An independent review panel appointed by Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has found glaring and systematic failures in the organization's handling of child sexual abuse allegations in the Central African Republic, which it called "seriously flawed."
First published in media accounts this spring, the alleged abuse was perpetrated by non-UN peacekeepers in late 2013 and early 2014. Staff members at the UN's mission in the country, along with a worker from the organization's children's agency, UNICEF, interviewed six boys between May and June 2014. The boys told them, often in horrifying detail, that international troops, predominantly members of France's "Sangaris" deployment, had sexually abused them in the capital, Bangui. In exchange, the boys said they would receive small portions of food or a bit of money.
The independent review panel, chaired by Canadian jurist Marie Deschamps, focused on what transpired after the UN received those accounts, a chain of events — or lack thereof — that it called woefully inadequate. The panel said that the mission's chief at the time, Babacar Gaye, "took no steps to ensure that follow up occurred," despite being informed of the reports multiple times.
The human rights section of the mission, MINUSCA, "made a deliberate decision not to report the allegations with any urgency to the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva," a step the review found to be inappropriate "given the seriousness of the allegations." When it did reference the purported crimes, it would "obscure the allegations by only reporting them in the context of broad, thematic reports that also included violations by other international troops."
Inside the UN, information that young boys in the war-torn country had possibly been victims of systemic sexual abuse carried out by those sent to protect them was "passed from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple UN offices, with no one willing to take responsibility," said the report.
After French authorities became aware of the scandal, the UN even rebuffed some of their efforts to learn more, and to interview the staff members that had uncovered the alleged incidents. France's investigation remains underway, and no one from the Sangaris mission has been arrested.
The review panel found a pervasive sense among UN staff that the organization's human rights framework "did not apply to allegations of sexual violence by peacekeepers," and instead was seen as merely misconduct to be tabulated separately.
"This was the result, in part, of a fundamental misperception by UN staff of the UN's obligations in responding to sexual violence by peacekeepers," said the report.
Though neither the French nor other African soldiers implicated in the scandal were operating under the UN's control at that time, officials who had access to the abuse reports had the same obligation to run them up the chain of command, and to "flag" the allegations, as Deschamps put it at a press conference on Thursday.
Instead, Deschamps told reporters that the UN reaction to the report gave the impression that "responding to allegations of sexual violence is the responsibility of many, but of no one in particular." She added that the allegations "were largely ignored by those who read them."
It was only after the details of the allegations and news of an internal investigation into alleged whistleblower Anders Kompass, who passed an unredacted copy of the initial report to French authorities, were published by the Guardian this April did the UN begin to take the allegations seriously, said the report. The the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein, had remained fixated on Kompass, said the report, which largely exonerated the longtime UN worker of any wrongdoing. This summer, some OHCHR staffers peddled the line that Kompass had leaked the report to further his own political career, possibly outside the UN.
In a statement released following the report's unveiling in New York, Zeid said that "investigations into sexual abuse must be made more systematic and effective, and those responsible for those most toxic of crimes must be punished."
In a separate statement, Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said he accepted "the broad findings of the panel's report," and that he "would act quickly to determine what action might be necessary." This August, Ban forced out MINUSCA chief Gaye amid additional reports of peacekeeping sexual abuse, this time perpetrated by UN blue-helmets. The report found that Gaye, along with two other UN officials — one of whom has also left the organization — had abused their authority.
UNICEF, the agency that originally uncovered the alleged abuse, was also cited for failing to offer sufficient support to the victims, who were among thousands of families who had sought shelter near Bangui's airport. Instead, the investigation found that it merely provided them with a counselling session, carried out by a separate organization, that last only two hours.
"The UN is going to have to own these recommendations and get very tough on future cases of sex abuse if it is to restore credibility with the people it is mandated to protect," said Richard Bennet, head of Amnesty International's UN office. "Above all the report is a stark reminder that the UN should put protecting the human rights of victims of abuse before internal politics."