In UN circles, they are called ‘peacekeeper babies’. They are the infants inevitably born to local women after the UN has deployed troops to regions in turmoil, and the ages of these children map the dates and direction of operations in some of the most vulnerable parts of the world. In the Central African Republic, however, they are also indicative of something much more concerning: a scandal of extreme sexual abuse that has, since 2014, implicated UN peacekeepers on an institutional level. The scandal in the CAR is an example of abuse of power and betrayal of trust by those with the greatest duty to protect, where human rights are violated by individuals representing an organisation which supposedly has human rights at its very core.
Nestled at the heart of the African continent, the Central African Republic is a former French colony that gained independence in 1960, and has since experienced decades of political turmoil, violent unrest, and at times, all-out civil war. Its neighbouring states of Sudan, South Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo all further contribute to the instability of the region. The latest wave of violence in March 2013 saw Seleka rebels overthrow the elected government and president, General Bozize, after which the UN launched its peacekeeping mission: the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilising Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA). Peacekeepers were deployed in September 2014, and the allegations of sexual abuse swiftly followed.
Particularly implicated in the CAR case are the French Sangaris Forces, against whom there are allegations of a pattern of institutionalised sexual abuse. Young children, most notably in an internally-displaced persons camp just outside of the CAR capital, Bangui, explained to human rights officers and UNICEF staff that certain peacekeepers could be approached for food or money in exchange for submitting to sexual abuse. They also described how it was not uncommon for children to be taken onto military bases in order to be subjected to abuse, suggesting that there was at least a proportion of peacekeepers aware of the abuse who did nothing to prevent it. As the extent to which French forces have been implicated comes to light, even prior to the UN mission officially beginning, an investigation of offences between 2013 and 2015 has now been opened by French prosecutors in Paris.
The Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hérve Ladsous, has acknowledged that the UN needs to do more to tackle the problem of sexual abuse in its peacekeeping forces, even suggesting that DNA samples be taken anonymously from blue helmets upon recruitment. However, such a response fails to acknowledge how often victims are unwilling to come forward, and how many of those affected are minors who do not understand the legal protections and rights they might have. Furthermore, Ladsous’ suggestion is a plaster on a gaping wound; prevention of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in the first place is a significantly better way to protect the vulnerable. As the problem of abuse in MINUSCA has demonstrated, the threat of prosecution often does little to deter perpetrators. The list of victims of these abuses continues to grow.
As of 5th April 2016, three UN peacekeepers accused of sexual abuse in the CAR have gone on trial in the neighbouring DRC, the second of such trials against twenty-one Congolese peacekeepers. Yet, the abuse continues, and more allegations have been made, and the UN states it is now investigating 108 new cases of sexual abuses by peacekeeping forces, as of the same date. In some circumstances, girls were paid as little as 50 cents in return for sex, and one of the most harrowing cases brought to light by investigations into these allegations is the abuse of four young girls by a French commander, who is said to have forced them to commit bestiality.
It is made clear in an independent report, published in December 2015, that the UN has fundamentally failed the victims of peacekeeper abuse in the CAR, by treating the abuse as a disciplinary matter instead of a violation of human rights, humanitarian law, and international criminal law. The offending forces were asked to end the abuse, but little has been done by MINUSCA staff to ensure the safety of children, a failing in which UNICEF is also implicated. In the time since the issuing of the report’s recommendations and 7th April 2016, further allegations have arisen that suggest the UN is still failing its mandate to protect the human rights of vulnerable populations – especially children – in the CAR.
These events come as the latest in a long line of abuse scandals involving UN peacekeepers, as the tainting of UN missions by allegations of sexual assault is not unique to MINUSCA. Operations in Bosnia, Haiti, Liberia, the DRC, and Kosovo – among others – have all had similar accusations levied against them, dating back at least twenty years to the start of the 1990s. Yet, despite investigation after investigation, the commissioning of countless UN reports, and significant pressure from human rights NGOs, the the problem persists with all its severe consequences. The abuses in the CAR are a single, if extreme, expression of a wider and significant problem.
Although not a new problem, the timeline of abuse in the CAR is still profoundly shocking. The integrity of UN operations in CAR – and by extension, other unstable states on the African continent and beyond – has been irrevocably damaged, and it remains to be seen whether the organisation will regain the trust of vulnerable populations, and whether perpetrators will receive the justice they deserve. What is clear is that there is a fundamental problem in the way the UN deals with peacekeepers who commit abuse; despite two decades of such cases, Sec. Gen. Ban Ki-Moon’s “cancer in our system” continues to metastasise.