Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues Melanne Verveer on Gender-Based Violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Special Briefing
Melanne Verveer
Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues 
Washington, DC
August 14, 2009

OPERATOR: Good morning. Welcome, and thank you for standing by. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode. During the question-and-answer session, please press *1 on your phone. Today’s conference is being recorded. If anyone has any objections, you may disconnect at this time.

Now I will turn the meeting over to Ambassador Verveer. Ma’am, you may begin.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Good morning, everyone. I am just back from having accompanied the Secretary of State to a visit to DRC, Congo, and in particular to eastern Congo, where she went to Goma and had an opportunity to assess the seriousness of the conflict there, particularly with the ongoing use of rape as a tool in that long-time conflict, and the toll that it is taking on the civilian population.

She had a meeting with President Kabila in Goma where she raised many of these issues with him. She went on to one of the camps where there are several thousands of people, mostly women and children, who have been driven from their homes through the use of rape and burnings and other means to dislocate them in the worst way. She then had a rather unprecedented discussion with many of the service providers and the Congolese on the ground who are dealing with the consequences of the long-term conflict there, and had a chance to meet with two of the survivors privately in a very – a really highly emotional discussion with them because it was so unspeakable, the kinds of brutality and atrocities that they have endured. And then she also had a chance to meet with the leadership of MONUC, the UN peacekeepers who are on the ground there, and get their assessment of the situation.

So I am happy to entertain your questions about both the specifics of the events that she participated in, the discussions, the ongoing need for engagement, and the specifics of the announcement that she made in terms of the package of assistance that the U.S. will build on in terms of our already several years of donor commitment there.

I am happy to take questions now, Operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We will now begin the question-and-answer session. If you would like to ask a question, please press *1. Please unmute your phone and record your name clearly when prompted. To withdraw your request, press *2. One moment, please, for the first question.

Our first question comes from Mr. Barry Schweid. Your line is open.



QUESTION: Hi, how are you?


QUESTION: The celebrated, if that’s the word, flap in Congo over whether the student was referring to Bill Clinton or to Obama – President Obama – does her, I think you’ll admit, super-sensitive response reflect the way women have been disadvantaged all these years? How much of that reflects, would you think, women’s issues and women’s rights?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, I don’t really want to get into that. I think it was – there was much ado about very little in terms of what I understand the coverage of that was back here. Having been in the room with her for that incredible discussion with young people, college students from Kinshasa who had a much – historic disadvantage that they were experiencing and were trying to prevail over their situation, who were living with great aspirations for the future, they wanted to have a heart-to-heart discussion with her and relate some of the issues as they saw them.

This whole question, I think, was a – very much a side event, and I don’t want to underscore it any further in terms of the kind of psychobabble, in my view, that has been read into it.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from (inaudible). Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ambassador, for this time. My question is actually from a rape counselor in Congo, and wanted me to relay this to you. I’ve done quite a bit of work there. Secretary Clinton indicated there were at least $17 million for rape victims, which is fantastic.

The question from the rape counselor is that he has been working with an NGO in a village, and the organization in Bukavu gave $2,000 to the village, but only $20 has reached victims due to administrative costs on the NGO. So my question is: What kind of checks and balances will you have in place for this $17 million? And thank you.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Yeah. That’s a very good question and one that has been raised with us as well. This was an announcement of new resources, and they are to go to multiple organizations, both international groups and groups on the ground. The recommendations for the need for greater assistance came directly from the organizations on the ground. The Congolese who are experiencing great needs, for example, at Heal Africa Hospital and Panzi Hospital, extraordinary needs for training for local physicians in very complicated surgical knowhow to deal with these cases of fistula that result from the rapes.

So we are aware that there has been some disappointment and speculation about the fact that the resources may not have, heretofore in the numbers that have been set out, gone directly to the folks on the ground. And we are making sure that in terms of the new amounts that have been announced by the Secretary, that they will go exactly for the needs set forward. But as you know, there is an ongoing look at how we spend our development dollars and how much goes to contractors, how much goes to the recipients. And that is part of a much bigger issue, but you have touched on a very specific local application of that bigger challenge.

