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Protecting the Women of the Congo

Women in the Congo are suffering such horrific violence that "vaginal destruction" is now a local medical term. Where is the UN?
 
 
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Stephen Lewis, co-director of AIDS-Free World, delivered these remarks in New Orleans April 12, at the tenth annual V-Day Celebration.

Today is a day that has largely -- and rightly -- been given over to Dr. [Denis] Mukwege and his astonishing and heroic work in the Congo. (For those who may have missed his panel, he is, of course, the internationally famed doctor who heads the resolute and magnificent staff of the Panzi Hospital in Eastern Congo). Driving the work is the endlessly grim and despairing litany of rape and sexual violence. All of us assembled in the Superdome, talk of V-Day and The Vagina Monologues ; in the Congo there's a medical term of art called "vaginal destruction." I need not elaborate; most of you have heard Dr. Mukwege. But suffice to say that in the vast historical panorama of violence against women, there is a level of demonic dementia plumbed in the Congo that has seldom, if ever, been reached before.

That's the peg on which I want to hang these remarks. I want to set out an argument that essentially says that what's happening in the Congo is an act of criminal international misogyny, sustained by the indifference of nation states and by the delinquency of the United Nations.

Dr. Mukwege and others have said time and time again that the current saga of the Congo has been going on for more than a decade. It's important to remember that it's a direct result of the escape of thousands of mass murderers who eluded capture after the Rwandan genocide -- thanks to the governments of France and the United States -- by fleeing into what was then called Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The wars and the horror that followed have been chronicled by journalists, by human rights organizations, by senior representatives of the United Nations Secretary-General, by agencies, by NGOs internationally and NGOs on the ground, by the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs, by the Security Council, and in the process, accentuated and punctuated by the cries and the pain and the carnage of over 5 million deaths.

The sordid saga ebbs and flows. But it was brought back into sudden, vivid public notoriety by Eve Ensler's trip to the Congo in July and August of last year, her visit to the Panzi Hospital, her interviews with the women survivors of rape, and her visceral piece of writing in Glamour magazine which began with the words "I have just returned from Hell."

Eve set off an extraordinary chain reaction: her visit was followed by a fact-finding mission by the current UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs who, upon his return, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in which he said that the Congo was the worst place in the world for women. Those views were then echoed everywhere (including by the EU Parliament), triggering front page stories in the New York Times , the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times , and a lengthy segment on 60 Minutes by Anderson Cooper of CNN.

Largely as a result of this growing clamor against the war on women in the Congo, and the fact that Eve Ensler herself testified before the Security Council, the United Nations resolution that renewed the mandate for the UN Peacekeeping force in the Congo (MONUC, as it's called) contained some of the strongest language condemning rape and sexual violence ever to appear in a Security Council resolution, and obliged MONUC, in no uncertain terms, to protect the women of the Congo. The resolution was passed at the end of December last year.

In January of this year, scarce one month later, there was an "Act of Engagement" -- a so-called peace commitment signed amongst the warring parties. I use "so-called" advisedly because evidence of peace is hard to find. But that's not the point: the point is much more revelatory and much more damning.

The peace commitment is a fairly lengthy document. Unbelievably, from beginning to end, the word "rape" never appears. Unbelievably, from beginning to end, the phrase "sexual violence" never appears. Unbelievably, "women" are mentioned but once, lumped in with children, the elderly and the disabled. It's as if the organizers of the peace conference had never heard of the Security Council resolution.

But it gets worse. The peace document actually grants amnesty -- I repeat, amnesty -- to those who have participated in the fighting. To be sure, it makes a deliberate legal distinction, stating that war crimes or crimes against humanity will not be excused. But who's kidding whom? This arcane legal dancing on the head of a pin is not likely to weigh heavily on the troops in the field, who have now been given every reason to believe that since the rapes they committed up to now have been officially forgiven and forgotten, they can rape with impunity again. And indeed, as Dr. Mukwege testified before Congress just last week, the raping and sexual violence continues.

The war may stutter; the raping is unabated.

