UNITED NATIONS – The U.N.'s poor handling of child sexual abuse claims against French soldiers has human rights staffers fearing for their jobs as they struggle with how to respond to highly sensitive allegations in the future, according to a letter to the world body's human rights chief obtained by The Associated Press.
In a separate letter to the U.N. secretary-general, a woman who worked directly under the U.N. staffer who was suspended for alerting French authorities is protesting her dismissal last week, a day before she says she was to testify in support of him for an internal U.N. investigation.
A year after the U.N. first heard children as young as 9 describe how they were given cookies or water bottles in exchange for sodomy or oral sex by French soldiers protecting their displaced persons camp in conflict-torn Central African Republic, it seems the only person who has been punished is the staffer who told the French. France has not announced any arrests and this week said it was still investigating.
In statements marked "strictly confidential" and first reported by the AP this week, the U.N. deputy high commissioner for human rights in March said she had "failed to follow up" on the allegations gathered by her own office, even as French authorities pressed U.N. officials for several months for more information.
The two new letters indicate a crisis in an office that says it "represents the world's commitment to universal ideals of human dignity."
The letter dated May 8 from U.N. human rights field staffers is an angry response to last month's suspension of colleague Anders Kompass for telling French authorities, a decision that the U.N. Dispute Tribunal reversed this month. The U.N. says Kompass breached protocol in sharing the report of children's allegations without redacting the names in it. An internal investigation continues, and he could be fired.
"What could have been a success story showing the world how we act is, once again, a failure for the U.N.," says the letter to the high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein. It is not clear how many people signed it.
"What should be the role of a human rights officer while confronting serious allegations of human rights abuses?" the letter asks. "Will we be able to do our work without fearing punishment and retaliation?"
A spokesman for the human rights office, Andre-Michel Essoungou, said Thursday that he had not seen the letter. "Ultimately, though, the issue is not whether staff should fear anything when they act but about sharing information without protecting victims/witnesses as we should," he said in an email.
In a separate May 23 letter to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon, Miranda Brown says her dismissal this month "bears all the hallmarks of retaliation." Her letter says she was the acting director of the human rights office's Africa branch, working directly under Kompass, shortly after the report with the children's allegations reached the office's Geneva headquarters last summer.
Brown's letter says she was the "key contact" at the time between the office and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic. The mission included human rights staffers. The French soldiers were supporting the mission under a U.N. mandate.
Her letter notes the rumor that a second staffer, a woman, had also given the allegations to the French, and Brown says it wasn't her. A confidential statement by Zeid dated late March, obtained by the AP, mentions "not one but possibly two sources."
If the U.N. wants a complete investigation into how the child sexual abuse allegations were handled, it will need Brown's testimony, her letter says.
Brown asserts that under Swiss law she is no longer protected against a possible defamation claim for giving testimony in the U.N. internal investigation, now that she no longer works for the United Nations.
Her letter says she was terminated May 21. The next day, an investigator with the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services was still asking her to testify, a copy of the email request shows. The investigator says he isn't clear how the immunity issue would affect her. Another email from the office, shortly after Brown was told in mid-May she would be dismissed, invites her to testify between May 19 and 22. A third email calls the matter "rather urgent."
Brown has criticized the U.N.'s whistleblower protections in the past, and in her latest letter she worries that's being used against her.
On Thursday, Brown said she has had no response. Spokesmen for Ban had no immediate comment.
The spokesman for the secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, this week told reporters that the current investigation will look into how the entire U.N. system handled the child sexual abuse allegations, but U.N. employees have expressed doubt that it will look beyond what the U.N. human rights chief has called the "leak" to the French.
Kompass has not spoken publicly because the case is under investigation.