QUESTION: Thank you for your response.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Candice Knezevic. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, this is Candice. I work with the Enough Project. And I wanted to ask – and we were very pleased to hear Secretary Clinton make, you know, quite a few public statements about not just addressing the needs of victims of sexual violence, but also tackling some of the root causes of the violence there in eastern Congo, and that specifically, she talked about the illicit trade and conflict minerals.

And so I wonder if you could just tell us a little bit more about what the Secretary’s plans are for getting at the conflict minerals trade and ensuring that profits are not flowing to armed groups and instead are actually benefiting the Congolese people?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, thank you for that question. It is true that these are known in many ways as conflict minerals because they have fueled the conflict to a great extent and resulted in both the profiteering and that by the armed groups, as well as the contributing, ongoing brutality.

Congo is very rich, DRC is very, very rich in mineral resources from colton that goes into cell phones and computers, et cetera, to tin, to gold, and so on. There is basically no regimen of regulations, accountability mechanisms, transparency, and that really needs to be set in place. The Secretary said that the world needs to take steps to help DRC regulate the mineral trade to make sure that these profits are not going to armed groups. I know that there is legislation that’s been introduced in the Congress in terms of how U.S. companies should ensure that the products that they trade in are not benefiting from the conflict minerals.

So there are many steps that can be taken, that need to be taken. I know there will be greater assessments made over the next weeks as to what more the United States can do on this. But you have certainly raised an issue that is very much part and parcel of this ongoing conflict and it’s a very serious one.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, we appreciate that and we’re happy to work with you in ensuring that some of those solutions are put in place.


OPERATOR: Our next question is from (inaudible). Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you, ma’am. My name is (inaudible). I work for (inaudible) my English. I came from Congo and I work for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

My question is about (inaudible), one of the (inaudible). So I was wondering when they can – village, (inaudible) to do their best to help them stop the fighting. So my question is: What is the United States – what are they doing to stop the fighting? Is there a change of policy or this (inaudible) of conflict? Because (inaudible), and stop those people who are fighting. I say that (inaudible) all, and other people. I don’t know what the Obama Administration will do to stop the fighting, but (inaudible) peaceful resolution of the conflict. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: I’m sorry. I only caught about a third of that. Is there someone who can – is it what the U.S. will do to end the conflict? Is that the gist of the question?

QUESTION: Yeah, the question is what the U.S. will do to end the conflict, because if I saw – I read Clinton well, she said they need to pursue it and keep those people who are fighting in the Congo, but they don’t believe in hearing those people, but they believe in resolution of a conflict between those people who are fighting who are not from the Congo. I say the (inaudible), who is (inaudible), to the negotiators for (inaudible) government, (inaudible) to the Congo.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: I know that – and I don’t know if you’re referring to the efforts that have been ongoing in recent weeks between President Kabila and his first meeting with President Kagame of Rwanda after, I think, a decade or maybe some 11 years. There is a recognition of the need for engagement with the leaders of the adjoining countries whose forces have also been part of this conflict, or at least the rebel groups who come from some of those places.

That, as you know, has resulted in some unintended consequences in terms of severe impacts of that military operation to go after the FDLR, some real serious atrocities that the FDLR have been engaged in, in terms of retaliation for going after them, as well as ongoing problems with the Congolese army and their participation in ways that have contributed to this as well.

And so a series of things have to happen to be sure. There has got to be maximum protection given to the civilians by all of those in a position to do that, including the peacekeepers there, including new efforts to train police, even women, to help in the protection that they have asked for, as well as really treating the problems of the Congolese army very, very seriously. It is well known for being one of the least disciplined, poorest paid in the world. Many of the soldiers have not received their salaries, which seem to stop at reimbursements in the top ranks and not filtered down. They have been part of the rampaging and pillaging.

The Secretary raised all of this with the president and others, and an ongoing recognition of what needs to be done both in terms of making sure that they’re not contributing agents in all of this. But this is a very complicated situation, needless to say. It is important to root out the armed groups. There has been some success at that in recent weeks, which was recognized even by the people on the ground, but there – but that is not to say that there aren’t ongoing, very, very serious atrocities being committed against the civilian population.

And the need for their protection and for actions on the corruption that’s going on, actions with respect to prosecution of those who are perpetrating the atrocities, commanders of the Congolese forces, there is the notorious five that have yet to be dealt with – all of this was raised, all of this will be continuing to be monitored and acted on, not just by the United States, but the United States obviously, in conjunction with the United Nations, and other nations. And these will be issues that will be raised in ways of further actions at the United Nations as well.

