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A Tribute to Professor Dr. Denis Mukwege

Rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: from holistic care to transitional justice

Plenary Lecture, Rennes 2 University – 22 June 2021
Denis Mukwege
Traduction de Daniel Toudic

Texte intégral

1First, I would like to thank Renée Dickason, my Rennes 2 University “sponsor”, for her kind words of introduction. I also wish to extend my thanks to all the people involved in the organisation of this international research event on violence against women in times of peace and in times of war, ahead of the War Memories conference.

2Today, I have been asked to address the issue of “Rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: From holistic care to transitional justice.”


3Ladies and Gentlemen,

4Within the context of this War Memories Conference, let me share with you a terrible memory that will remain with me for as long as I live. On 6 October 1996, the world in which I had begun my career as an obstetrician-gynaecologist in South Kivu Province fell apart when our hospital in Lemera was attacked, in breach of the most basic rules of international humanitarian law, and my patients and members of our staff were brutally murdered.

5This war crime marked the onset of the mass atrocities that have plagued the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for over a quarter of a century, opening one of the darkest chapters in our modern history. The troops of the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (ADFL), a militia led by Laurent Désiré Kabila, supported by three countries bordering the South Kivu Province, Rwanda, Burundi, and Uganda, launched their military operations and marched across the country, hunting down Rwandan Hutu refugees. This first Congo war also marked the end of Marshal Mobutu’s regime.

6Since that time, the region where I work and live has been racked by an economic crisis and the ensuing political instability and insecurity that are still rampant to this day. The repeated wars and cycles of violence that have raged in the DRC for 25 years have been the deadliest since WWII, with terrible humanitarian consequences: over six million deaths, millions of displaced persons and refugees, and hundreds of thousands of women raped.

7Rape as a weapon of war and a strategy of terror first emerged in our region in the wake of the appalling mismanagement of the aftermath of the Rwandan disaster, which has spread across the DRC like a cancer and continues to plague the Eastern part of the country. The bodies of women and girls – sometimes even babies – have thus become part of the battlefield.


8Ladies and Gentlemen,

9Panzi Hospital was founded in 1999. Our core mission was to fight against maternal and infant mortality, but sadly, our first patient was not admitted for a C-section. She was the victim of an unbelievably violent rape. We first thought we were dealing with a one-off case perpetrated by a deranged mind, but a stream of similar cases were admitted to the Hospital in the following weeks. Faced with these inhuman, degrading acts of cruelty, we had to specialise in repair surgery for women.

10Rape in times of conflict is more than a humiliating sexual act perpetrated against a victim without their consent, a crime that I in no way wish to play down. Rape as a weapon of war is a denial of the victim’s very humanity. This horrific act operates as a pure demonstration of power, by objectifying the victims and no longer treating them as human beings. Beyond that, it aims to destroy women, families, and whole communities.


11Ladies and Gentlemen,

12In Eastern DRC, the phenomenon of rape as a strategy of war is demonstrably massive (1), methodical (2) and systematic (3).

131. Massive: In less than 24 hours, dozens and sometimes hundreds of women and girls are raped in a village, often publicly, before their family and community. The public nature of these rapes causes direct and indirect casualties, therefore increasing their numbers.

142. Methodical: The rapes are committed methodically as each armed group has its own modus operandi so that you can clearly relate the lesions to a specific group, who leave their signature on the body of their victims. Rape also comes with torture and many victims are forced into sexual slavery.

153. Systematic: The rapes are committed irrespective of age and gender. They are inflicted on babies and elderly people alike, and though women are overwhelmingly the main direct victims of those atrocities, men also are sexually abused.

16What we were able to determine from these mass sexual crimes against a civilian population is that they are planned and directed by leaders of both non-governmental armed groups who rule over a specific territory and by government forces.

17These mass atrocities should be a major concern for the Congolese justice system and, when the latter is unable or unwilling to act, for the international criminal justice system. This new war strategy is not only “cheaper” than the use of standard weapons, but it is also extremely potent, as it produces the same effects, i.e., (1) mass population displacement, (2) demographic downsizing, (3) destruction of the social fabric, and (4) destruction of the economic resources of the affected communities.

181. Mass population displacement is caused by the terror that these rapes, mainly carried out collectively and publicly and often combined with extremely violent acts of torture, can generate. The victims are then rejected by their community and the men who have failed to protect their families choose to leave their villages in shame to seek anonymity.

