Clinton Puts Spotlight on Congo Sex Crimes

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks during a news conference at a hotel in Phuket, southern Thailand, July 22, 2009. Clinton said "irreversible denuclearization" is the only viable option for North Korea.
AP Photo/Apichart Weerawong
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton promoted democracy in the war-devastated country of Congo on Monday and drew attention to an epidemic of sexual assaults in its violence-torn east.

While in the Congolese capital, Clinton visited a hospital founded by former NBA star Dikembe Mutumbo, a native of Congo, and held a town hall meeting.

"This hospital was such a dream and today it is becoming a reality and so important to so many people," the 42-year-old Congo native said. "We think that Congolese people deserve better health care and we hope that what we are doing here is setting an example so that people can have hope."

"For me, it's like coming full circle having met his mother and knowing how much she inspired and supported him," she said. "Now he has taken his extraordinary success as a basketball player and has one of the biggest foundations in Africa, working not only here in his home country but around the continent to help provide services to people."

"It's a great tribute to his mother and to the values she raised him with," Clinton said.

Later, at a town hall meeting with students at a Kinshasa college, Mutombo said he had been moved to build the hospital after his mother, who lived just outside the Congolese capital, died in 1998 because a curfew kept her from getting to a hospital in the city.

On Tuesday, she plans to go to Goma where she will meet victims of horrific rapes and other sexual crimes committed by the military and rebel groups, many of which are fighting over the region's vast mineral wealth.

Clinton said in Kenya last week that she insisted on visiting Goma despite her staff's security concerns "to speak out against the unspeakable violence against women and girls in eastern Congo. It is the worst example of man's inhumanity to women and women are being used in conflicts."

On Monday, she told reporters traveling with her that she also wants to look at ways "to prevent the mining from basically funding a lot of these militias that are keeping the fighting going with all the attendant human rights abuses."

The United Nations has recorded at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence in eastern Congo since conflict erupted in 1996, at its height drawing in a half dozen of the country's neighbors, each greedy for a share of the region's rich mineral resources.

A 2003 peace deal reduced the fighting but both the army and rebel groups continue to attack villages and kill civilians.

More than 5 million have been killed and hundreds of thousands left homeless over the past decade, with brutalities commonplace in rural communities including gang rapes that have led to unwanted pregnancies, serious injuries and death to tens of thousands of women and girls.

Earlier this month a leading human rights group demanded that Congo crack down on rampant sexual violence perpetrated by military generals and other top officers.

Citing U.N. data that show 7,703 cases of sexual violence by the army reported last year, Human Rights Watch said the Congolese authorities have failed to prevent the attacks, most of which were on adolescent girls.

The group called on the U.N. Security Council to take "tough measures," including travel bans, and other sanctions against individuals or governments that commit or condone sexual violence in Congo and elsewhere.

On Friday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for global action to stop government forces and armed groups from using sexual violence "like a grenade or a gun" to pursue their goals, including in Congo, Chad, Sudan, Burundi, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Clinton's Congo stop is the latest in an 11-day journey through Africa to promote development and good governance and underscore the Obama administration's commitment to the world's poorest continent.

She arrived in Congo from Angola, South Africa and Kenya. She will also visit Nigeria, Liberia and Cape Verde.