UNITED NATIONS - The UN rights chief urged Democratic Republic of Congo authorities to "fight against impunity for crimes of sexual violence," as she presented Wednesday the latest UN report on the scourge.
The United Nations documented 3,635 victims of sexual violence in DR Congo between January 2010 and December 2013, and nearly three-quarters of the victims were women, according to the new report from the UN joint human rights office.
Sexual assaults are often vastly underreported by victims or are hard to document. Previous tallies from Congolese government have been far higher, with 15,352 cases counted in seven provinces in 2013, alone.
Rights chief Navi Pillay hailed progress by DR Congo in the area of military justice for sexual assaults, but added "there is still a long way to go" and the political will -- when it exists -- "is not sufficiently translated on the ground."
She called on Congolese authorities to "promptly complete effective and independent investigations, and to prosecute alleged perpetrators, including those suspected of having command responsibility."
The report also recommended authorities provide free legal aid to the victims, create a reparation fund, and adopt a law protecting victims and witnesses -- who often face threats and intimidation.
Just over half the rapes documented in the UN report were committed by members of armed groups that operate in eastern DR Congo. The remainder were attributed to state agents, including soldiers in the military, or FARDC, who were implicated in around one in three rapes.
But members of armed groups nearly always escape justice, and prosecutors rarely charge high-level FARDC officers: of 136 soldiers convicted during the 2010-2013 period, only three were high level officers.
In total, just 187 people were convicted of sexual assaults by military tribunals. They were given sentences ranging from 10 months to 20 years.
Meanwhile, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said that the persistent security concerns in eastern DR Congo are an aggravating factor for the rape crisis.
The Congolese government needs to restore its authority, to "fill the vacuum" as soon as any part of the territory is freed from the grip of armed groups, Ladsous said.
The publication of this report coincides with a trial of Congolese soldiers prosecuted for a November 2012 incident in Minova, in eastern DR Congo, for mass rape, murder and looting. The public ministry Monday asked for life sentences for most of the 39 accused.
UN urges DR Congo to tackle impunity for rapes