19Women and children are forced to flee from their villages and rural areas in search of safety. This leads to a mass exodus of rural populations towards urban areas, leaving the militiamen free to take over the territory and the plentiful strategic natural resources of Eastern DRC, such as coltan (and cobalt?), which is used in all our electronic devices (laptops, phones, electric vehicles, and bicycles.

202. Demographic downsizing is caused by three factors:

  • the destruction of women’s reproductive system by different tools, products, and even burns;

  • contamination by STIs (sexually transmitted infections) inducing infertility - in particular, Chlamydia and Gonorrhoea; and finally

  • contamination by HIV/AIDS, which turns women into vessels for the virus and leads to the slow death of the community as transmission is vertical, horizontal, and cross-generational.

213. Destruction of the social fabric by the acts of humiliation and dehumanisation induces the loss of self-esteem and of individual and collective identity, leading to the destruction of community cohesion.

22The impact on the community is worsened by the children born of those rapes. Their parentage is rarely established, and they are rejected by their community, who refer to them as “snake children.” They then become the next generation of stateless individuals, at considerable risk of perpetrating the cycle of violence.

234. Destruction of the economic resources of affected communities is the consequence of the theft of their property and harvests, the destruction of their homes, and the plundering and illegal use of natural and mining resources by the militias and “warlords”.

24As a result of these four impacts, the affected communities fall into extreme poverty, social cohesion is destroyed, their organization disrupted, and they are left with no other option than exile or subordination.

25Rape as a strategy of war and terror is therefore a powerful weapon, with terrible short-, medium- and long-term consequences affecting several generations.


26Ladies and Gentlemen,

27Just think about the potency of this weapon of terror and the trauma endured by the direct casualties as well as their families and community! This is not just a humanitarian crisis. This is a true crisis of our humanity. It is our collective responsibility to help these survivors, who have been denied the protection they needed.

28That is what we have been striving to do for more than 20 years at the Panzi Hospital, in Eastern DRC, where the cycle of violence is ongoing to this day amid a volatile and worsening security situation.

29To meet the survivors’ needs in terms of care, we have developed a holistic assistance model in the hospital and at the Panzi Foundation to provide victims with a comprehensive treatment package.

30The One Stop Centre model was gradually developed to meet all the needs of our patients, who only need to tell their story once – to prevent secondary traumas – and are then walked through a tailored internal referencing system where they can get customised support focused on their needs, which encompasses medical, psychological, socio-economic, and legal support.

31One of the added values of this model, in addition to what it already offers, is the integration of mental health in the pre-existing primary health care system, without any discrimination or stigmatisation. We clearly advocate an integrated approach to trauma treatment.

32Medical and surgical treatment is often the patients’ primary gateway to our care system and constitutes its primary pillar. They are admitted for genital lesions, but they also have psychological disorders that require pre- and post-surgery psychological and social care, which is the second pillar of our system.

33In a bid to empower the victims after their treatment, we offer social and economic support – the third pillar of the system – and for those who need it, legal support before the Courts, which is our fourth legal assistance pillar, to fight against perpetrator impunity and complete the survivors’ recovery process.

34Furthermore, our care protocol continues well beyond the patients’ time in hospital, offering them support in their home environment. Through mediation and networking, our mobile teams and the Panzi Foundation help consolidate family and community ties that have been severely challenged by their horrendous ordeal and therefore take part in rebuilding the social fabric and social and economic integration.


35Ladies and Gentlemen,

36Our strategy aims to convert suffering into strength, pain into power, and to give women the tools to develop their ability to become independent when they leave hospital. A holistic care approach helps women to regain confidence and self-esteem. Moreover, we are happy to see that many women, after a few weeks or months of treatment, support, and psychological backing, become true activists for women’s rights, not only protecting their own rights, but those of their children and communities, thus becoming true leaders in their own community.

37Some survivors, for instance, are now anaesthetists, as they could not bear to see others endure the pain they had been through. Others have become lawyers, refusing to see their torturers walk free. Others have become social workers to help those in need, while some have become teachers, in a bid to leave their children a better world.

