Human Rights

Peacekeeper battalion in Central African Republic challenges UN 'war' on sexual abuse

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, who in March vowed an all-out war on the plague of sexual abuse by U.N.-sponsored peacekeepers in vulnerable, strife-torn nations, is apparently locked in a major, closed-door chapter in that campaign—a struggle he so far does not appear to have won.

At issue is what to do with at least 650 troops from the Republic of the Congo, currently stationed as peacekeepers in the battered Central African Republic (CAR), whose alleged indiscipline, poor leadership, repeated involvement in sexual exploitation and abuse cases, and overall threadbare competence make them a special peacekeeping disaster.

A confidential memorandum and internal report, made public  this week by the U.N.’s most persistent critic on the sexual abuse issue, reveals that the problem has become a full-blown internal crisis that not only adds to the years-old U.N. sexual abuse chronicles but severely undercuts the $900 million, 10,750-troop peacekeeping mission in CAR, known by the acronym MINUSCA.

Yet the same report, and the U.N.’s circumspection surrounding its unexpected release, show that the world organization is still caught up in a self-made conundrum of how to act decisively against a  “culture of impunity” surrounding peacekeeper crimes, when the powers of disciplinary action largely remain with the troop-contributing countries that supply its forces.

But now, matters seem to be coming to a head. In the confidential memo, written on May 12, the U.N.’s top commander in CAR, Lt. General Balla Keita, declares that he considers the “notorious” Congolese unit “no longer trustable” and “unable and even unwilling to fulfill operational tasks, thus putting the [entire peacekeeping] Force’s efficiency and credibility at risk.”

Keita, who has commanded MINUSCA since February 2016, recommends the removal and replacement of the rogue battalion if the troop-supplying Congolese government “won’t commit itself to improving without delay the standard of the unit.”

CLICK HERE FOR THE MEMO

Just how likely that is, Keita indicates by noting that more than five Congolese delegations  have already visited CAR “with the objective to correct the shortcomings” without making enough of a difference.

In fact, a  66-page confidential report known as an “operational readiness assessment” that is referenced in Keita’s memo  and was also made public, says that  120 people from the battalion have already been “repatriated on disciplinary grounds,” cutting its strength to the current 650. 

The report goes on at length to describe the almost endless maladies of the Congolese unit:   idleness,  feuding commanders, lack of effective equipment—including workable vehicles, which means they can’t patrol the huge territory they are meant to cover-- poor communications with other peacekeeping units, lack of ground-to-air radios, laughable camp defenses,  lack of water treatment facilities (despite the presence of cholera in CAR, and high-profile U.N. cholera scandals elsewhere) and other unsanitary conditions.

It also notes that the battalion is incapable, as matters stand, of bringing a halt to depredations by armed gangs that are one major sign of a deteriorating security situation in CAR, a country U.N. officials have been lauding for its efforts to return to stability after years of violence and civil strife.

More importantly from the point of stopping sexual abuse, the report notes that the undisciplined soldiers have casual access to the neighboring town of  Berberati, where they buy food since they do not have a regular military kitchen.

That, and the lack of perimeter defenses around the camp, including even secure fences, make for the kind of constant casual contact that can lead to sexual abuse cases—not to mention a dangerously slack security situation.

Some of the problems, the report says, result from a move by the Congolese to a new camp that was, it seems, dramatically incomplete at the time of the shift, including the fact that it did not have an electrical power supply, but the bigger problem, it insists, is a leadership vacuum that has made the battalion is currently close to ungovernable.

The mission inspection report includes more than two full pages of recommendations on how to improve the situation, but declares that “there are major issues that still need to be finalized.”

It also asserts, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that the Congolese officers and troops “are capable and willing to perform assigned tasks from MINUSCA.”

Perhaps most astonishingly of all, amid its focus on all of the Congolese battalion’s disastrous shortcomings, the assessment still rates the overall capabilities of the rogue unit, based on elaborate checklist, to be about “average” for peacekeeping units.

And  the U.N. appears, on the surface anyway, to be trying to give the impression that not much is out of the ordinary at the Berberati camp—at least until the leaked documents showed otherwise. 

Queried by Fox News, a spokesperson for the U.N.’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York  on Wednesday blandly described the assessment report, based on a visit made to the Congolese battalion’s camp on March 14-16, as  one of several “routine evaluations that we are conducting for all deployed contingents as per our policy framework for operational readiness assurance.”

At a regular daily press conference, the Secretary General’s spokesperson, Stephane Dujarric, offered the same routine evaluation theme,  and declared, “The result of the evaluation, which was done not too long ago, has been shared with the Member State, and we’re following up on various options.”

He also said that “what the report shows is that the Force Commander [Keita] is doing his job.”

The question  posed by the organization that published the leaked documents, a gadfly non-government organization named AIDS-Free World, whose Code Blue campaign against U.N. peacekeeper sexual abuse has brought enormous pressure on the U.N. to reform its ugly sexual abuse track record, was whether Guterres would now do his.

In an open letter on their  website,  the Code Blue campaigners, led by activist Paula Donovan and onetime Canadian Ambassador to the U.N. Stephen Lewis, urged Guterres to “act to protect civilians” in the area near the Congolese camp, and said that “official statements from U.N. headquarters about ‘game-changing strategies’ will do nothing to prevent further sexual exploitation and abuse if the U.N. fails at the basic job of due diligence.”

“Surely,” the duo declared, “U.N. headquarters does not require even more evidence before it will act.”

“What will it take for the U.N. to institute real reforms?” Donovan later told Fox News in an email exchange. “How many more reports have to come out?”

Code Blue has long proposed a solution that cuts the U.N. out of investigating sex crimes and other offense committed by its own force, and proposed instead an  independent court mechanism that would bypass the U.N.’s notorious “culture of impunity” when it comes to investigating peacekeeper offenses.

The latest Code Blue postings of internal documents were clearly intended to push Secretary General Guterres into dramatic action that would back up his March 9 pledge of  a “relentless effort” to end impunity for sex crimes. 

The timing of the controversial assessment report visit—it started three days after Guterres’ speech—indicates that the exercise may well be part of the Secretary General’s reformist  action plan, intended to take a hard look at the most blatant example yet of the peacekeeper debacle.

Trouble is, if the disturbingly “average” capabilities of the rogue CAR battalion don’t draw drastic  action from Guterres to draw the line on peacekeeping discipline, what will “average” in the rest of U.N. peacekeeping look like?

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell

George Russell is editor-at-large of Fox News and can be found on Twitter: @GeorgeRussell or on Facebook.com/GeorgeRussell