Congo must prosecute rapists, help victims: U.N.

GENEVA Thu Mar 3, 2011 11:26am EST

GENEVA (Reuters) - The Democratic Republic of Congo must prosecute soldiers and armed groups who have raped on an unprecedented scale and should set up a meaningful fund to compensate victims, the United Nations said on Thursday.

A U.N. investigative panel said widespread impunity enjoyed by gunmen and security forces had led to an increase in sexual violence committed by civilians.

The panel called for a change in culture in Congo, where raped women or girls rather than the perpetrators are blamed, and often rejected by their spouses and communities.

Victims of sexual violence deserve better access to medical care, psychological counseling and legal recourse, including indemnity for their suffering, it said in a report.

"While there is no way to erase the harm that has been suffered by victims, addressing their losses is the starting point for reparations," the report issued by the U.N. human rights office in Geneva said.

"Rape on an unprecedented scale in DRC is a product of the war, and women are collectively suffering harm as a result."

The panel, which carried out its investigation in the former Zaire from September 27 to October 13, met sexual assault victims aged three to 61 years old, including four males.

Most victims were in troubled, mineral-rich eastern Congo, including North and South Kivu provinces, where violence simmers eight years after the last war officially ended.

"The Kivus are rich in mineral resources, illegal exploitation of which has made the provinces a zone of violent rivalry among armed groups," the report said. "Rape is seen by all as a tool and consequence of this conflict."

The United Nations has called Congo the rape capital of the world. An estimated 200,000 women have been raped there during the past 12 years of conflict, it says.

A military court in Congo last month convicted nine soldiers of the mass rape of more than 50 women in the east and imposed prison sentences of up to 20 years.

The case, which led to the conviction of commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Kibibi Mutware, was seen as a test of the readiness of Congo's judicial system to hold gunmen accountable.

The U.N. team met sexual assault victims who had contracted HIV/AIDS, become pregnant and had children as a result of the rape, suffered damage to their vagina or other organs, and been ostracized, according to their 55-page report.

Yet the needs of the victims of sexual violence are largely unmet, particularly in remote areas, their report said.

Kyung-wha Kang, Deputy U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, chaired the panel whose other members included former Finnish defense minister Elisabeth Rehn.

Victims' testimony was recorded for "archival purposes."

An unnamed victim in the Kivu region was quoted as saying: "... you can go back to your village and grow your crops. And when they are ripe and ready for harvest, they come to take the crops. And when they come they don't only take the crops. They also shoot, they kill, they burn. They also rape."