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Remarks at the 10th Annual V-Day Celebrations

Remarks by Stephen Lewis, delivered at the 10th Annual V-Day Celebrations, New Orleans, LA.

Today is a day that has largely — and rightly — been given over to Dr. Mukwege and his astonishing and heroic work in the Congo. (For those who may have missed his panel, he is, of course, the internationally famed doctor who heads the resolute and magnificent staff of the Panzi Hospital in Eastern Congo.)  

Driving the work is the endlessly grim and despairing litany of rape and sexual violence. All of us assembled in the Superdome, talk of V-Day and the Vagina Monologues; in the Congo there’s a medical term of art called ‘vaginal destruction.’ I need not elaborate; most of you have heard Dr. Mukwege. But suffice to say that in the vast historical panorama of violence against women, there is a level of demonic dementia plumbed in the Congo that has seldom, if ever been reached before.

That’s the peg on which I want to hang these remarks. I want to set out an argument that essentially says that what’s happening in the Congo is an act of criminal international misogyny, sustained by the indifference of nation states and by the delinquency of the United Nations.

Dr. Mukwege and others have said time and time again that the current saga of the Congo has been going on for more than a decade. It’s important to remember that it’s a direct result of the escape of thousands of mass murderers who eluded capture after the Rwandan genocide - thanks to the Governments of France and the United States - by fleeing into what was then called Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The wars and the horror that followed have been chronicled by journalists, by human rights organizations, by senior representatives of the United Nations Secretary-General, by agencies, by NGOs internationally and NGOs on the ground, by the UN Office of Humanitarian Affairs, by the Security Council, and in the process, accentuated and punctuated by the cries and the pain and the carnage of over five million deaths.

The sordid saga ebbs and flows. But it was brought back into sudden, vivid public notoriety by Eve Ensler’s trip to the Congo in July/August of last year, her visit to the Panzi Hospital, her interviews with the women survivors of rape, and her visceral piece of writing in Glamour magazine which began with the words “I have just returned from Hell.” Eve set off an extraordinary chain reaction: her visit was followed by a fact-finding mission by the current UN Under-Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs who, upon his return, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times in which he said that the Congo was the worst place in the world for women. Those views were then echoed everywhere (including by the EU Parliament), triggering front page stories in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and a lengthy segment on 60 Minutes by Anderson Cooper of CNN.

Largely as a result of this growing clamor against the war on women in the Congo, and the fact that Eve Ensler herself testified before the Security Council, the United Nations resolution that renewed the mandate for the UN Peacekeeping force in the Congo (MONUC as it’s called) contained some of the strongest language condemning rape and sexual violence ever to appear in a Security Council resolution, and obliged MONUC, in no uncertain terms, to protect the women of the Congo. The resolution was passed at the end of December last year.

In January of this year, scarce one month later, there was an “Act of Engagement” — a so-called peace commitment signed amongst the warring parties. I use ‘so-called’ advisedly because evidence of peace is hard to find. But that’s not the point: the point is much more revelatory and much more damning.

The peace commitment is a fairly lengthy document. Unbelievably, from beginning to end, the word "rape" never appears. Unbelievably, from beginning to end, the phrase ‘sexual violence’ never appears. Unbelievably, “women” are mentioned but once, lumped in with children, the elderly and the disabled. It’s as if the organizers of the peace conference had never heard of the Security Council resolution.

But it gets worse. The peace document actually grants amnesty — I repeat, amnesty — to those who have participated in the fighting. To be sure, it makes a deliberate legal distinction, stating that war crimes or crimes against humanity will not be excused. But who’s kidding whom? This arcane legal dancing on the head of a pin is not likely to weigh heavily on the troops in the field, who have now been given every reason to believe that since the rapes they committed up to now have been officially forgiven and forgotten, they can rape with impunity again. And indeed, as Dr. Mukwege testified before Congress just last week, the raping and sexual violence continues.

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