourge.
"Despite many warnings, nothing quite prepared me for what I heard last month from survivors of a sexual violence so brutal it staggers the imagination and mocked my notions of human decency," he wrote in the Los Angeles Times on 11 October. "Sexual violence has been a particularly awful - and shockingly common - feature of the conflict in Congo."
According to analysts, sexual violence against women and girls is a facet of warfare that is often used as a weapon of terror to inflict physical and psychological damage. But in DRC, it is "systematic" and could be prosecuted as a crime against humanity or as a form of genocide.