“I express my profound regret that these children were betrayed by the very people sent to protect them,” said Mr. Ban Ki-moon, Secretary General of the United Nations (UN). He was referring to one of the many allegations of sexual abuse carried out by UN staff in the Central African Republic (CAR) since a peacekeeping mission (MINUSCA) was authorized there in 2013. The most recent of these came out today and involved new accusations of rape and sexual abuse; including against minors. “Peacekeepers should be protectors, not predators” said HRW.
In December, an independent panel investigated the UN’s responses and found “gross institutional failure to respond to the allegations in a meaningful way.” The panel, appointed by the UN and led by retired Canadian Supreme Court Judge Marie Deschamps, authored a comprehensive and withering report. It detailed the horrifying extent to which the United Nations and the international humanitarian community have profoundly failed the people of the Central African Republic both in the instances of direct abuse and in their inability to take appropriate action to address and investigate the allegations.
The number of allegations of sexual abuse against international peacekeeping forces has now reached a new high (or low) of 22 in CAR. A number likely to increase with today’s allegations.
Many of the alleged abuses have taken place in the M’Poko displacement camp located at the M’Poko Airport in the capital of Bangui, where around 20,000 displaced peoples are currently residing, having fled their homes to avoid the ongoing violence. There, peacekeepers have been accused of giving food or cash, usually between 50 cents and 3 dollars, in exchange for sexual favors. The accused have included members of the French Special Sangari force who were operating as peacekeepers, as well as UN peacekeepers from Gabon, Morocco, Burundi, Georgia and The Democratic Republic of Congo.
The abuses have emerged slowly in the international media, starting in May 2015 when the Guardian reported on an initial investigation by the UN involving six boys. Since then allegations have continued to emerge, revealing a much larger picture of systemic abuse.
WHAT WAS DONE?
Between May and June 2014 a Human Rights Officer from MINUSCA interviewed six young boys who described situations between December and June 2014 in which they traded sex in exchange for food and cash. After the allegations first came to the UN’s attention in 2014, the documents were passed from desk to desk with no one department taking responsibility. No measures were taken to ensure the boys were protected from further abuse, and no effort was made to find the other children mentioned in the interviews.
It was only in May 2015, once the media began covering the allegations, that the children were protected and taken care of.
HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN?
It is a failure in the UN’s legal frameworks that allowed for these allegations to float aimlessly without any one person or department taking responsibility for them. There are two different frameworks that could have applied in these sexual abuse cases. The first is the sexual exploitation and abuse policies (SEA) that apply to peacekeepers under UN command. This would exclude the Sangari force in this case as it is answers to the French government. The second framework that would have applied to the Sangari force as well is the UN Human Rights mandate, which applies to any human rights abuse, whether or not the perpetrator is a UN personnel, foreign soldier, or a civilian in the country. Unfortunately, in this case neither framework was applied, nor did any UN body take responsibility. Even the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict took no action until it was in the international media.
At the end of June 2014 Anders Kompass, the Director of Field Operations for the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Geneva leaked the allegations to the French authorities so that they could take appropriate action. Frustrated at the lack of action within the UN to follow up on the cases, Kompass acted as a whistleblower. For his actions he was put on probation.
As the French government began to investigate the cases, the UN initially actively blocked their inquiries and instead investigated the legality of Kompass’ actions. It was only in May 2015 when the Guardian began reporting on the abuse and the investigation into Kompass that the UN took any substantial steps to follow up with the boys involved.
In the independent report the committee found that UN officials had intentionally obscured the severity of abuse in their reports to Geneva. It also found that the investigation into Kompass was inappropriate especially when prioritized over addressing the institutional failures that led to this gross inattention to the abuse cases and the victims.
Since that time, allegations have continued to surface bringing the total count of accusations against peacekeepers to 69 worldwide, or more with these new allegations in CAR. UN deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq announced the planned repatriation of peacekeepers from Congo and the Republic of Congo, whose soldiers allegedly were involved in previous incidents of sexual abuse and exploitation.
This week Jane Holl Lute, an American official with extensive UN peacekeeping experience, was appointed by Ki-moon to eradicate this problem and improve UN responses. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric announced her appointment, saying that Lute will work to harmonize the SEA and human rights frameworks, and implement the recommendations given in the report.