A village is raided by an armed group in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Women and girls are raped and need urgent medical assistance. Boys and girls were abducted to be used as “soldiers”, porters, cooks, “wives” by the armed group. The village is isolated; there are no means of communication, no health post nearby. Despite the 2002 Peace Agreement, the DRC’s eastern provinces continue to be plagued by conflict and civilians face pervasive egregious violations, in particular women and children.
One of the biggest challenges of monitoring, reporting and responding to human rights violations in a country like the DRC is access: access to information about the violations and access to the victims that need urgent assistance. In a country the size of Western Europe, with a massive jungle area and poor infrastructure, attacks can go unreported for weeks and months and victims are often not able to get assistance because they don’t know who to go to or can’t get there.
To help address this challenge and build a rapid response, Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict and its local partner organization in eastern DRC, have been using cellular technology to link those who are suffering to those who can help them. Cell phone communication is booming all over Africa and the DRC is not an exception: cells phones are becoming ubiquitous objects and the multiplication of cell phone towers is expanding reception even to remote areas. Bypassing the lack of electricity supply in those areas, solar energy-operated cell phones and chargers have been distributed to village committees in remote areas of South Kivu, enabling hundreds of people to get help. Each call sets in motion rapid response action, as Watchlist’s partner assesses the assistance needed, identifies the nearest assistance point and brings the aid provider and the victim together. Over 400 victims of human rights violations living in remote areas have received assistance through this initiative since end of 2006 in South Kivu alone. Most of them are children that would otherwise not have been able to get help.
In addition to being a rapid response tool, the cell phone initiative is also used to report specifically on conflict-related violations against children – the core problem that Watchlist seeks to address. These violations include killing and maiming, rape and other forms of sexual violence, abduction, denial of humanitarian assistance, attacks on schools and recruitment and use of children as combatants. Cases documented through this initiative are verified, coded to protect the security and privacy of victims and used as a basis for advocacy at the highest level, both in country and at internationally at the United Nations and its Security Council.
Rigorous monitoring and reporting efforts coupled with targeted high level advocacy and have led to the demobilization and reintegration of hundreds of child soldiers by the UN and NGOs in the DRC, as well as to the inclusion of child rights violations as part of the criteria for sanctions against individuals involved in the conflict in the DRC. The use of child soldiers was also included in a war crime charge against Thomas Lubanga, a former commander of an armed group in the DRC, in a landmark case that is now entering its last stages at the International Criminal Court.
All these are concrete examples of how far victims can go by simply being able to call for help.