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Monday, 21 February 2011
Page: 841

Ms BURKE (8:35 PM) —I have moved, with pleasure, this motion on the devastating humanitarian situation taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At the outset, I would like to thank Mark Clarke from the Office for Justice and Peace in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne, who first brought this issue to my attention. Mark has been working with the Melbourne Congolese community to bring attention to the humanitarian disaster occurring in their country of birth, a disaster that is being driven by the incredible wealth derived from the mineral resources of that country. Mark is a persistent individual. I first put this motion on the books in 2009, so I am finally thanking the House for getting it up and thanking Mark for not getting off my back to see that it finally happened. I would like to have been thanking Clovis Mwamba from the Congolese community of Melbourne for being present. Sadly, Clovis is still in the air because his plane has been delayed, but the Congolese community of Melbourne is very thankful that people within the Australian parliament have finally heard their pleas, and this will be getting wide coverage within the community.

Since 1996 the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been embroiled in the deadliest conflict since World War II. It has been devastated by various wars, which have resulted in widespread humanitarian rights violations and the intervention of multiple armed forces and armed non-state actors from other countries in the region. It is estimated some 5.4 million people have died from the ravaging effects of the war and its aftermath, with 45,000 perishing each month, mainly from hunger and disease, in a country that has incredible wealth. Furthermore, more than one million people have been displaced. Worse still, armed groups routinely commit acts of rape and violence against Congolese women and girls.

While we have seen in recent days some progress in this area, there is still much to do. While we have seen issues being taken up in recent times, and some legal proceedings, it is still true that the quelling of mass rapes by armed combatants in Congo needs to be dealt with. The UN have noted that their peacekeeping mission is still absolutely essential, and deep concerns remain about the insecurity, violence and humanitarian rights violations taking place in the DRC.

The mismanagement and illicit trade of extractive resources from the country has been a prime cause of the atrocities and conflict. International companies investing in the Congo are interested in the resource extraction sector. Indirectly, this investment is fuelling competition and conflict between armed groups, which has been the driving force behind the atrocities and conflict which has marred the DRC throughout its history. The Congo’s vast natural recourses are financing multiple armed groups that target the local population, particularly in the eastern Congo. These groups operate with different agendas. Some are purely criminal while others have political foundations. The one thing they have in common is the atrocities they commit against Congolese civilians, with rape and other forms of violence used to suppress the local population. As the UN has noted, continual vigilance is required to ensure that individuals and entities buying minerals from eastern Congo establish whether or not the minerals are controlled or taxed by illegal armed groups. It is ethically and legally imperative that minerals known to originate—or suspected to originate—from illegal armed groups are denied trade or purchase. Any trade involving the Congo’s natural resources which empowers the militias must be condemned and those responsible for engaging in such behaviour must be held accountable.

Mass rape is deployed as a deliberate strategy by armed militias to intimidate and control Congolese communities, as the militia groups profit from the illicit trade in these minerals. Eastern Congo is frequently referred to as the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman or a girl. In 2008 Major General Patrick Cammaert, former UN deputy force commander, described the situation for women in the DRC: ‘It is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a solider right now.’ Rape is used as a form of intimidation in these areas. Once a woman has been raped, generally her husband disowns her and she is left to indelible poverty. It is a tool to intimidate, control, terrorise and humiliate communities. Furthermore, the few women and girls who have had the courage to identify their rapists rarely see prosecutions. To quote Anneke Van Woudenberg from Human Rights Watch:

In Congo, if someone starts an armed group or kills people, they have a better chance of becoming a senior minister or a general than being put behind bars.

Perpetrators of rape and sexual violence must be held accountable and punished for their horrific crimes.

The first round of presidential and parliamentary elections in the DRC will be held in November this year. There are already reports of oppression of human rights activists, including illegal arrests and the death of a prominent activist in highly suspicious circumstances. We need to keep an eye on these atrocities. Keep in mind that this is a country in need of our protection; we cannot leave it off the radar.