The author of this blog, Jessica Neuwirth, served as Coordinator of the UN High-Level Panel on Remedies and Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  This panel travelled across the Democratic Republic of Congo from 27 September to 13 October 2010, meeting with 61 survivors of sexual violence ranging in age from 3 to 61 years old in Bukavu, Shabunda, Bunia, Komanda, Mbandaka and Songo Mboyo.  Kyung-wha Kang, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, chaired the Panel, with Dr. Denis Mukwege, Medical Director of Panzi Hospital, and Elisabeth Rehn, Former Minister of Defense of Finland, serving as members. 

Their full report is available to view and download here


What is Justice for the Women of Songo Mboyo?

Songo Mboyo is a small remote village on the Congo river, located in the Bongandanga territory of Equateur Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo. On 21 December 2003, 119 women were raped by former rebel soldiers stationed near the village, awaiting integration into government forces.  The soldiers went on a rampage when they received payment in the amount of $4/soldier rather than the $6 they had been expecting, believing their commander had pocketed the difference.  In a rage, they burned and tore through the village of Songo Mboyo killing, looting, and raping.  One survivor described what happened as follows:

 They were shooting doors, forcing their way into houses – not only my house, the same thing happened to all the villagers.  They started looting the houses. I hid under the bed, taking my son with me. They found me under the bed, and I begged them not to kill me. They told me to come out from under the bed. They were heavily armed.  I begged them not to kill me. They told me to take off my clothes.  My son was crying. They threw me down on the bed, and tore off all my clothes.  I was naked, and they started to rape me. They smelled of alcohol, and they were drunk.  They did many bad things. I don’t know how many there were, there were so many.  When they started I knew there were three but then I lost consciousness. There was another woman and they were raping her. She was two months pregnant, and after the rape she lost her baby. All the women in the village were facing the same thing at that time. One soldier told me to run away. He said if I stayed they would kill me.[1]

News of this attack did not reach the outside world until many days later when a few of the survivors found their way to the provincial capital of Mbandaka where UN human rights officers were stationed. A preliminary investigation was done by the UN human rights team in the Congo, which led to a military investigation and trial in Songo Mboyo by a mobile court transported to the village by helicopter in 2006.  The trial resulted in the conviction of six soldiers for crimes against humanity.  The court also awarded damages to twenty-nine rape victims – $5,000 for each victim of rape, and $10,000 for the mother of one woman who had been eight months pregnant when she was raped and died as a result of the attack.  Not long after the judgment was rendered by the court, the soldiers who had been convicted escaped from prison. To date none of the women has received any payment from the government of the indemnities awarded to them by the court.

What is justice? The Songo Mboyo trial was lauded by many international human rights lawyers, as well as the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, as a great success – a triumph of justice and a historic judgment, the first conviction in the Congo for crimes against humanity. But the case is really more a failure of justice in various ways which call into question the very definition of justice as it is seen by the international community.  Of the 119 victims of this mass rape, only 29 women were awarded damages and saw their rapists convicted.  For the 29 women who did succeed in court, the escape of their rapists from prison soon afterwards and the failure of the government to pay them damages made them a laughing stock in the small village of Songo Mboyo. As one of these women explained:


According to the law and the judgment, we won the trial. The perpetrators have been condemned.  Now that judgment has been pronounced, the perpetrators should be arrested and the damage awards paid. But the perpetrators are free.  The soldiers arrested have escaped from jail and they have returned to the army. Now we are living in insecurity and cannot travel. After the trial the government promised to pay the damages, but the damages have never been paid.  We have been waiting since 2006.  Every time we see a helicopter we have hope, but this is a mockery.[2]

One of the women raped in Songo Mboyo, together with her mother, was blind. She became pregnant as a result of the rape and moved to another village because of the stigmatization she faced. Her mother subsequently passed away, leaving her with thoughts of suicide.   Some of the rape survivors from Songo Mboyo travelled to the city of Mbandaka for medical treatment after the attack and remained there.  They were housed together and when soldiers found out they were there, the soldiers came and threatened the women. One of the women who had been raped in Songo Mboyo was raped again by these soldiers.  Her husband, who witnessed this rape, left her afterwards telling her he could not have a wife who had been raped by the military.  Rejected and stigmatized, she had nowhere to go with her children and became a beggar in Mbandaka.

When in 2010 the UN high-level panel on remedies and reparations for victims of sexual violence in the DRC travelled to Songo Mboyo, they were met by frustration and anger from the women who had gone to court in 2003, as well as the women who hadn’t. Some of the 29 women who were granted damage awards by the court have died without having received the indemnity owed to them by the government. And there are a number of women in Songo Mboyo who filed charges ten years ago whose cases are technically pending because their rapists were never arrested.  One of them explained the frustration and anger these women feel:


