The uproar over accusations that French soldiers assigned to peacekeeping had sexually abused about a dozen boys in the Central African Republic from late 2013 through mid-2014 has shifted focus from the apparent behavior of the soldiers to the role the United Nations played in dealing with the allegations. The French soldiers were not part of a UN peacekeeping mission.
This shift of attention leaves the French soldiers and other troops from African countries implicated in the case off the hook for the moment — France has yet to announce developments in the case, which it knew about almost a year ago. So how did the UN move from backstage to center stage so fast in the unfolding drama?
In April, The Guardian newspaper reported that a group of French soldiers, part of a national contingent dispatched in December 2013 to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, to quell the murderous chaos there had been accused of bartering food for oral sex from local boys. Expressing surprise after the news account was published, both France and the UN announced separately that they were each investigating the matter.
Yet France and the UN higher-ups, it turns out, knew about the allegations ever since Anders Kompass, a UN human-rights expert who worked in Geneva, handed a confidential report to French officials in July 2014, to the consternation of the UN. He had obtained the report from a fellow colleague and gave it to the French a week or so after he got it.
Now, Kompass, a Swede, who has said he felt compelled to pass on the information to France in frustration over what he perceived as UN passivity, is being labeled both a whistleblower and a bad seed, depending on the camp calling the names.
Flavia Pansieri, the boss of Kompass in the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, was told by her boss, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, to suspend Kompass from his job for breaking protocol in leaking the unredacted report to the French and jeopardizing, the UN says, the privacy and security of the boys named in the report. The suspension of Kompass was reversed by a UN tribunal in early May.
Which is where the focus is stuck, with the UN bending over backwards, in its bureaucratic mode, to investigate whether the suspension of Kompass is legitimate. It is also consumed round the clock at its offices in Switzerland and headquarters in New York trying to deal with questions from the media and others as to why it seemed so derelict in following up on the case once UN officials learned about the accusations, which was in July 2014.
To the credit of the UN, which does not always manage the endless minor and major accusations lobbed against it with finesse, this time it is emphasizing that the French soldiers in the Central African Republic were not working for the UN.
That is where the narrative could be redirected. Instead, complicating matters, additional UN documents more recently leaked by AIDS-Free World, a nonprofit group based in the US that first leaked the information about Kompass and the alleged sex abuse to The Guardian, offer contrary versions about the UN report itself. Did the report contain the names of the victims or were those names fictionalized? Kompass has contended both.
As more UN documents on the matter have been leaked by AIDS-Free World, the status of the boys themselves has drawn little notice.
Thierry Delvigne-Jean, the Unicef communications chief for West and Central Africa, based in Senegal, told PassBlue in an email when the news was first reported in The Guardian that “UNICEF child protection specialists in the Central African Republic were part of a joint UN team, alongside human rights officers from MINUSCA, that in 2014 interviewed children who had reported being victims of sexual abuse. Information from those interviews was passed to MINUSCA.” (Minusca is the shorthand name of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic, established in April 2014.)
“Subsequent to interviewing the children, UNICEF staff referred them to other partner agencies for psychological and other support,” Delvigne-Jean said. Not much more has been publicly heard from Unicef on the case, although on June 5, a spokesman for Unicef in Geneva confirmed that the UN report about sexual abuse was sent to Unicef’s headquarters in New York, which gave it to the UN’s office for children and armed conflict. That office has not publicly commented on the report.
Nowhere is it clear why UN officials, including Flavia Pansieri, the deputy high commissioner for human rights, would keep such damaging information about young boys’ lives secret, if that is the case.
Not much has been discussed, either, about the notoriously tricky nature of taking children’s testimony, especially about sex acts. The leaked documents show that six of the children, all boys, interviewed by the UN officials were done directly, while testimony from others was recorded through witnesses.
The rush to accuse the UN for negligence and ineptitude by various parties and many media has pushed Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, to announce this month that an outside team will investigate the handling of the sex-abuse claims in the Central African Republic, even though UN peacekeepers are not being blamed. The United States chimed in for the first time officially, saying it supports Ban’s move for a “full and impartial investigation” into the matter.
As Stepháne Dujarric, the UN secretary-general’s spokesman, said, “There are systems that failed here.”
The drama in the Central African Republic began in early December 2013, soon after French troops from Operation Sangaris (named after a local species of butterfly) flew to Bangui to help protect residents from the sudden mayhem that engulfed the capital and rural areas across the country, a conflict that pitted one raging group of militias against another based on religious and ethnic lines. In the days after the violence erupted, civilians were being slaughtered in killing sprees, including lynching in the capital.
The French, former colonizers of the country, arrived to restore a semblance of order in the city and soon at the airport, called M’poko, where thousands of civilians had camped for safety.
It is at the airport, crammed with people who had set up simple shelters to stay alive, where the sex abuse allegedly took place, at certain checkpoints operated by French peacekeepers. The abuse lasted from December until mid-2014, the UN report says, involving French soldiers as well as troops from Equatorial Guinea and Chad — 24 soldiers in total — extorting sex from boys as young as 9 years old for food.