QUESTION: Thank you, ma’am.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from Brendan McKenna. Sir, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. My question somewhat follows on with the previous question. I’m wondering what the – what your thoughts are about the efforts of the International Criminal Court and its involvement in the conflict.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, as far as the ICC goes, to the best that I know, and I am not the final authority on this by any means, I understand that there has not been a charge against anyone in terms of the perp – the actions of engaging in rape and the kinds of atrocities that are committed against women before the court. There have been charges brought on other grounds, but clearly, this is of a level that also needs to be addressed and seriously addressed.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from (inaudible). Your line is open.

QUESTION: Good morning, Ambassador. Thank you so much. We had the pleasure of meeting in Washington several years ago on sex trafficking. And whether it’s in DRC or other places, I see a fundamental prob – or a question or challenge that needs to be addressed, and it kind of stems from the other question about the root cause. I feel like without addressing the root cause, which is, for the most part, social norms, value of women and how they’re looked upon and in certain – definitely in conflict areas like DRC – what’s being done to address the root cause and really change social norms in how people look at women and girls to change that from really grassroots-up and not top-down?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, that’s a very good question. And obviously, it’s a continuing big challenge. I think first and foremost that issues of sexual gender-based violence have got to get the kind of consideration in terms of seriousness that they represent. They are matters of criminality. They cannot be separated from our overall diplomatic engagement. As the Secretary said, what is happening in DRC is clearly crimes against humanity.

I think that until the perpetrators are prosecuted for their activities, it is going to be very hard to send a message that this behavior cannot continue. That’s why these cases that are pending, the very high-level operatives in the Congolese army who have engaged in these brutal rapes, et cetera, need to be brought to justice. And there has been some ongoing success as testimony is being taken from the women in terms of adjudicating cases involving lower-level soldiers, and those are beginning to be addressed in courts and justice meted out.

But it really needs to get at the high-ranking officers, military commanders. They need to be held accountable, and I think in the world of international diplomacy, we have to see these crimes for what they represent, and they need to be part of our overall diplomatic engagement. As you well know, the United Nations passed Resolution 1820, the Security Council resolution about a year ago, that acknowledged that these kinds of sexual violations against women are important matters of international law and security. And as such, I think we need to look further at how 1820 and comparable tools need to be empowered in a way, taken more seriously with the whole toolbox of actions that can be taken from sanctions or restrictions on travel, et cetera that can get to the heart of what is being perpetrated.

So I couldn’t agree more; this is a very, very serious issue. At its base, violence against women is about the low status and degradation of women. It is a matter of human dignity. And it truly does need to be viewed more seriously than it has been for us to get to the heart of the problem.

QUESTION: Thank you.

OPERATOR: Currently, there are no further questions. Again, if you’d like to ask a question, please press *1. One moment. We do have a call from (inaudible). Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thank you very much for the follow-up. Another concern that I’ve received from people on the ground is that the NGOs currently working there are changing their intervention domain, according to available funding. And I’m not sure I got this across in my first question, that there seems to be a huge amount of fraud going on. And are there specific plans in place to deal with this?


QUESTION: Thank you.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Obviously, there should be plans always in place to deal with a serious charge like that of fraud, and we will look into that as well as ensuring that the regimen that’s in place in terms of accountability and distribution of the resources goes to what is needed. It’s obviously always problematic when proposals chase resources in ways that skew the need. That’s why we have specifically, in this announcement, been very responsive to the needs that we had heard from the people on the ground.

But there will be a USAID assessment team. We will be having follow-up discussions on all of this, both the – to ensure that the resources are well applied and meet critical need, and also to ensure that the ongoing support that is taking place there is fulfilling of the kinds of deep needs that the people have.

QUESTION: For investigative journalists, is there a mechanism or a channel by which we can get accusations directly to you?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, I’m going to follow up on the question that you raised with the authorities and our development agency and others. You can come back to me at some point and I can relate to you what I know, but this is obviously – these are serious issues, and it is critical that the people who are in need – great need, I might add – beyond anything any of us can really appreciate in many ways, that they get the kind of assistance that our – that we are intending that they get. So there – if there is the diversion of funds, that’s a serious problem, that’s a serious charge, and we will look into it.

