On June 18, 2023, for the International Day for Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, the U.K. government imposed targeted sanctions on several individuals involved in conflict-related sexual violence (CRSV) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The targeted sanctions, the Magnitsky sanctions, include freezing orders and travel bans. An asset freeze prevents any U.K. citizen, or any business in the U.K., from dealing with any funds or economic resources which are owned, held or controlled by the designated person. A travel ban means that the designated person is refused leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom. Among those sanctioned are two militia leaders in the DRC for violating international humanitarian law by commanding groups to carry out acts of sexual violence, Désiré Londroma Ndjukpa and William Yakutumba.
Désiré Londroma Ndjukpa has been involved in violations of international humanitarian law in the DRC, including rape, mass rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, through his role as a leader of the Cooperative for the Development of the Congo. William Yakutumba has been involved in the commission of violations of international humanitarian law in the DRC, including rape, mass rape and other forms of sexual and gender-based violence, through his role as leader of the armed Mai-Mai Yakutumba rebel group. In December 2022, both individuals were also sanctioned by the European Union, among others individuals implicated in serious human rights violations in the DRC, with an asset freeze and a ban on entering European territory.
Imposing such sanctions on individuals involved in CRSV is a powerful tool, especially where other avenues for justice and accountability are not available or severely hampered, as in the DRC.
The use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in the DRC has a long history stemming from colonial occupation. After DRC gained its independence in 1960, sexual violence was included as a method of torture by the Mobutu government but was not prevalent. It is in the mid-1990s that rape became, again, a common occurrence and tool to torture. This wave of atrocities coincides with DRC seeing an influx of foreign, multi-ethnic génocidaires from Rwanda and Uganda, who brought their violent extremist ideology with them and spread crime across DRC, including killings, abductions, rape and other forms of sexual violence. However, while Hutu militants were responsible for some of these atrocities, the government military is not without blame. This violence continued despite the end of the two wars. This ongoing violence was perpetrated by several actors, including M23, a Tutsi-based rebel group supported by foreign governments.
The use of sexual violence in DRC continues to this day. For example, in 2020, the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) documented 1,053 cases of conflict-related sexual violence, affecting 675 women, 370 girls, three men and five boys. In May 2023, medical professionals working in eastern DRC reported that sexual violence in the region is “catastrophic” in scale. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) indicated that during a period of two weeks in April 2023, in camps for displaced people around Goma, the provincial capital of North Kivu, they treated more than 674 girls and women (on average 48 victims per day) for sexual violence. According to their reporting, between April 17 and 30, 2023, MSF teams treated 314 victims of sexual violence in Bulengo, Lushagala, Kanyaruchinya, Eloime, and Munigi camps, and 360 in Rusayo—one of the newest and most densely populated camps, west of Goma. In Rusayo, Bulengo, and Kanyaruchinya, more than half of the survivors reported being attacked by armed men. MSF made it clear that those who seek care for sexual violence likely represent only a fraction of the true number of victims as MSF is not present in all camps. Furthermore, there are many other barriers to seeking care, including stigma.
As CRSV in the DRC is ongoing, more needs to be done to ensure that all the crimes are investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice, both for historic and most recent crimes. However, as it stands, despite some investigations and prosecutions, impunity for CRSV in the DRC is rampant. This ongoing impunity will beget further crime as it sends the outrageous message that one can get away with rape. The international community must work together to combat this impunity, including using the principle of universal jurisdiction to prosecute the perpetrators. Where not possible, targeted sanctions must become the standard response used against every perpetrator. However, at the same time, other options must be pursued until justice and accountability become the norm.