Katarina Hoije, a Swedish freelance journalist based in Mali who was reporting from the Central African Republic from February to April 2014, described in an email to PassBlue that “the situation was extremely tense.” [The French soldiers were] “struggling to maintain a minimum of calm; finally they retreated to the airport. They were manning the checkpoints at the IDP camp, still armed anti-balaka walked in and out of the camp.” (The anti-balaka were one of the warring militias.)
“Children used to come up to the soldiers and ask for food or money. You would regularly see children, mainly young boys, selling French army rations in the camp and outside the airport. I was told they were given as payment for work or small services. Food distributions in the camp was a mess. People would constantly complain that they hadn’t been given food and they would take it out on the French soldiers who ignored or yell back.”
Occasionally, she added, the soldiers got aggressive, although she said she never saw them get physical, “but the way they treated people, especially women and children, wasn’t good.”
The French were criticized during this period for not intervening during some of the killing sprees in the streets of Bangui; instead, Chadian peacekeepers protected Muslims who were attacked, Hoije said, while Rwandans and Burundian peacekeepers (all sent as peacekeepers from the African Union) fended for other civilians.
The alleged sexual acts by French soldiers and the others were originally investigated by a UN human-rights staff member from Minusca (the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic), and at least one official from Unicef, the children’s specialized agency, on various dates from May to June 2014. The report reveals the boys telling the investigators that they had been forced into sex with soldiers for such basics as biscuits. The boys, many of them orphaned or without parents around, identified the soldiers by their national origin and such particulars as tattoos.
The report was sent up the UN chains of command in Bangui and on to Geneva and to New York, where officials apparently moved into high gear to address why Kompass sent the report to French officials. He had not told Navi Pillay, the high commissioner of human rights at the time, about the report. As one UN official said, if Pillay had known about it, “she could have cut through everything” and gotten to the heart of the matter.
When The Guardian broke the news in April 2015, relying on leaked documents from AIDS-Free World, the French government confirmed that it had already been investigating the allegations and that it had known about the report since July 2014. The French government announced in May this year that besides a police investigation, the justice department was taking on the case.
AIDS-Free World, the nonprofit group, is incorporated in New York; founded in 2007, it has evolved from focusing on eradicating AIDS to advocating more generally for human rights. Its co-directors are Stephen Lewis, a former envoy for the UN on HIV/AIDS, a deputy executive director for Unicef and Canada’s ambassador to the UN; and Paula Donovan, a former senior adviser on HIV/AIDS for the UN in Africa and an executive at Unicef. Donovan will not disclose who leaked the UN documents to AIDS-Free World, except to say that it was not Kompass.
Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN’s current high commissioner for human rights, recently announced he was sending a team from Geneva to the Central African Republic to find more ways to address human-rights violations. He started as high commissioner in September 2014, and about a month later, he learned of the sex-abuse report.
A spreadsheet created by AIDS-Free World, located on its website, summarizes information drawn from the report submitted by the UN staff members who interviewed the boys in Bangui. The spreadsheet records dates of interviews, whether the victims were interviewed directly, their ages, details of the abuse (oral sex, sodomy, paid to find a sex worker are some of the categories), “country of perpetrator,” identifying marks and more information.
As part of UN protocol, it has invoked immunity for the human-rights staff member who did the investigation, keeping the French at arm’s length, France contends, thus stymying its own investigation, although it has had nearly a year to follow up on the case.
One journalist who asked not to be identified and who recently spoke to French investigators about the case was told that they have questioned the peacekeepers who had been at M’poko, but that they had not admitted anything.
The UN human-rights officer who questioned the boys had a background in child protection, but took a Unicef staff member with her to help ensure “she undertook the very delicate questioning of children on this issue,” a UN official informed of the case said in an email. Unicef “then immediately took on psychosocial and other discreet follow up (all very difficult with street kids in dangerous camps in a war zone, protected from people wishing to kill them by peacekeepers who were abusing them).”
Given the circumstances, the UN official noted in the email, the human-rights officer “did a marvellous job: thorough, brave.” She was “very sensitive to the kids.” In her statement (posted on AIDS-Free World’s website), she said that “no pressure was exercised on the children.” And that most of the children had trouble putting precise dates on the events “due to their young age.”
Some Western media have arrived in Bangui recently to try to interview the boys named in the report, leaving them more open to danger in a society “where everyone will know what the foreigners with cameras are doing in the camp, and where homosexuality may get you killed (even when you are a child victim),” the UN official said.
Zeid, the high commissioner, said at a press briefing in May about the boys’ vulnerability: “Yes, this report is now circulating among NGOs and the media. A French television station had no problem locating at least one of the children. But when the mother learned that her son had been involved in a sexual act with a man she became furious. She said that ‘if nobody had stopped me I would had killed him.’ “
Almost a year later, the French have said little about the case. A spokeswoman for the French defense ministry told PassBlue in a Skype call that the office “cannot express information about the investigation because the justice secretary/department is investigating it.”
The spokeswoman, who refused to be identified, said that asking the justice ministry for a comment would not result in a response. “That’s the way it is,” she said.
[This article was updated on June 9, 2015, to correct an original reference to “clinical reports submitted by the UN staff members who interviewed the boys in Bangui.” The “clinical reports” were actually a spreadsheet compiled by AIDS-Free World summarizing information drawn from the UN report of interviews with children and the alleged sex abuse by international soldiers.]
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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.
Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.