The world must wake up to the situation in Congo

Endemic rape, violence and rights abuses make creating an accountable national security service more

How have we got to a place in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo where more than 150 women can be gang-raped by rebels in a four-day brutal attack only an hour's drive from a UN base? It is traumatising simply reading the accounts, reported only this week, of what happened to ordinary people in a series of villages in Luvungi in the eastern part of the country at the beginning of the month.

The often understandable reaction to such extreme violence is to take a deep breath and shake one's head in disbelief. The response of all us should be extreme anger and outrage at such atrocities. This is not a one-off event outside of human understanding.

Rather, outrageous human rights abuses are a daily reality for many people in eastern Congo, but they are preventable if there were the serious political will to stop them.

Last year alone, 15,000 women and girls were raped in DRC, with many more sex attacks going unreported. More than 150 women in four days or 15,000 in one year? These are numbers that have somehow been normalised in this long-running crisis, one of the worst humanitarian emergencies in the world.

Since early 2009, the emphasis for the UN Mission and the Congolese army has been on its military offensive against the rebels accused of perpetrating this most recent attack. Protection of local communities at risk of rape has not reached the top of the agenda; in fact, the military operations have put ordinary people at greater risk of attack.

An Oxfam survey released in July this year found that women overwhelmingly felt less safe than last year, in large part due to widespread rape. In the survey, of 816 people living in 24 communities in eastern Congo, 60 per cent of those surveyed felt security had deteriorated, with women and boys feeling particularly at risk.

The uses of an army

While the UN investigation into the Luvungi attack announced this week is a positive move, the scale of this incident must be the final wake-up call to the rest of the world. More, much more, must be done by all to improve security for Congolese children, women and men.

Ordinary people are bearing the brunt of the conflict because of a basic failure by those who have the responsibility to protect them. Today, that means the UN mission and tomorrow the Congolese army.

Improving security requires root-and-branch reforms to the national army and police force, institutions now in disarray. Soldiers lack training and discipline, while sections of the army are themselves perpetrators of widespread abuse, including sexual violence.

The people we work with tell us that the Congolese army is living in pitiful conditions -- often deployed without rations, and with wages paid irregularly or stolen by commanders. Such living standards result in abuse and looting against citizens. All the communities surveyed by Oxfam said if soldiers were paid on time it would improve their security.

However, nothing can ever serve as an excuse for rape.

Only when accountable national security services, trained, paid, disciplined and supported, are deployed across the country will there be the possibility of a safe and secure DRC where people feel protected.

In the interim, the UN needs to do the job it's been given: listening and responding to the security needs of ordinary Congolese people, getting boots on the ground, and working with the Congolese government to get the national army ready for securing peace and security in the long term.

The world must realise that deep suffering is happening every day for ordinary Congolese, and it has to stop.

Marcel Stoessel is Oxfam's country director for the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.