Abducted from their homes one by one in the dead of night, more than 40 girls from the village of Kavumu in eastern Congo were raped, mutilated, and dumped the next morning, barely alive, in nearby fields between 2013 and 2016. The youngest victim was just eight months old.
For decades, the Democratic Republic of Congo has held a terrible reputation as "the rape capital of the world." Few perpetrators have ever been successfully prosecuted, so the girls of Kavumu had little faith that they would see justice.
Fortunately, they were wrong.
This past December, 11 militiamen and a high-ranking politician were sentenced to life in prison after an unprecedented trial and landmark verdict. It was the country's largest successful mass prosecution for sex crimes in history. The case brought hope to a nascent democracy with a weak justice system, aided not by international authorities, but by a non-profit group.
Launched in 2012, the Forensics Training Institute program from Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) trains Congolese doctors, police and court officials in forensic investigation—techniques that cracked the Kavumu case.
Though the International Criminal Court is often seen as the venue to deal with crimes against humanity, it should be a measure of last resort and not a default solution. Ideally, every country should be able to handle such cases in its own courts. For nations like DRC—ravaged by civil war and afflicted by poverty—police and justice officials lack the training and resources to effectively investigate and prosecute major crimes.
Rather than outsource to an international body that brings politics with questionable effectiveness, these nations need capacity-building for local authorities.
When a sexual assault occurs in Canada, doctors treating survivors rely on a "rape kit" to gather critical evidence. In the Congo, there was no equivalent until PHR introduced tools and training for emergency room doctors. They learned to preserve DNA evidence, and sensitively interview patients. When girls from Kavumu began arriving at nearby Panzi Hospital in 2013, doctors there knew what to do.
In 2015, officers from a newly-formed sexual violence unit of the Congolese police launched an investigation into the Kavumu assaults. After training in forensic crime scene examination, they gathered crucial evidence and identified suspects—the militia led by Frederic Batumike, a local politician. Because a militia was involved, the Congolese military joined the investigation.
Military investigators also received training and equipment to analyze cell phone data and track the suspects' communications. With support from TRIAL International, a legal NGO, military prosecutors received legal training to present forensic evidence in court, and to outline the data that doctors and police had carefully gathered.
Ripples from the verdict are spreading. Already, observers in neighbouring countries that have experienced mass crimes, like the Central African Republic, are talking about how they can learn from the DRC case, according to Susannah Sirkin, PHR's Director of International Policy.
Sirkin says the case needs to set a precedent, even outside the country: "One victory is not enough."
To ensure more such victories, international donors must invest in growing programs, like PHR's forensic training, that support countries in building their own robust justice systems. Because access to justice is a basic human right.