The soldiers committed terrible atrocities.  They tortured our husbands, they looted the village, and they raped the women.  After these events, the military prosecutor came to investigate.  He said he would arrest all the perpetrators. But when they came with the court we realized very few perpetrators had been arrested and our perpetrators had not been arrested. We wondered why, from the huge battalion that committed these rapes, only twelve soldiers were arrested. Our perpetrators were not arrested, so how could we go hto the court? How are we as victims going to continue the legal process if they don’t arrest our perpetrators? After these events, all the women were so desperate.  They were suffering inside.  Some could no longer get pregnant, others were rejected by their husbands. How are we going to end that suffering?  When the judgment was pronounced, the victims in the process had won the trial. But the entire village was raped. So to take away the shame and to recognize the pain of each one of us, we should also have similar treatment.[3]


The legal framework in the Congo, as elsewhere around the world, focuses the quest for justice on the accountability of the perpetrator. While the conviction of rapists can play a critical role in the deterrence of rape, as well as retribution for rape, it is only part of the justice that many victims seek.  In the context of armed conflict, often victims of rape are unable to identify or unable to find the men who raped them.  In the Congo, desperate for justice, women have at times filed cases in court without the name of the man or men who raped them, but their cases are ultimately dismissed.  Without a perpetrator, these cases cannot be prosecuted under the law.  Still, women have filed their cases seeking simple official acknowledgment that they have been victims of terrible crimes in hope that their suffering will not go unnoticed.  As one rape survivor in Bunia said, “What does the President think about raped women because I have never heard any word from him mentioning this.”[4] A survivor in Mbandaka noted that no one has apologized for what happened to her and other women victimized by sexual violence. She thought such an apology would be helpful even “just to cool down their minds.”[5]

Beyond the acknowledgement that they have been violated, women who have been raped need medical treatment, psychological care and often shelter, particularly when they have been displaced from their home and marriage by a husband who blames them for having been raped and creates a second wave of damage that has significant material as well as psychological consequence.  For victims of sexual violence, reparation is a form of restorative justice that can be equally if not more important than retributive justice, i.e. criminal justice.

In 2005 the UN General Assembly adopted the Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law.[6]  These Basic Principles and Guidelines delineate the responsibility of states to provide effective remedies, including reparation, to victims of these violations. The Basic Principles and Guidelines further provide that a person shall be considered a victim regardless of whether the perpetrator is identified, arrested, prosecuted, or convicted.[7]


Reparation is defined by the Basic Principles and Guidelines as taking five forms[8]:

  • Restitution
  • Compensation
  • Rehabilitation
  • Satisfaction (including criminal justice, public apology, etc.)
  • Guarantees of non-repetition


The guarantee of non-repetition is what so many sexual violence survivors in the Congo highlight as their greatest need in the process of recovery. For them the restoration of peace and security is a precondition to any sustainable sense of justice.  Without it, the guarantee of non-repetition is impossible.

In this greater vision of justice, criminal justice is just one part, together with restitution, compensation, rehabilitation, and the promise of peace. Peace has been described by survivors of sexual as their “first prayer,” their “big dream,” and their “greatest hope,” and as one survivor put it when asked about restitution and other forms of reparation, “whatever you give me, if there is no peace it can be destroyed.”[9]  Reparation can be collective as well as individual – the building of schools or hospitals which bring benefit to the entire community, recognizing that the community as a whole has suffered harm. Individual and collective reparation are not mutually exclusive. In the Congo there are many women who have suffered greatly but are unable to access justice in their own cases through the legal system.  Their access to monetary compensation through indemnity awards is accessible only to those who can identify and secure the arrest of their rapists. This is certainly not justice.

The reparation needs of women victimized of sexual violence are greatly compounded by the stigma associated with sexual violence.  A woman displaced from her home by her husband needs a home as a result of stigmatization.  Similarly, her loss of income and inability to pay school fees and care for her children stems from the loss of her marriage as a result of stigmatization. Even more than financial resources, political will is needed to end the stigmatization of victims of sexual violence, to publicly shift the blame and shame from victims to their perpetrators, which is integral to reparation and the full realization of justice.

The Songo Mboyo trial has been followed by several other court cases that found solders and civilians guilty of rape and awarded indemnities to victims, none of which has been paid. Moreover, for every case tried there are thousands more that will never get to court.  There is no justice in the Congo for the rampant sexual violence, which is committed with systematic impunity.  Those in the United Nations and international human rights movement focus narrowly on prosecutions, a critical component of justice but one that will touch only a small fraction of sexual violence survivors if it touches anyone. A holistic and comprehensive vision of justice will serve women better than one focusing exclusively on criminal justice.

[1] Report of the Panel on Remedies and Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the High Commissioner for Human Rights, para. 112, pp. 34-35.

[2] UN Report of the Panel on Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the DRC, para. 116.

[3] UN Report of the Panel on Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the DRC, para. 117.

[4] UN Report of the Panel on Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the DRC, para. 66.

[5] UN Report of the Panel on Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the DRC,  para. 101.

[6] See Basic Principles and Guidelines on the Right to a Remedy and Reparation for Victims of Gross Violations of International Human Rights Law and Serious Violations of the International Humanitarian Law, A/RES/69/147/, adopted on 16 December 2005 (see par. 3d).

[7] Basic Principles and Guidelines, par. 9

[8] Basic Principles and Guidelines, par.18 to 23.

[9] UN Report of the Panel on Reparations for Victims of Sexual Violence in the DRC, para. 23.