Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege is awarded for his fight against sexual war crimes. But what follows from this?
According to his own information, Mukwege’s foundation treats 2,000 to 3,000 people – per year Photo: Norwegian Church Aid / AP
What new can Congolese Denis Mukwege say when he receives the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Dec. 10, along with Iraqi Yezidi Nadia Murad? For the gynecologist who has saved tens of thousands of victims of sexualized war crimes at Panzi Hospital in Bukavu, it will be the 22nd international honor in ten years. But what does it actually accomplish?
"The number of victims of sexual violence reaching the hospital has been 2,000 to 3,000 people a year since 2014," Mukwege’s foundation lets us know. In 2018, the number is rising, he adds. Eastern Congo is experiencing "a resurgence of sexual violence, including mass rape."
The thin words do not reflect what doctors and human rights organizations in parts of Congo have persistently documented for more than two decades: The baby torn apart and discarded like bloody garbage. The old woman who was crucified and gang-raped until she died. The eleven-year-old girl who was mutilated until she begged for death, her cut left breast in her hand. Torture with sticks, knives, scythes, mortars, rifle butts.
"This should not be thought of as a side effect of war," Medecins Sans Frontières wrote back in 2004, adding that there was an "intention" on the part of all violent actors to "terrorize, punish and humiliate communities perceived as supporting the enemy."
A chamber of horrors full of freaks?
In 2003, British doctor Lyn Lusi, who set up treatment for victims of sexual war crimes in eastern Congo’s other major metropolis, Goma, categorized these crimes: Ambushes by Rwandan genocidal militiamen who maintained their power through terror after fleeing to Congo; rape by gunmen who commandeered girls from the next village to carry loads; forced sex with soldiers in return for supplies; robbery; rape within the family circle; defilement of young children by men seeking immunity to AIDS.
Today, in 2018, it is fair to ask what actually follows from all this evidence. The focus on horror has drawn attention to Congo, but relegated it to a special category: a chamber of horrors full of freaks, with no relevance to the rest of the world.
The focus on horror has drawn attention to Congo, but relegated it to a special category
Some activists, including Denis Mukwege, try to overcome this by emphasizing economic connections: Greed for raw materials promotes violence, they say, and because coltan from eastern Congo is in all the world’s phones, the world is complicit in the crimes.
However, access to a mine in Congo is not gained by raping women, but by occupying the mine and obtaining the necessary papers through the right contacts. And the zones with the most sexualized war crimes in Congo are not the mining areas, but those with the largest presence of fugitive genocide fighters from the Rwandan militia FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) and their armed local opponents who copy FDLR methods for revenge.
The acts go unpunished internationally
The international dimension is the international inability to end impunity for it. There is still no legally binding rape verdict from the International Criminal Court in The Hague, and the many thousands of UN blue helmets in eastern Congo are no protection from a local perspective.
When the verdict was handed down in 2015 after a four-year trial against two FDLR leaders living in Germany, the Stuttgart Higher Regional Court expressly disregarded all the testimony of Congolese victim-witnesses and also dropped the accusation of rape against the FDLR. The reason: The women had to be so strongly protected from the FDLR in Congo and anonymized that it was no longer possible to verify their statements.
For lack of evidence, the court then also found itself unable to classify the FDLR crimes as crimes against humanity – that is, as an "extended or systematic attack against a civilian population." The Federal Supreme Court will decide in a few days whether that was correct.
This is not an isolated case. When the International Criminal Court arrested FDLR leader Callixte Mbarushimana, who lives in France, in 2011, the Pre-Trial Chamber did not allow the indictment because the victim witnesses were not credible. They were not heard. Their complaint was dismissed because it was 31 pages long and only 20 pages were allowed.
They should be ashamed
Mbarushimana, who has since been released, headed the local office of the UN Development Program (UNDP) in Kigali during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In this capacity, according to survivors documented by Rwanda Tribunal investigators, he allegedly used UN infrastructure to track down and kill Tutsi UN personnel.
A witness hiding in a tree testified that a group of Hutu militiamen led by Mbarushimana searched for a particular "Tutsi bride" and, when they found her, shouted, "Let’s see what a Tutsi’s private parts look like," before dragging her inside. When they came back out, Mbarushimana reportedly said, "We did a good job."
Mbarushimana remained employed by the UN. When Rwanda later issued arrest warrants for him and he was arrested at the UN mission in Kosovo, his extradition failed on a technicality. He won $45,000 in compensation from the UN and shortly thereafter became FDLR’s chief financial officer.
Perhaps Denis Mukwege will now denounce impunity in Oslo. Then the big names of the international community will applaud. They should be ashamed of themselves.