38The holistic approach model that we have developed from our experience has begun to be copied outside Panzi. A “One stop centre” has, for instance, been set up in Kinshasa, where women find all the services they need, including maternal and infant protection, prenatal visits, birthing, family planning, post-natal visits and the sexual and a gender-based violence package (GBV).

39Our hope is that this holistic care approach will be recognised as a human right: the right to rehabilitation for all the survivors of sexual violence worldwide.


40Ladies and Gentlemen,

41Our responsibility cannot be limited to dealing with the consequences of the violence and barbarity perpetrated by other human beings. We must also do everything in our power to prevent this shameful violence, which is an affront to humanity. This is the reason we so strongly advocate the end of the culture of impunity.

42Of course, victims must be entitled to good quality holistic care, but they also need justice, truth and compensation.

43Many resolutions of the United Nations Security Council have highlighted that the impunity of the presumed perpetrators of the worst crimes, including of a sexual nature, was and remains one of the main obstacles to peace and stability in the DRC, and primarily explains the perpetration of mass atrocities to this day in the war-torn Provinces in the East, in particular in Ituri and the Kivus.

44Impunity in the DRC is a perfect tragedy. Turning a blind eye on war crimes and crimes against humanity means that we are ready to let them happen again. So long as such impunity is condoned, crimes such as these, that should shake humanity’s conscience to the core, will continue under our very eyes and before the international community, which all too often prefers to turn a blind eye. The atrocities that go on daily in the Kivus and Ituri, particularly in the Territories of Beni and Irumu are the tragic illustration of this state of things.

45This urgent need for justice is therefore a key prerequisite to break the cycle of violence and instability, and a prerequisite to achieving sustainable development and peace.

46Yet the attempts to end violence have prioritised short-term political and security solutions, failing to address its root causes, including the culture of impunity.

47Therefore, justice has persistently been sacrificed on the altar of peace by allowing members of rebel armed groups, Congolese and foreign alike, to be involved the institutional process, by virtue of the principle of inclusiveness written into the peace agreements.

48These policies have failed to protect civilian populations and have fuelled organised chaos, turning violence and crime into a legitimate way of gaining power, and thereby jeopardising the introduction of the rule of law and sustainable peace.

49It is essential to make the fight against impunity a priority and to set up as soon as possible a holistic strategy of transitional justice for the DRC to bring justice to the victims and help prevent new severe breaches of human rights and humanitarian law. This is what the General Secretary of the United Nations has urged and what President Félix Tshisekedi has several times pledged to bring about.

50The General Secretary’s entreaty and the President of the Republic’s political commitment are in tune with the many voices within Congolese civil society clamouring for change. Citizens’ movements involving many thousands of people led peaceful demonstrations across the country on the 10th anniversary of the publication of the Mapping report, on 1st October 2020, demanding an end to impunity and the creation of an International Criminal Court for the DRC and mixed specialised Chambers within the Congolese judicial system.


51Ladies and Gentlemen,

52Of all the initiatives designed to put an end to impunity, the most elaborate is indeed the Mapping project Report documenting the severe breaches of human rights and international humanitarian law between 1993 and 2003 in the DRC, published in 2010 by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

53This report primarily provides an inventory, mapping out and documenting 617 violent “incidents” committed between 1993 and 2003 and suggesting that severe breaches of human rights and humanitarian law were committed. According to the report, most of the crimes documented can be qualified as crimes against humanity and war crimes and are not therefore subject to statutory limitations. Some acts may even constitute genocide if they were brought before the appropriate Courts having jurisdiction in such matters.

54In addition, the report recommends referring to the various tools of transitional justice to put an end to impunity, consolidate the constitutional state and restore peace.

55This transitional justice process in the DRC, which we have relentlessly advocated together with a number of national and international NGOs, should combine complementary judicial and non-judicial mechanisms.

56The strategy of transitional justice should also consider the significant involvement of third-party countries in the international or internationalised armed conflicts that have plagued the DRC.

57Finally, it is essential to consider the gender factor, in the light of the massive, methodical, and systematic use of sexual violence by all the belligerents as a weapon of war and strategy of terror.


58Ladies and Gentlemen,

59Among the various mechanisms of transitional justice that need to be implemented, we urge the Congolese authorities and the international community to focus on cleaning up and restoring our institutions.

60The number one priority must be a complete overhaul of the security forces. All State agents, including the security and defence forces, who have been involved in serious breaches of human rights and humanitarian law and have benefited from widespread corruption, must be removed from positions of power as a matter of urgency.

