Burundi + 2 more

Great Lakes: Press Conference by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour called today for a "dual track" approach to impunity targeting perpetrators as much as victims of abuses in Africa's Great Lakes region.

Responding to questions at a Headquarters press conference on her recent two-week trip to Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda, she called on leaders in the region to exercise "a strong voice of denunciation" regarding perpetrators of sexual violence.

She said that, while victims were stigmatized and socially ostracized, there was virtually no stigmatization of perpetrators. Attempts to accompany victims through local legal processes were undermined by local justice systems that were often corrupt and severely lacking in willingness and capacity to prosecute. National authorities must speak up and conduct investigations, even within the framework of their inadequate justice systems.

Earlier, she described as appalling the gender-based violence to which women and young girls were still subjected in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, particularly in the eastern cities of Bunia, Kisangani and Goma. National and international non-governmental organizations and United Nations agencies were carrying out "excellent" work in terms of medical assistance, including massive surgery to repair terrible physical damage. However, the same kind of effort was severely lacking in targeting perpetrators.

She said impunity had been the overall theme of her visit to the three countries, which had been aimed particularly at pressing Governments to address that subject. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, agreement had been reached on a "mapping exercise" to examine and analyse the massive human rights violations that had occurred between 1993 and 2003, the decade preceding the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

If nothing was done about those violations, they might be totally obscured by current events, she warned, adding that she had shared her findings with the Peacebuilding Commission yesterday and the Security Council earlier today.

Asked what would be done about militia leaders suspected of human rights abuses who been incorporated into national armed forces, Ms. Arbour said most of them had been upgraded in rank. That had further empowered them and they seemed to be continuing their predatory practices against civilians.

While many leaders of illegal armed groups were the subject of national arrest warrants, some dating back to 2002, the way to deal with them was "problematic", she said, suggesting serious vetting of such militia chiefs in terms of suitability to careers in the armed forces.

Asked whether any of them had been offered amnesty, the High Commissioner stressed the legal distinction between "de facto" and "de jure" amnesty, noting that de facto amnesty had placed many militia leaders totally beyond the reach of the law. Hopefully, the International Criminal Court could trump those locally granted amnesties, which were an enormous source of continued insecurity and "a very heavy price to pay" for the cessation of hostilities that passed for peace in the region.

Another correspondent asked about plans to establish properly staffed clinics for victims, to which Ms. Arbour replied emphatically that such programmes were out of reach, given the scale of the needs. Essentially, physicians were looking at very complicated fistula surgery to repair tears between bladders and intestinal systems and reproductive organs, sophisticated surgery that had not been performed in the region for decades. Given the very modest capacity, one was reluctant to think about what was happening in even more remote areas. The injuries were the result of extreme brutality, including gang rapes and the insertion of foreign objects. It was a tragedy on a scale that was very difficult to comprehend, and not just an affront to dignity but a form of torture.

For information media - not an official record