A UN internal report leaked to the Guardian newspaper alleges that French troops deployed as part of a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) raped boys as young as nine. The abuse is believed to have taken place between December 2013 and June 2014 in a displaced persons center at the M'Poko airport in the capital Bangui.
Advocacy group Aids Free World, which is demanding an independent investigation into the allegations of abuse, handed the confidential report —titled Sexual Abuse on Children by International Armed Forces — to the Guardian.
According to the Guardian, the report is believed to have been originally leaked by Swedish UN aid worker Anders Kompass, who allegedly forwarded the report to French authorities out of frustration with the UN's inaction. Kompass has since been suspended from his post as director of field operations for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for breaching confidentiality protocols, and could be fired.
Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS Free World, told VICE News today that the report contains six interviews that took place between May 5 and June 27. That timeframe would indicate incidents continued to occur after UN investigators first began looking into the abuses.
The interviews recount, at times in great detail, how roughly a dozen French troops stationed in Bangui alongside African Union troops, and prior to the deployment of UN peacekeepers, raped and sexually abused starving and displaced children in exchange for food.
According to witnesses aged 9 and 11, French troops forced them to perform sex acts while they were out looking for food. The children who were interviewed were able to provide descriptions of the troops who had they said had engaged in the abuse.
CAR has been torn apart by civil conflict since late 2012, when the mainly Muslim Seleka rebel coalition launched a series of attacks. In March 2013, the Seleka marched on Bangui and replaced President François Bozize with their own leader, Michel Djotodia, plunging the country into chaos. Relentless violence by the Seleka against the majority Christian population prompted the formation of Christian vigilante militias, called the anti-balaka.
In December 2013, France launched Operation Sangaris, a peacekeeping military campaign to restore law and order in the country after fighting broke out between the Seleka rebels and mainly Christian anti-balaka militias. The mission's aims, said French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, were "to establish minimum security, allowing a humanitarian intervention to start" and "to allow the African mission to intervene and implement democracy."
According to the leaked report, the abuse began within days or weeks after French troops arrived in the midst of some of the most brutal fighting in the country's civil conflict.
Donovan, who confirmed the Guardian's account, said that since the allegations first emerged, the UN's "intention seemed to be focused in completely the wrong place." She pointed out that as of yet, only Kompass, whose whistleblowing is reportedly leading to a French investigation, has been sanctioned.
France's Ministry of Justice told VICE News today that aParis court has opened a preliminary investigation on this case in July 2014, butsaid that it does not wish to comment the investigation as it is ongoing.
The French army declined to comment on the report, as did the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, known as MINUSCA.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is reportedly going to address the situation tonight in a speech from Paris.
In a 2014 parliamentary report on the impact of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on French troops, researchers found that soldiers posted in CAR were more likely to be affected by PTSD than anywhere else. According to the report, 12 percent of troops who had served in CAR were diagnosed with PTSD — more than the previously reported 8 percent in Afghanistan.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article stated that the French soldiers in question were part of the UN peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic. Though the French "Sangaris" deployment was authorized by the UN Security Council in December 2013 to quell violence in the country, it was never part of the formal UN "blue helmet" peacekeeping mission there. That mission, MINUSCA, was formally deployed on September 15, 2014.
VICE News' Samuel Oakford contributed to this report.