Fighting Impunity: The Role of Sanctions in Ending Conflict in Congo


Editor's Note: This post was written by Enough Project intern Ann Anosike.

For nearly two decades, eastern Congo has been vexed by widespread violence and atrocities that threaten regional stability. Armed groups continue to use rape as a weapon of war and force children to fight as soldiers.

One woman’s story, as reported by the BBC, typifies some of the brutality that has become all too common. 28-year-old Florence was raped along with five other women on the side of the road after their vehicle was stopped on its way from Bukavu. They were then taken into the forest where they were barely fed and were stripped of their clothes. Florence says she was raped daily by two soldiers for two months. When she finally returned home her husband divorced her immediately, and as a result of the sexual abuse she now suffers from abdominal pains. Unfortunately, Florence’s story is not an unfamiliar one. Thousands of women continue to be violated in eastern Congo. Most of these women receive no justice for the crimes committed against them, and they carry with them the stigma of the ordeal. 

Children are also extremely vulnerable in the conflict. The 5th Report on Children and Armed Conflict stated that there has been 42,000 cases of child recruitment by armed groups and the Congolese army. Children are physically and psychologically tortured, forced to kill, and subject to sexual violence.

The plight of women and children in eastern Congo has not received the urgent response it needs, which has facilitated widespread impunity. This culture of impunity allows perpetrators to continue their violations against vulnerable civilians.

On September 17th, the UN Security Council heard presentations from Zainab Bangura, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, and Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, detailing “alleged violations of the sanctions measures imposed by Resolution 2136.” Resolution 2136 strongly condemns all armed groups, individuals, and entities perpetuating the conflict in eastern Congo. These armed groups include the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), the M23 (now dissolved), the Lord’s Resistance Army, and various Mai Mai groups. Many members of these groups are deeply involved in the lucrative trade of conflict minerals - especially gold - and in planning, directing and participating in war crimes and crimes against humanity including child soldier recruitment, rape, and sexual enslavement. Resolution 2136 calls on armed groups to “immediately cease all violence, disband permanently and demobilize children from their ranks.”

During their presentation to the Security Council, Special Representatives Bangura and Zerrougui called for targeted sanctions to be placed on individuals who are “operating in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and recruiting or using children in armed conflict in violation of applicable international law; and those involved in planning, directing, or participating in the targeting of children or women in situations of armed conflict, including killing and maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, abduction, forced displacement, and attacks on schools and hospitals.” The terms of these sanctions include assets freezes and a travel bans on listed individuals. Sanctions on such perpetrators help combat the culture of impunity by holding the guilty accountable, allowing the survivors and their communities the opportunity to move forward and sending a clear message that violence against women and children will not be tolerated. Fighting impunity is critical for redirecting the repercussions of sexual violence and child recruitment away from survivors to perpetrators.

The Special Representatives’ call for sanctions complements other components of peace building and accountability measures in play in the region, including military justice, reconciliation measures, especially for ex-combatants re-entering their communities, and military operations against armed groups.

Sanctioning individuals aims to cripple the perpetrators’ ability to finance and perpetuate the conflict. In 2011, a worldwide travel ban and assets freeze was imposed on Ntabo Ntaberi Sheka, the political leader of a Congolese Mai Mai militia group who “planned and ordered mass rapes in Walikale, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo” aimed to limit his ability to continue his violent campaigns.

Sanctions against armed groups who are known to recruit children and commit sexual violence should be accompanied by additional sanctions on individuals who exploit Congo’s natural resources, particularly gold. Much progress has been made toward limiting the smuggling of the 3T minerals - tin, tungsten, and tantalum - but gold remains a significant source of funding for armed groups and the Congolese army. The FDLR and other armed rebel groups use the profits made from conflict gold to acquire more arms used to perpetuate the violence in the DRC. Sanctions on local and regional gold smugglers will help limit illicit gold and mineral trades and contribute to a sustainable peace in Congo.

Photo: Jacqueline, a Congolese survivor, sits in a Safe House in eastern Congo. Rebecca Freely