The estimable Eve Ensler has been doing yeo(wo)man’s work in calling attention to the horrific use of rape as a weapon of war in eastern DR Congo. Yesterday she wrote a forceful op-ed in The Washington Post on the subject, criticizing the UN for not doing more to implement a historic resolution passed by the Security Council last year that officially designates rape a war crime.

A few points: first, the passing of Resolution 1820 last year was itself an impressive accomplishment. That said, it was also embarrassingly belated. Rape has been a favored tactic of war criminals throughout history, and, morally at least, it has stood as a crime throughout.

Ensler is also right to bemoan the extent to which the promise of the resolution — an end to impunity for rapists, the widespread stigmatization of rape as a crime of the highest order, an eventual eradication of the practice — has been achieved in reality over the past year, particularly in Congo. Here, too, though, some perspective is in order. If it took the Security Council 60 years to classify rape as a war crime, it will prove even more difficult to enshrine this conclusion as a norm on the ground. This is not to excuse any delay in eliminating the climate of rampant rape that exists in places like Congo; but the reality is, in a world in which slavery, impressment of child soldiers, and genocide are still sadly prevalent, human rights norms can take a while to be realized on the ground. This is only more so the case in eastern Congo, where the world’s most appalling levels of rape make it arguably the most difficult test case imaginable for such an ambitious resolution.

Ensler is rightly incensed that a firm system of accountability is not in place to punish perpetrators of rape:

Rapes continue to be committed with near complete impunity. While the number of criminal prosecutions has risen marginally, only low-ranking soldiers are being prosecuted. Not a single commander or officer above the rank of major has been held responsible in all of Congo. Rapes by the national army are increasing, too.

I couldn’t agree more that more perpetrators, especially those in the higher ranks, need to be prosecuted. But to suggest, as Ensler does, that the UN should be doing the prosecuting misunderstands the confines within which the organization works. It is not mandated to conduct trials of Congolese citizens. That is the responsibility of a Congolese government that has, unfortunately, far too often turned a blind eye to rape conducted by its own soldiers and by the rebels it is combating.

Both the UN and other countries’ governments should be doing more to press the Congolese state to treat the crime of rape more severely. Resolution 1820 was a milestone. More important, as Ensler so passionately argues, is making sure that its potential is realized on the ground, in some of the worst places in the world to be a woman or girl.

(image from flickr user Julien Harneis under a Creative Commons license)

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