But the most absurd dimension of this whole discreditable process is the fact that the peace talks were "facilitated" -- they were effectively orchestrated -- by MONUC, that is to say, by the United Nations. And perhaps most unconscionable of all, despite the existence for seven years of another Security Council resolution 1325, calling for women to be active participants in all peace deliberations, there was no one at that peace table directly representing the women, the more than 200,000 women, whose lives and anatomies were torn to shreds by the very war that the peace talks were meant to resolve.

Thus does the United Nations violate its own principles.

Now let me make something clear. In the nearly twenty-five years that I've been involved in international work, I've been a ready apologist for the United Nations. And I continue to be persuaded that the United Nations can yet offer the best hope for humankind. But when the United Nations goes off the rails, as is the case in the Congo -- as is invariably the case when women are involved -- my colleagues and I, in our new organization called AIDS-Free World, are not going to bite our tongues. There's too much at stake.

What makes this all the more galling is that in many respects, the UN is the answer. Those of you who intermittently despair of ending sexual violence should know that if the UN brought the full power of its formidable agencies to bear, tremendous progress would be made despite the indifference of many countries. But therein lie cascading levels of hypocrisy.

You heard today about the collective UN campaign to end rape and sexual violence in the Congo -- twelve agencies united in this common purpose. But with the exception of some magnificent UNICEF staff on the ground, about whom Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF has every right to be proud, the presence of the other UN agencies ranges from negligible to nonexistent. This is all largely an exercise in rhetoric. Even the UN Population Fund, ostensibly the lead agency in the Congo, is pathetically weak on the ground, and on its own website talks of the problems of funding.

It does induce a combination of rage and incredulity when the UN tries to pawn itself off as the serious player in combating sexual violence when the record is so appallingly bad. In fact it could be said -- indeed, it needs to be said -- that the V-Day movement and Eve, relatively minuscule players by comparison, have probably done more to ease the pain of violence in the Congo than any one of eleven UN agencies. Who else, I ask you, is building a City of Joy so that the women who have been raped can recover with some sense of security and then become leaders in their communities?

Is there an answer to this collective abject failure of the international community to protect the women of the Congo? There sure is, and the answer sits right at the top, and the answer is the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

I don't know who is advising the Secretary-General on these matters, but he's being led down a garden path soon to be strewn with ghosts that will haunt his entire stewardship, and leave an everlasting pejorative legacy. I know how the UN works; I've been an Ambassador to the UN for my country, the Deputy at UNICEF, an advisor on Africa to a former Secretary-General, and most recently a "Special Envoy." In the incestuous hotbed of the thirty-eighth floor of the United Nations secretariat, where sits the Secretary-General, critics are scorned, derided and mocked. And exactly the same will happen to me. But I want all of you here assembled to know that it need not be.

If the Secretary-General were to exercise real leadership against sexual violence, instead of falling back -- as his advisors have suggested -- on statements and rhetoric and fatuous public relations campaigns, he could turn things around. What in God's name is wrong with these people whose lives consist of moving from inertia to paralysis?

The Secretary-General should summon the heads of the twelve UN agencies allegedly involved in "UN Action" on violence against women and read the riot act. He should explain to them that press releases do not prevent rape, and he should demand a plan of action on the ground, with dollars and deadlines. He should equally summon the heads of the ten agencies that comprise UNAIDS and demand a plan of implementation for testing, treatment, prevention and care for women who have been sexually assaulted, again with deadlines. I'm prepared to bet that UNAIDS has never convened such a meeting, despite the fact that the violence of the sexual assaults in the Congo creates avenues in the reproductive tract through which the AIDS virus passes. Dr. Mukwege talks of increased numbers of HIV-positive women turning up at Panzi.

