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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496