An independent investigation found reports of sexual abuse of young boys by UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic credible and said they suggested a broader pattern of abuse that should have been further investigated.
Instead, UN bureaucrats forwarded the information internally and made little effort to contact appropriate authorities, stop the ongoing abuse, or bring any of the individual abusers to justice.
The report titled, “Taking Action on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Peacekeepers” was published last week. It concerns allegations of sexual abuse that came to light in 2014 when a Human Rights Officer, investigating the flow of child refugees in the country, heard stories that children at a camp in M’Poko were being asked by peacekeepers to perform sex acts for food.
Over several weeks, the officer conducted interviews with six boys, aged 9-13, who told detailed stories about the abuse, including where it took place and which specific soldiers were involved. The report contains details of each interview:
The second interview was conducted on 20 May with a 9-year-old boy. The child reported that some time before 5 December 2013, a French soldier working at the check point called him, gave him an individual combat food ration and showed him a pornographic video on his cell phone. The child stated that the soldier then opened his trousers, showing him his erect penis, and asked him to suck his “bangala” (penis).
Beyond the six documented cases of abuse, there was evidence of a broader pattern. In some cases, the boys said they knew of other children who had traded sex for food or indicated it was well-known that certain soldiers could be approached for food in this way. The report notes that several additional cases of abuse were uncovered, and in May 2015, a total of 12 children were interviewed regarding alleged sexual abuse.
Despite this, UN officials who received the early reports did little to stop the abuse. The report makes clear that this lack of effort was partly because UN officials did not want to draw negative attention to the ogranization:
UN officials failed to take any steps to investigate the allegations beyond the initial interviews, to report on the Allegations with the urgency that the abuses merited, or to follow up with the French authorities to address the violations. Instead, the approach of UN officials was to assume that because the alleged perpetrators were Sangaris soldiers not under UN command, the UN had a limited obligation to respond to the Allegations, and that because the Allegations were politically sensitive, staff should draw as little attention to them as possible.
Specifically, the Human Rights and Justice Section which received the interviews detailing the sexual abuse did not, a.) pursue a further investigation of other children who might have been victimized, b.) reach out to appropriate authorities to get help for the children involved, or c.) contact anyone who might move to prosecute the soldiers involved. Instead, the HRJS “deliberately pursued a strategy to keep the Allegations as quiet as possible.” The report concludes the head of the HJRS is guilty of an abuse of authority.
Punishing the “Leaker”:
With nothing happening at HJRS, the individual who originally uncovered the abuse sent the information to UN higher-ups in Geneva. Incredibly, this led to a nearly year-long internal investigation of the one person who acted properly in response to the allegations.
When the information reached the Director of the Field Operations and Technical Cooperation Division (FOTCD) in June 2014, he took the initiative to meet with the French mission in Geneva to inform them of the alleged abuse. The director also provided French authorities with a complete copy of the notes based on the original interviews.
Though the FOTCD Director acted correctly in making an effort to see the perpetrators of the abuse brought to justice, the report notes what happened next was the kind of treatment often given to whistleblowers who embarrass their superiors:
Seven months later, questions arose as to whether the Director had improperly “leaked” the Sangaris Notes to the French government. At the request of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Deputy High Commissioner met with the Director of FOTCD and asked him to resign, which he declined to do. In March and April 2015, high-level meetings were held at the request of the High Commissioner and facilitated by the Chef de Cabinet for the SecretaryGeneral (“Chef de Cabinet”). Participants at the meetings included the Under-Secretary-General for the Office of Internal Oversight Services (“USG for OIOS”), the Director of the UN’s Ethics Office, and the USG for the Office of Human Resources Management. Subsequent to these meetings, the High Commissioner requested that OIOS open an investigation into the Director. He also requested that the Director be placed on administrative suspension. While the UN Dispute Tribunal subsequently lifted the suspension, the Director of FOTCD remains under investigation.
The independent investigation concluded that the High Commissioner had a “single-minded determination to pursue an investigation into the Director’s conduct… based on a preconception that the Director must have been motivated by some undisclosed personal interest.” That’s a reference to a job the FOTCD Director was rumored to be pursuing. In fact, the report finds there was no personal interest involved, i.e. no job offer. Despite this and several other errors of judgment, the High Commissioner is let of the hook in the report.
However, the report does fault the Under-Secretary-General for the Office of Internal Oversight Services, who initiated the months-long investigation into the FOTCD Director’s decision to hand the information over to the French on the basis that it was a leak of internal information. The report concludes the Under-Secretary “failed to undertake an independent process and did not ask obvious and important questions which should have caused her to consider whether an investigation was appropriate.” In other words, the investigation was a witch hunt and the Under-Secretary should have known better.
It’s worth noting that these most recent allegations of abuse by UN peacekeepers are far from being the first of this kind. The report itself states, “UN peacekeepers have been implicated in sex scandals since the early 1990s with cases reported in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Cambodia, East Timor, West Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Liberia, South Sudan.” In 2003, the Secretary General announced a zero-tolerance policy for this behavior, but as the current report states, that policy “has had little effect.”