Sexual Violence as a Catalyst for Judicial Reform in the Democratic Republic of Congo

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Haverford College. Department of Political Science
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In this thesis I explore the problem of widespread sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo as well as the historical and current culture of impunity and disrespect for rule of law in this Central African nation. I argue that these two significant social and political problems, while individually complicated and seemingly independent of one another can be addressed in tandem. While it may seem intuitive that impunity for sexual violence crimes cannot be addressed until the judicial structure is reformed, I argue that the international interest and advocacy for victims of the violence can be directed toward judicial reform, and the issue of sexual violence can be a catalyst for improvement of the judicial system. I urge international actors to focus their interest in sexual violence on the issue of judicial reform to address the crimes, and suggest that the international institutions present in DRC should use their leverage to pressure for improvement of the judicial system. Sexual violence has become widespread in Eastern DRC since the civil wars began in 1998. It has since become a broader social issue as the profile of perpetrators expands beyond militants to include civilians. One of the factors that has allowed for the spread of sexual violence is the impunity for such crimes, which has granted perpetrators confidence that they will not be held accountable for their assaults. Since this has led to the spread of the violence I argue that one of the most applicable and significant ways to address the violence is to address the impunity, through judicial reform. There is a significant history behind the culture of corruption and disrespect for rule of law in DRC. I argue that the history of exploitation through colonial leaders and dictatorships has framed the current lack of a functioning judiciary. It also explains the depth of distrust Congolese civilians have for their leaders and the state institutions including the judicial system. This is an important obstacle to overcome to enable Congolese citizens to participate in the justice system. I explain the importance of dealing with sexual violence cases locally, using Congolese courts instead of transferring the issue to an international body. This is because the two issues of sexual violence and judicial corruption at first seem independent of one another. However, I argue that the two can be dealt with together by using sexual violence cases, which are carefully monitored to avoid corruption, to reform the judicial system. To carry such cases through to completion, the institutions will need to be strengthened. As they are reformed and strengthened for these cases, they will maintain the necessary structural changes, so the court system will end up institutionally stronger. This will allow for improved confidence in the system, which will permit sexual violence victims to use the courts to hold their perpetrators accountable. Ending impunity in this manner will also dissuade some potential perpetrators from committing acts of sexual violence as there will be a system to hold them responsible for such acts. Sexual violence, therefore, can be a catalyst for judicial reform that will strengthen the judicial system in general, to allow for the imposition of the rule of law. The two seemingly hopeless, unrelated issues of sexual violence and judicial corruption can therefore be addressed in a cohesive, unified manner. I place the responsibility for instituting such reforms in the hands of international institutions such as the European Union (EU) and United Nations (UN), which are already deeply implicated in DRC's domestic affairs. Because these international organizations play such an important role in financing and training Congolese forces, and run intensive peacekeeping missions they are in a unique authoritative position over the government. I argue that they should impose anti-corruption reform by holding the Congolese government to strict conditionalities, and actually removing training and resources if the government fails to comply. While it is a potentially problematic situation for such international actors to participate so fully in domestic affairs, undermining sovereignty, I justify this by pointing to the invasive role these institutions already play in DRC's affairs. They will not be significantly increasing their involvement, only openly acknowledging their power if they use this involvement to force corruption reform. Furthermore, they will be meeting the needs expressed by Congolese activists and civilians. If the government respected its citizens' needs there would not be such urgency for undermining its sovereignty. As it is these international organizations have the power and the opportunity to meet the demands of Congolese civilians, promote anti-corruption judicial reform and make significant headway toward undermining the endemic sexual violence. Finally, I acknowledge the complication of the continuing war and the possibility of successful development projects during conflict. While it is understandable to question the utility of investing money to develop courts or prisons when they could be destroyed in the turmoil, I argue that promoting justice creates the possibility for alternative problem-solving besides armed conflict. Justice building is an essential part of creating peace in a weak society, it helps end conflict, deals with the trauma of conflict in a public sphere and helps prevent future conflict. Particularly in the case of DRC where sexual violence is linked to, but not exclusively a component of the war, it is essential to create institutions to deal with this problem and prevent its continuation. Thus it is not only acceptable to promote judicial reform simultaneous with the conflict, it can even help end this conflict.