61This vetting process will be key to preventing human rights violations – one of the goals of transitional justice – and will also give the victims and survivors a certain degree of satisfaction, in the sense that the perpetrators who are not prosecuted will at least be disempowered, giving them less leeway to do harm.

62This is also a prerequisite to any other serious transitional justice initiatives because maintaining in positions of responsibility people who are believed to have severely breached human rights will most likely allow them to use their powers to prevent or hinder any attempt to bring them to justice.

63Moreover, victims of international crimes are acknowledged to have a right to justice and transitional justice must never be seen as a way for those who have allegedly committed mass atrocities to avoid facing the criminal prosecution.

64As the Congolese criminal justice system is incapable of ensuring justice for the innumerable victims of mass crimes in the DRC, the time has come to introduce an International Criminal Court for the DRC and mixed specialised chambers to apply independent and impartial judicial procedures, free of any kind of interference.

65The Law must prevail, and it is essential that the political and military leaders responsible for the worst crimes committed in the DRC be brought to justice, regardless of their nationality, as the reign of impunity is still fuelling conflicts and atrocities to this day.


66Ladies and Gentlemen,

67The holistic national strategy of transitional justice must also provide for compensation systems for the victims and communities. Compensation is not only a measure of justice: it also acknowledges the extent of the damage and pain inflicted and provides victims with financial or material support to rebuild their life with dignity.

68We encourage the authorities to press for the rapid introduction of a system that can guarantee the payment of damages to victims of serious international crimes that come before the Congolese Courts. We also ask the government, which has failed to protect the civilian population, to determine a national compensation strategy and scheme, leading to the establishment of a national compensation fund for the victims of the worst crimes.

69Finally, after decades of denial, manipulation and lies – only recently, the lobbies denying that crimes have been committed in the DRC have once again caused a wave of outrage – the quest for truth has become paramount in preventing past errors and determining the various levels of responsibility at the national, regional, and international levels. It is also key to ensuring that past errors will not be repeated, building the foundations of a peaceful society despite the trauma, and promoting reconciliation within Congolese society and between the countries in the Great Lakes Region.

70In this respect, we not only support the creation of a new truth commission, but also the unofficial truth-finding mechanisms and initiatives designed to preserve our memory of the past which are generally initiated by civil society. We refer in particular to the commemorative days and ceremonies for the victims of mass atrocities, the construction of monuments, and other requests by the victim communities for mass graves to be opened and bodies exhumed.


71Ladies and Gentlemen,

72I am convinced that solutions can be found and that things can change. We believe that there is a way forward to peace. A path that requires justice, both to mete out punishment and to restore people’s lives.

73We have invested so much energy and resources in repairing the bodies and minds of women destroyed by sheer human ignorance and stupidity, and we now dream of a time when we can go back to helping women who are giving birth and treating natural health conditions.

74Let us wager that the transitional justice process that we call for in the DRC will help break the vicious circle of conflict and that we can continue to decently rebuild a society safe from the plague of sexual violence.

75Thank you.

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Denis Mukwege, « Rape as a weapon of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo: from holistic care to transitional justice »Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], vol. 20-n°53 | 2022, mis en ligne le 09 juin 2022, consulté le 14 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Denis Mukwege

Professor Dr. Denis Mukwege’s fight is mainly focused on genital mutilations and sexual violence against Congolese women whose bodies have become battlefields of war and conflict. He founded Panzi Hospital in Bukavu (DRC) and has treated thousands of sexually assaulted and mutilated survivors. He has been the target of many death threats and one major assassination attempt. As a gynaecologist, he has repaired, through reconstructive surgery, female survivors of rapes. In 2008, he was the force behind the creation of non-profit Panzi Foundation, which has become a person-centred care model, to support the work of Panzi Hospital with a holistic care approach based on 4 pillars: medical treatment, psycho-social support, socio-economic insertion programmes and legal assistance. For his work, he has received several honorary degrees and high distinctions and awards, among them the Olof Palme Prize (2008) and the United Nations Human Rights Prize (2008) for his outstanding achievement and commitment in promoting peace. In 2014, he was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. In 2018, Professor Dr. Denis Mukwege was awarded, with Nadia Murad as co-laureate, the Nobel Peace Prize.

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