Faced with a growing uproar over the United Nations’ handling of allegations of child sexual abuse by non-U.N. peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has suddenly scrambled to announce an “external, independent review” panel to examine that issue, along with “a broad range of systemic issues related to how the U.N. responds to serious information of this kind.”
Ban, who declared himself “deeply disturbed” by the situation, said on Wednesday his intent was “to ensure that the United Nations does not fail the victims of sexual abuse, especially when committed by those who are meant to protect them.”
In fact, Fox News has learned, Ban’s action was also urged on him two days earlier by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power, as U.N. member states dickered in committee over a resolution that criticized Ban for the “perceived lack of timely information” he had provided on the abuse issue and the “lack of protection of whistleblower” associated with the CAR incidents.
At the time of Ban’s announcement, U.S. and European diplomats were still offering up alternative wordings in committee to temper the harsher language.
Ban’s spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, told Fox News that “the need to set up such a review has been in discussion for a long time,” but the specific terms of reference of the inquiry and its membership were not revealed in Ban’s announcement, though he did specify it would look into “the treatment of the specific report of abuse in the Central African Republic.”
According to Dujarric, both the terms of reference and the membership of the probe will be revealed “as soon as possible” –a fairly clear indication that Ban’s sparse announcement was intended more as an initial fire-fighting gesture than a fully-planned response to the sex-abuse crisis.
Another way to look at it is that the U.N.’s top bureaucrat was trying to keep the explosive sex abuse issue from spinning further out of control, amid a gout of document leaks, finger-pointing and U.N. investigations criticized as focused on hushing up leakers than on protecting additional young and starving children in the war-torn CAR from rape, sodomy and other predatory offenses.
Moreover, the CAR controversy is only the latest crest in a swelling critique of the U.N.’s ability to protect the innocent from sex abuse where its blue-and-white flag is flying—a critique that includes a long-suppressed report of U.N.-appointed experts who have decried a “culture of impunity” in U.N. peacekeeping missions when it comes to such crimes.
The latest controversy has been further fueled by U.N. document leaks that raised the possibility of retaliatory collusion by the organization’s independent Ethics Officer; the head of its main independent internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS); the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Ban’s top deputy against Anders Kompass, a senior U.N. human rights official who first brought the Central African Republic scandal into the daylight.
That interpretation was strenuously denied by one senior U.N. official, who requested anonymity, while for her part, the U.N. Ethics Officer, Joan Dubinsky, declined comment saying “I don’t believe it is appropriate to comment on leaked documents.”
U.N. spokesman Dujarric told Fox News that an investigation of Kompass by OIOS for “possible staff misconduct,” initiated in March, would nonetheless continue in parallel with the still-unformed inquiry panel. “Any relevant information of a broad systemic nature that will come out of that investigation will be considered by the review,” he declared.
Kompass has already been asked to resign at the behest of the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. He refused.
Kompass was then briefly suspended from his work—until a U.N. tribunal reversed the action-- in conjunction with his investigation by OIOS for passing on transcripts by U.N.-collected testimony from children who described their sexual abuse and exploitation by French and African peacekeepers in the chaos-shattered CAR in 2013 and 2014. The children were aged from 9 to 13.
The troops were from a multinational contingent that preceded the current U.N. peacekeeping mission in CAR—the U.N. forces took over in September 2015-- but were operating with U.N. Security Council approval.
Kompass got the U.N. report on the childrens’ testimony on July 15, 2014. He told a French diplomat about it roughly a week later, and in a written declaration has said he told his immediate superior in the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) about his disclosure “shortly thereafter.”
Kompass has subsequently made no secret of the fact that he passed on the raw testimony to French military authorities by the end of that month, bypassing his own superiors, who said they discovered the action when French investigators approached the U.N. It was more than eight months later that he was asked to resign.
In a wave of claims and counter-claims, U.N. and French officials have each blamed the other for delays in investigating the allegations, but while the U.N. has claimed that it has cooperated fully, its interviewers only answered written questions from the French military probers.
The investigative waters were roiled even further with the publication of internal emails and documents that showed top U.N. officials, including Ethics Office head Dubinsky, along with OIOS head Carman LaPointe, Zaid, and Ban’s chef de cabinet, Susana Malcorra, grappling with how to cope with the Kompass actions.
