The Democratic Republic of Congo must prosecute soldiers and armed groups who have raped on an unprecedented scale and should set up a meaningful fund to compensate victims, the United Nations said on Thursday.
A U.N. investigative panel said widespread impunity enjoyed by gunmen and security forces had led to an increase in sexual violence committed by civilians.
The panel called for a change in culture in Congo, where raped women or girls rather than the perpetrators are blamed, and often rejected by their spouses and communities.
"While there is no way to erase the harm that has been suffered by victims, addressing their losses is the starting point for reparations," the report issued by the U.N. human rights office in Geneva said.
"Rape on an unprecedented scale in DRC is a product of the war, and women are collectively suffering harm as a result."
Congo's justice and human rights minister, Luzolo Bambi Lessa, said his government had a zero-tolerance policy on rape, but needed international help to finance a compensation fund.
"We are convinced there is no peace without justice and no justice without reparations," he told a meeting where the report was presented. "But we in the ministry have no resources."
He blamed Ugandan rebels of the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) for much of the latest sexual violence in his country.
"This scourge is now due to the members of the LRA who have been pushing back from the eastern province where they are still spreading death and violence among Congolese women and girls."
VICTIMS AGED 3 TO 61
The U.N. panel, which carried out its investigation in the former Zaire from Sept. 27 to Oct. 13, met 61 sexual assault victims ranging from a girl raped when she was 3 years old to a 61-year-old grandmother. Four males were among them.
Most victims were in troubled, mineral-rich eastern Congo, including North and South Kivu provinces, where violence simmers eight years after the last war officially ended.
"The Kivus are rich in mineral resources, illegal exploitation of which has made the provinces a zone of violent rivalry among armed groups," the report said. "Rape is seen by all as a tool and consequence of this conflict."
The United Nations has called Congo the rape capital of the world. An estimated 200,000 women have been raped there during the past 12 years of conflict, it says.
A military court in Congo last month convicted nine soldiers of the mass rape of more than 50 women in the east and imposed prison sentences of up to 20 years.
The case, which led to the conviction of commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Kibibi Mutware, was seen as a test of the readiness of Congo's judicial system to hold gunmen accountable.
Congolese rape victims face daunting obstacles in trying to obtain justice, including longs distances to courts, costs of filing complaints and the lack of effective legal aid, according to Navi Pillay, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
"Even the few victims who achieved a conviction have not been paid the damages awarded by the courts," Pillay, a former U.N. war crimes judge, said.