Renee Garfinkel Ph.D.

Time Out

Your Chance Not to Be a Bystander

The actions of bystanders can stop mass violence.

Posted May 23, 2011

You've probably heard some awful reports about the prevalence of rape in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Stories have appeared in the press and Internet for years. Reports from the Congo describe how rape is used as a weapon of war, as a method of torture, they describe brutal gang rape assaults on women, and even on children as young as 3 (both boys and girls). Testimonies of Congolese rape survivors sear not just your heart, but your very eyes as you read, so drenched are they in pain and shame. And fear.

The United Nations peacekeepers have been less than ineffective in protecting the civilian population. They have been passively complicit - last year, for example, 200 women were gang-raped in broad daylight by Congolese and Rwandan rebels in North Kivu Province, less than 20 miles from a U.N. Peacekeeper military base. A week went by, and the peacekeepers claimed to be clueless. Even worse (if that's possible), U.N. personnel themselves have allegedly sexually abused and exploited the war refugees they are charged to protect.

This is a population preyed upon both by militias and by the Congolese soldiers. Their government is either too weak or too indifferent to control the plague of sexual violence. Apparently, perpetrators face no consequences.

If all this is not bad enough, a new study released by the American Journal of Public health estimates the number of women raped in the DRC to be even higher than formerly believed. The study found rape in areas far from the war-torn territories. The magnitude of the problem is so great that it cannot be explained solely in terms of rape as a weapon of war.

What can be done? Social psychology knows the power of "the bystander effect" which influences every level of crime. First identified in the infamous case of the murder of Kitty Genovese that was witnessed by many of her neighbors who did not call the police, the bystander effect has been observed in urban crime of all kinds, and in international affairs as well. The bystander effect is the tendency of people in crowds to stand by passively, either because they take their cue from others who are not acting, or because they tell themselves someone else will do it. So, as with the simple 911 call that didn't save Kitty Genovese, no one acts.

I probably don't need to remind any of you of the Rwandan genocide. What happened - and didn't happen - in that case demonstrated the dynamic studied and explained by the scholar Ervin Staub, himself a refugee of the Holocaust. Staub underlined the vital role that bystanders - both domestic and in the international community - play in stopping and preventing mass violence. ( See, for example "The Origins and Prevention of Genocide, Mass Killing, and Other Collective Violence" at

So, what is one to do? There are organizations trying to help the victims of rape and their families, and other organizations for advocacy and aid and the protection of human rights.
Seek them out, and check them out.

You can take action and end the bystander effect right this minute: let Congress know you care, and let your television and news sources know you want them to focus on this story.

Chris Smith (R-NJ) is the Chair of the Africa Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. You can email the Committee at

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