QUESTION: Thank you very much, and those of us who have worked there really appreciate you going there and seeing what’s really happening. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Our next question is from Karen Miller. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes, this is a quick question that – I just want to get your thoughts on this. Is there anything that you feel like – I guess follow-up or something that might have been a focus, but because of time, Secretary Clinton wasn’t able to look into, something more in terms of a global issue with women that you wished could have been explored further, that’s of critical importance outside of rape, that type of thing?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, you know that we have had ongoing communications with the people on the ground there, both with the service providers and the advocates, the activists, the Congolese activists. I think they will tell you, were you to ask them, that her coming to them and hearing from them directly was the first time anything like that had happened. While it would have been certainly better if we had had more time to engage in a lengthier conversation, she had heard – in the process of her being there and that discussion she had with them, she heard from them on a range of issues that have been problems affecting them.

And just since we’ve been there in the last 24 to 48 hours or so, I have already heard from many of them, both in terms of what it meant, clearly, that she came, but also in terms of their understanding, they have even greater lines of open communication. And there are an ongoing range of issues that have to do with the medical, health, trauma needs, issues of education are absolutely critical, and critical about the future of that place, the tremendous challenge, and of economic possibility, because without the ability to earn a livelihood, it is obviously very, very difficult to move forward.

So the conflict itself is very complicated, and first and foremost, has to be addressed, fundamentally has to be addressed and ended, because only that kind of closure will bring complete relief. But beyond that, serious questions about corruption and conflict minerals and the conduct of the forces that are engaged there and the many armed groups that are represented, all of that are big issues.

But certainly are the issues that affect the civilian population, and those came through loud and clear in terms of the health needs, the needs to heal after the kind of trauma that’s been endured, and then the ways that we can help support people landing back on their feet, so to speak, to be able to get their lives back together, to have their children educated, and to be able to chart a new course in terms of having the economic wherewithal to take care of themselves and their families. There is a big development challenge, and all of this got raised, and all of these issues were on the table.

OPERATOR: Our next question is from (inaudible). Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello. I’m sorry, can you hear me? Hello?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Yes, and this will have to be the last question.

QUESTION: Yes. Madame Ambassador, my name is (inaudible). I’m from Congo.


QUESTION: My question is this: One of the big problem that we having in the Congo --


QUESTION: -- is a lack of leadership at all level. And this is part of also, you know, the problem that the women are facing. Knowing that there is a lack of leadership, the government of President Kabila is weak -- so my question is how the U.S. Government is going to work in trying to help women – not only women to stop the conflict in this particular situation, knowing that the government is weak?

AMBASSADOR VERVEER: Well, that’s a good question, because I think the problems of governance are often underestimated in terms of the kinds of support that we bring. And in the discussions about accountability and regulations surrounding minerals, in terms of dealing with the corruption, in terms of dealing with the problems of the army --


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: -- the Secretary talked about the need for – if the Congolese Government wants to tap it, the opportunity she was making for us to provide, for the United States to provide technical support to begin to act on the kinds of things that the weak leadership is not acting on, to build the capacity through us and others who are willing to help with that to move the country forward. And I think that is very, very important, and certainly something that needs to be done.

And in the discussion that she had with the young people in Kinshasa --


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: -- this also came up as a very serious problem that the young people certainly went into at some detail. And as she said to them, ultimately, the future of the country is up to them and up to the citizens, obviously with support from the United States and others to help them achieve what they want to achieve for the country.

But the leadership is going to have to come from within. And what we can all do is help support that kind of process moving forward. But President Kabila seemed very interested in having and receiving the kind of technical support that would enable him and his government to be able to move forward on many of these fronts. And in truth, as you point out --


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: -- whether it’s for the women, the future economic viability of the country – it’s a very rich country with incredible resources.


AMBASSADOR VERVEER: But in order to get to the point where life can improve significantly, a lot has to be done along the lines that you pointed out, along the lines of governance.

QUESTION: Okay. Thank you, Madame Ambassador.

STAFF: This is the Public Affairs officer for the Office of Global Women’s Issues. I’m afraid we’ve run through all the time that we have available today, but I’d like to thank you all very much for joining us this morning.

OPERATOR: This does conclude today’s presentation. Thank you for your participation. Please disconnect at this time. Thank you.

PRN: 2009/823