It has emerged that a UN senior humanitarian aid worker has been suspended for leaking an internal report on child abuse committed by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic (CAR).
The details that emerge from the report, Sexual Abuse on Children by International Armed Forces, show that once again, UN-sanctioned forces have abused their position and power to prey on vulnerable individuals in the most horrific circumstances.
Echoing previous events in Liberia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (among others), the report finds that children displaced by the war – some as young as nine years old – were apparently raped and molested by peacekeepers in return for food hand-outs.
The allegations date back to 2014, when the UN’s own CAR peacekeeping mission was being set up – and it’s clear from the report that the UN has knowledge of the abuses taking place, but has done nothing so far to hold the peacekeepers who committed those crimes accountable.
While these peacekeepers are part of a French-led mission, not a UN one, their abuses fit an old pattern of impunity that has haunted peacekeeping operations for decades.
The news of the CAR report makes it clear that the culture of impunity around peacekeeping still has not changed. Despite years of internal and external investigations, reports and recommendations about the heinous abuses committed by peacekeepers, the UN and its member states still fail to ensure accountability, to provide redress for victims, or to protect whistleblowers.
In 1999, Kathy Bolkovac blew the whistle on UN peacekeepers who had trafficked Ukrainian women into post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina and enslaved them for UN personnel to rape. She was fired soon afterwards, and sued the UN contractor who sacked her for unfair dismissal. Although some peacekeepers were sent home as a result of Bolkovac’s actions, none of them faced criminal charges: instead, the hero was vilified and those who perpetrated the abuses walked away unscathed.
When it comes to abuses by troops wearing its blue helmets, the UN might say that it cannot directly hold peacekeepers who commit abuses accountable. It’s true that the UN does not have a court in which to prosecute those individuals – and nor does it have sufficient authority to investigate allegations – but what it does have is power, both financial and political. That power can and must be used to force states to hold their troops accountable when they commit abuses on UN missions.
As things stand, peacekeepers still operate in a culture of impunity. Allegations against them are unlikely to be investigated. Even if they are, those who work directly for the UN they cannot be prosecuted in the country in which they commit the crime. François Hollande has vowed to show “no mercy” in this case – but that would be a first, since peacekeepers’ own states have rarely held them accountable for crimes committed on missions.
For two decades, evidence has been submitted implying that peacekeepers have raped children, have forced women and girls into prostitution and have demanded sex in exchange for food hand-outs that they were employed to distribute.
But time and again, troops at whom fingers are pointed have been brought home and allowed to quietly re-enter society. Even when evidence is delivered into their home countries’ hands, peacekeepers are unlikely to be held to account.
In 2012, for example, Uruguay was shamed into prosecuting five peacekeepers on charges of raping a disabled child in Haiti because overwhelming evidence was presented in the public arena – and yet the case collapsed on a technicality.
This time, the troops in question are not under the UN’s auspices; they are from France, and the aid worker, Anders Kompass, leaked the internal report to French authorities. There is some hope that France will actually prosecute the troops who committed these heinous abuses, but it should never have fallen to a whistleblower to give this evidence to French prosecutors. The UN had that evidence, but failed to make it public or to pass it on.
The UN must be serious about doing no harm when entering the most fragile and vulnerable countries in the world, and member states must adhere to the same standard. And the only way to do that – as Hollande seems to realise – is to end the culture of impunity that lets peacekeeping troops know they can get away with horrific abuses.
Note: After this article was published, it became clear that the report it mentions is not about UN peacekeepers. It is about the French forces based in CAR, part of the French-led military operation known as Operation Sangaris. They were authorised by the UN Security Council in December 2013, but do not operate under the leadership of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO). The article has been updated to make this distinction clear.
The article also originally stated that the report had been leaked to the advocacy group Aids-Free World. This was inaccurate, and has been corrected.