Hundreds of thousands of people have been raped or sexually abused in Congo, a U.N. human rights panel concluded Thursday, recommending that a U.N.-backed reparations fund be created to help them.
The panel's report said such a fund could begin to address the mass rape and other sexual crimes that haunt the devastated eastern sections of the immense Central African nation, which lies on a continent suffering an HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The U.N.'s new estimated number of victims _ previously ranging from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands _ added urgency to the panel's discussions Thursday.
Its report highlighted 61 survivors of sexual violence _ including a girl raped at three years old, a blind girl, a 61-year-old grandmother, four men, and victims who got AIDS from their attackers. Many more never report being raped, they told the panel, seeing no point for lack of justice, medical or psychological help in the region.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said a reparations fund is needed because only a fraction of victims' rape claims ever see a court of law and that victims are frequently unable to identify their attackers.
The American Bar Association, with U.S. government funding, is helping bring rape cases to trial in Congo _ but says not a single woman has been compensated after dozens of convictions. Unpaid state-ordered reparations average about $5,000 each.
"Even the few victims who have achieved a conviction have not been paid the damages awarded by the courts," said Pillay, referring to the Congolese government's failure to enforce payments to rape victims.
The pervasiveness of rape in the Congo is part of what makes it so horrifying _ one-third of Congo's rapes involve children, and 13 percent are against children under 10. Victims have ranged from women in their 80s to a month-old baby boy.
Congo's justice minister, Bambi Lessa Luzolo, defended the government's actions, saying: "Justice can only be provided to those who appeal to it, and where the perpetrators are known, and this is only a very small number of cases."
He said the rape epidemic "is a scourge that was imported into our country when foreign forces" entered.
But it isn't just foreign forces that are raping.
Last month, an army colonel was convicted in a Congolese court for crimes against humanity, the first time a commanding officer was tried in such an attack. It was a landmark verdict in a country where soldiers and militia groups usually go unpunished even in mass rapes.
The biggest U.N. peacekeeping force in the world of 18,000 troops has been unable to end the violence in Congo. At least 8,300 rapes were reported in 2009, but aid workers say the true toll is much higher.
U.N. human rights deputy chief Kyung-wha Kang said the Congolese government must take the first step of creating a reparations fund, but an outside board with U.N. participation probably would then have to be set up to oversee it.