‘A 7-year-old girl interviewed in the Central African Republic (CAR) said she had to perform sexual acts on soldiers in exchange for water and cookies’.
The United Nations (UN) has expressed outrage and shame at fresh allegations of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic (CAR). In a report published by Human Rights Watch on the 21st of January 2016, at least five underage girls were among the seven new cases reported in the latest round of abuses which took place in Bambari, CAR between November and December of 2015. The soldiers implicated in these new cases are from the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). This latest round of allegations come after six cases of alleged sexual abuse were reported, involving a girl of 7 and a boy of 9, by European Union and French soldiers, which allegedly took place in 2014 in or near a camp for displaced people near M’Poko airport in CAR’s capital, Bangui. As of now, over 29 separate incidences have been recorded for CAR only. According to Anthony Banbury, Assistant Secretary-General for Field Support for the UN, several countries have been implicated in these allegations: Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Republic of Congo, Morocco, Niger, Senegal, Georgia, France (Operation Sangaris) and troops from the European Union mission in CAR.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) reported that fact-finding experts from the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) were immediately dispatched to Bambari upon receipt of these new allegations. The experts found sufficient initial evidence that five of the victims were minors and had been sexually molested. A sixth victim also a minor could not be interviewed while the seventh, an adult, had been sexually exploited. The Governments of Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo were immediately notified and asked to launch investigations into these allegations. The CAR national authorities were also apprised of the situation.
Anders Kompass director of field operations for the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Geneva was first to blow the whistle on sexual abuses on civilians in CAR. He passed on documents to the French authorities after becoming frustrated at the UN’s lack of action in investigating abuse by French peacekeepers. However, the OHCHR Chief, Prince Zeid bin Ra’ad suspended Kompass for breaching the OHCHR rules of conduct without the approval of his superiors. According to Prince Zeid, sharing the report put the victims of the abuse at risk for stigma and retaliation in their home communities. Many countries and the international Community in general criticized UN leadership for spending more time on Kompass instead of investigating the allegations. The suspension was found to be unlawful by an internal UN court in May of 2015.
The manner in which UN agencies responded to the first allegations of sexual abuse in CAR was deeply flawed and inappropriate. Instead of carrying out proper investigations into the allegations, UN agencies wasted precious time deciding Kompass’ fate. The head of the UN mission in CAR failed to take concrete action in regards to the allegations. He did not ask the French Sangaris Forces who were among the first to be implicated in sexual abuse allegations in CAR to institute processes to end the abuses. He also failed to direct his staff to report the allegations to the appropriate UN networks. UNICEF and UN Human Rights staff especially failed in ensuring that the victims received adequate medical attention, humanitarian aid as well as psychological attention. The information was instead shuffled around from one UN office to the next with all departments avoiding responsibility. The welfare of the victims and bringing the perpetrators to justice was ignored by many. This nonchalant attitude therefore, caused an international outrage putting the UN under a lot of pressure.
With the aim of instituting management and preventive measures, the United Nations launched several fact-finding missions. Given the information collected through the initial fact-finding phase combined with the seriousness of the allegations, the United Nations has decided to take immediate action. Most recently, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon named Jane Holl Lute, an American official with wide-ranging United Nations experience, to coordinate efforts to curb the scourge. In addition, 120 soldiers from the Republic of Congo who were deployed to Bambari from September 17th to December 15th of 2015 will be repatriated. In the meantime, the soldiers will be restricted to their barracks while investigations are being carried out. The Republic of Congo on its part, bound by a memorandum of understanding between the Congolese government and the office of the UN Secretary General will carry out an administrative inquiry. According to Congo’s Communications Minister, Thierry Moungalla, the defence ministry will lead the investigation and verify the veracity of the allegations. French President, François Hollande, while assisting the UN in all investigations has promised to show no mercy as the French military conducts investigations into charges of child sex abuse by French troops. In addition, France has announced the removal of its troops from CAR by the end of the year; from about 900 to a pre-crisis force of 300. Bangladesh and Morocco have also launched investigations, while the United Nations is investigating the cases involving Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Niger after those states failed to respond to the allegations.
The mandate of MINUSCA’s priority focus is based on the protection of civilians. Acting under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, the Security Council created MINUSCA among other tasks:
“To protect without prejudice to the primary responsibility of the Central African Republic authorities, the civilian population from threat of physical violence, within its capabilities and areas of deployment; including through active patrolling. Secondly, to provide specific protection for women and children affected by armed conflict, including through the deployment of Child Protection Advisors and Women Protection Advisors”
That is why when peacekeepers who are supposed to be the protectors exploit the vulnerability of the people they have been sent to protect, it is a fundamental betrayal of human dignity and trust. When the international community fails to care for the victims or hold the perpetrators to account, that betrayal is worsened. The UN should therefore take new steps to protect against sexual abuse, promote accountability and assist victims. Every single member of peacekeeping forces should be vetted and confirmed and those with criminal records or involved in prior misconduct, human rights violations or serious crimes should be rejected and not allowed to serve.