The Secretary-General, taking a leaf from Eve Ensler, should insist on a network of rape crisis centers, rape clinics in all hospitals, sexual violence counsellors, and Cities of Joy right across the Eastern Congo... indeed, across the entire country. The Secretary-General should demand a roll call, an accounting of which countries have contributed financially to ending the violence, and in what amounts, plus those who have not, and then publish the results for the world to see so that the recalcitrants can be brought to the bar of public opinion (How's this for a juxtaposition by way of example: over the course of over a decade? The UN Trust Fund to end Violence Against Women has triumphantly reached $130 million. The United States spends more than $3 billion/week on the war in Iraq).

But there's more. The Secretary-General should launch a personal crusade to double the troop complement -- that is, MONUC -- in the Congo. The protection provisions in the new so-called peace accord, for women, cannot be implemented with the current troop numbers, large though they may seem.

And finally, the Secretary-General should pull out all the stops in getting the United Nations to agree that the Congo is the best test case for the principle of the "Responsibility to Protect." This principle was universally endorsed by heads of state at the United Nations in September of 2005. It's the first major contemporary international challenge to the sanctity of sovereignty. It simply asserts that where a government is unable or unwilling to protect its own people from gross violations of human rights, then the international community has the responsibility to intervene. That responsibility can be diplomatic negotiation, or economic sanctions, or political pressure or military intervention -- whatever it takes to restore justice to the oppressed. Responsibility to Protect was originally drafted with Darfur in mind -- it's equally applicable to the Congo. We have to start somewhere.

The Secretary-General has a tremendous challenge. He has the opportunity, and the wherewithal, and the influence and the majesty to save thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of women's lives -- physically and psychologically. And once the process begins in earnest in the Congo, it would spread to all dimensions of violence against women everywhere.

To whom else is such an opportunity given? The Secretary-General of the United Nations has said that violence against women is one of the gravest issues of our time. Well, if that's the case, surely he can understand that speeches aren't enough. And if he truly believes what he says, then let him stake his tenure on it. I believe that the struggle for gender equality is the most important struggle on the planet: Ban Ki-Moon should say to the 192 countries that make up the United Nations: "Either you give me evidence that we're going to prevail in this struggle or you find yourself another Secretary-General."

"Ah," people will say, "Lewis has finally lost it." I don't think so. We're talking about more than 50 percent of the world's population, amongst whom are the most uprooted, disinherited and impoverished of the earth. If you can't stand up for the women of the world, then you shouldn't be Secretary-General.

Alas, I guess I know what will happen. We've already had signals. Last fall, in an unprecedented initiative, a High-Level Panel on Reform of the United Nations recommended the creation of a new international agency for women. The recommendation was based on the finding that the record of the UN on gender has been abysmal. If the new agency comes into being, headed by an Under-Secretary General, with funding that starts at $1 billion a year (less than half of UNICEF's resources), and real capacity to run programs on the ground, issues like violence against women would suddenly be confronted with indomitable determination.

The women activists on the ground, the women survivors on the ground, the women activist-survivors on the ground would finally have resources and support for the work that must be done.

But the creation of the new agency is bogged down in the UN General Assembly, caught up in the crossfire between the developed and developing countries. The Secretary-General could break that impasse if he pulled out all the stops. He and the Deputy-Secretary General make speeches that give the impression they support the women's agency, but in truth the language is so carefully and artfully couched as to gut the agency of impact on the ground, in-country, were it ever to come into being. Again, the advisors read the tea leaves in a soiled and broken chalice.

This weekend has been filled with hope in the struggle to end violence against women. Thoughtful, decent men have come to the fore on this very platform, and women from so many countries have made the case for sanity in words that are moving and compelling in equal measure. I have chosen to link the Congo and the United Nations because as Eve said at the outset, the Congo is the V-Day spotlight for the coming year, and the United Nations can truly break the monolith of violence. We just have to apply unceasing pressure so that the issue is joined rather than manipulated.

I don't have Eve's rhythm and cadence. But I cherish a touch of her spirit, a lot of her anger and a microscopic morsel of her trusting love, commitment and courage that will one day change this world.

Stephen Lewis is U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa. In May 2003 he founded the Stephen Lewis Foundation to help women dying of AIDS in Africa and the orphans they leave behind.