A strongly worded independent report released Dec. 17 condemned the United Nations for bungled and deceptive responses to reports of sexual abuse of children by primarily French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic in 2014. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed his “profound regret” and accepted blame for the organization’s systemic failures.
The report implicated at least three UN officials and several agencies in an apparent cover-up or abuse of authority in attempts to ignore the charges. Ban said in a statement that he would “act quickly” to decide what action would be taken against the people accused in the report.
The case involved troops in a peacekeeping mission who sexually abused at least a dozen children, mostly boys living in a refugee camp, in exchange for food or money. The report identified the troops as derived mostly from a French military contingent known as the Sangaris Force, which was operating in the African country under authorization of the Security Council but not under direct UN command. Ban dismissed the distinction.
According to The Guardian recently, four French soldiers are being questioned in an investigation into the alleged child sexual abuse in the Central African Republic. One French official in Africa, who requested anonymity, told PassBlue that some of the accused soldiers are in military jails.
“Though the soldiers who committed the abuses were not under United Nations command,” Ban said in a statement, “the report shows that the UN, which uncovered the abuse, did not handle the case with the speed, care or sensitivity required.”
The report by a three-expert panel led by Marie Deschamps, a former justice on the Supreme Court of Canada — assisted by Yasmin Sooka, executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa, and Hassan Jallow, the prosecutor for the UN International Tribunal for Rwanda — said in its sweeping condemnation, of which the panel said the UN did not redact or edit:
“The head of the UN mission in CAR [Central African Republic] failed to take any action to follow up on the Allegations; he neither asked the Sangaris Forces to institute measures to end the abuses, nor directed that the children be removed to safe housing. He also failed to direct his staff to report the Allegations higher up within the UN. Meanwhile, both UNICEF and UN human rights staff in CAR failed to ensure that the children received adequate medical attention and humanitarian aid, or to take steps to protect other potential victims identified by the children who first raised the Allegations.
“Instead, information about the Allegations was passed from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple UN offices, with no one willing to take responsibility to address the serious human rights violations. Indeed, even when the French government became aware of the Allegations and requested the cooperation of UN staff in its investigation, these requests were met with resistance and became bogged down in formalities. Staff became overly concerned with whether the Allegations had been improperly ‘leaked’ to French authorities, and focused on protocols rather than action. The welfare of the victims and the accountability of the perpetrators appeared to be an afterthought, if considered at all. Overall, the response of the UN was fragmented and bureaucratic, and failed to satisfy the UN’s core mandate to address human rights violations.”
The head of the UN mission in the Central African Republic, General Babacar Gaye of Senegal, was dismissed by Ban in August 2015 in what his spokesman, Stéphane Dujarric, called an unprecedented move. The secretary-general also ordered the independent investigation of what had happened both in the Central African Republic capital of Bangui and several UN offices, including in Geneva and in New York.
By that time, however, global media and human-rights groups were reporting that the story was much bigger than just the callous inaction of one UN appointee.
“The Deschamps report proves — as we have argued for months — that every single facet of the UN system has failed catastrophically, and it failed under the auspices of Ban Ki-moon, from whose mandate sexual exploitation and abuse must be removed,” said Paula Donovan, a co-founder of AIDS Free World, an American nonprofit group that runs a campaign, Code Blue, focused on ending sex abuse by peacekeepers.
“Although the panel named three people for ‘abuse of authority,’ those who escaped that judgment should not feel vindicated,” Donovan added. “The moral authority of the UN has been shaken to its core. Member States must construct something outside the ambit of the Secretary-General. Sexual exploitation and abuse has plagued the UN for decades. We can’t wait another moment for policies and practices that live up to the rhetoric of zero tolerance.”
The sexual abuse of children occurred between December 2013 and June 2014 near the M’Poko Internally Displaced Persons Camp in Bangui, according to statements collected by a human-rights officer assigned to the UN mission in Bangui from victims and others who had watched children being abused. (This fall, the officer, Gallianne Palayret, identified herself in a French news video and now works for the UN in Cambodia.) Local Unicef staff members participated in the officer’s interviews of the children, the report said.
The Central African Republic was wracked by a civil conflict between Christian and Muslim militias that began in December 2013, and many people had fled to the capital, hoping to be protected by peacekeepers.
“When the UN receives a report of a human rights violation, it has a duty under the UN’s human rights policy framework to investigate, report, and follow up on those violations,” the independent report continued. “These are interrelated obligations which are ultimately aimed at ensuring that the UN not only monitors human rights violations, but also takes active steps to intervene to end abuses and to hold perpetrators accountable.
“In CAR, however, the UN failed to meet these obligations in a number of significant ways,” the report said. “For example, while UNICEF and the Human Rights and Justice Section (‘HRJS’) of the UN mission in CAR (‘MINUSCA’) took steps to interview some of the children who had reported abuses, HRJS failed to conduct a sufficiently in-depth investigation of the Allegations. Given that the information reported by the children indicated the possibility of a broader pattern of sexual violence by some international peacekeeping troops, further investigation was warranted. HRJS also failed to adequately report on the Allegations. In particular, HRJS made a deliberate decision not to report the Allegations with any urgency to the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva.”
In fact, the report added, the human-rights office in Bangui apparently tried to obscure the scale and importance of the alleged violations in reports to Geneva. In a damning indictment of UN bureaucratic attitudes, the independent report catalogued other UN officials scattered around the UN system who failed to act when the sex abuse allegations began to circulate in the UN. It noted, too, that Unicef referred the children to a local partner for medical care and psychological support, but that care amounted to a two-hour session of filling out paperwork and interviews.
Deschamps, speaking to the media on Dec. 17, said that Unicef’s role in handling the sex abuse allegations was “problematic.”
Apart from General Gaye, the UN head of mission in Bangui who was fired, the Africa branch of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva “took no meaningful steps to follow up” with UN officials in the Central African Republic, the report noted. The unnamed official in Minusca’s Human Rights and Justice Section (HRJS) who received the report of interviews with the children, was also implicated for deliberately deciding “not to report the Allegations with any urgency to the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva,” Deschamps’ summary said.
Ban’s special representative for children in armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui, was also singled out for not approaching Unicef for details about the allegations — and for not following up with French authorities or with others in the UN to find out what they were learning, “despite the fact that the sexual abuse of children in the context of armed conflict falls at the core of her mandate,” the report said.
It was not until spring 2015 — more than a year later — when the special representative began to inform herself about what was being done by the UN to address the allegations, as they were being reported by the media.
“These repeated failures to respond to the Allegations are, in the Panel’s view, indicative of a broader problem of fragmentation of responsibility within the Organization, in which UN staff too often assumed that some other UN agency would take responsibility to address the violations,” the report concluded, adding this stark assessment:
“The end result was a gross institutional failure to respond to the Allegations in a meaningful way.”
Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.