The documents were published by a non-government organization named AIDS-Free World, as part of a campaign called Code Blue. The campaign calls for an “entirely independent, external Commission of Inquiry, with full access to the U.N. as well as subpoena power, to examine every facet of sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping operations” and an automatic end to diplomatic immunity for any U.N. official or peacekeeper accused of such abuse.
Among the documents were emails that summarized a meeting among the officials on the periphery of a March 19-20 Ban Ki-moon retreat in Turin, Italy, where they agreed to ask Kompass to “document the sequence of events that he believed supported” a claim to whistleblower status—a designation that ultimately is made by the Ethics Officer, independently of other U.N. branches.
Other emails document a dispute within OIOS over who would authorize Kompass’ investigation—a responsibility claimed by Lapointe personally.
The documents also underline a profound confusion among the officials about what they were even supposed to be discussing—for much of the conversation at least some of them believed they were discussing malfeasance in Mali.
According to a senior U.N. official, the internal discussions about Kompass and his case were no more than a routine sorting-out of the responsibilities involved in dealing with an employee who had already admitted his actions while simultaneously claiming protected whistleblower status for them.
In the U.N.’s case, establishing that status often involves notification of the established chain of command of perceived wrongdoing before going elsewhere with the information, which Kompass did not do.
At the same time, the official noted, OIOS’ investigations division is a “mess” that is rife with dissention and back-biting, which made its proper functioning nearly impossible.
For critics, however, the same documentation is proof that the ostensible independence of OIOS and the U.N. Ethics Office in investigating wrong-doing and protecting whistle-blowers is only a sham.
“The Code Blue documents show that Malcorra and others at the most senior levels of the UN were entirely indifferent to the welfare of little boys as young as nine years old being subjected to the most egregious sexual abuse,” argues Peter Gallo, a former OIOS investigator who left the organization in March.
“The very essence of whistleblower protection is to protect staff members from retaliatory actions by management, but in the UN, it is now clear that the Ethics Office and management are on the same side.”
“There should be a solid wall between these people,” Paula Donovan, co-founder of AIDS-Free World, told Fox News. “The regulations are very clear. They are supposed to be impartial.” And when they were joined by Zaid—Kompass’ boss—and his deputy “that was completely against the rules.”
Instead, she argued, the evidence points to the conclusion that they were “investigating the best way” to get rid of him.
(Unrelated to the Code Blue documents, another U.N. official, Miranda Brown, who worked directly under Kompass and was aware of his decisions, has charged that she was forced out of her job by means of an unwanted transfer to Fiji the day before she was scheduled to talk with OIOS investigators.)
The propriety of the meetings and emails concerning Kompass was also criticized by Robert Appleton, the former head of investigations for the U.N. Procurement Task Force, a special anti-corruption unit within OIOS that existed between 2006 and 2009.
The communications are “deeply troubling,” Appleton, a highly-regarded former U.S. prosecutor, told Fox News. “Their priorities appear to be quite skewed.”
Among other things, he said, during his tenure at OIOS, “we did not coordinate with the Ethics Office - -other than to recommend that they pursue whistleblower retaliation claims.”
In addition, “OIOS is independent for a reason,” Appleton asserted, “in part so that the process not only is, but appears to be, fair, objective and free of bias and influence.
“Investigations are conducted in confidence so as not to prejudice the process , prejudice the subject, or the outcome, and so as not to create a conflict with the administration that potentially needs to carry on with disciplinary processes following the investigation.”
The same questions of confidence are going to surround Secretary-General Ban’s newly announced “external independent review.”
A spokesman for the Code Blue campaigners, for example, “welcomed” the announcement and then added provisos, starting with “No member of existing U.N. staff should be appointed to investigate nor to act as the investigators’ secretariat,” and the notion that the broader the inquiry, the better.
To be credible, the spokesman added, the inquiry should include an examination of “top members of the Secretary-General’s own staff,” singling out by title Dubinsky, LaPointe and Malcorra.
But there should also be plenty of other grist for the panelists’ work, including a report that OIOS itself has promised to make public by mid-June, entitled an “Evaluation of protection against sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping operations.”
Based on recent U.N. experience, the news it brings is unlikely to be good.
George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/George Russell