The United Nations is guilty of patterns of indifference, inaction, buck-passing and deliberate cover-up in its investigation of sex crimes against young children by non-U.N. peacekeepers in the Central African Republic (CAR), according to an independent panel of jurists and human rights experts.
The long-awaited, 143-page report of the three-member panel, appointed by the U.N. and chaired by former Canadian Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps, cited repeated examples of U.N. inaction, go-slow investigation, suppression of information and bureaucratic roadblocks erected against investigations by French authorities trying to probe the abuse.
The panelists declared that “the failure to take preventative steps and to intervene to stop the abuses exposed the children (and potentially other victims) to repeated assaults of the most egregious nature.”
They noted that the wall of bureaucratic indifference might well have prevented the discovery of even more victims of sexual abuse, and “the possibility of a broader pattern of sexual violence by some international peacekeeping troops.”
The report also sent out shock waves by singling out -- not by name, but by identifiable positions—an eyebrow-raising number of current and former top U.N. officials for criticism in the CAR scandal.
They were largely scored for their inaction in investigating the abuse allegations early or aggressively enough or for muting the sordid alleged actions, or for compromising themselves by taking part in meetings last March and April to consider how to squelch another official who blew the lid off the abuse scandal.
The higher-ups cited included three that the panel concluded had committed official “abuse of authority,” meaning a level of knowing culpability that inflicted personal harm, and grounds for possible disciplinary action by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon—if the official was still a U.N. employee.
The three: U.N. Secretary General Ban’s former Special Envoy and top man in peacekeeping on the ground in CAR, General Babacar Gaye of Senegal; Renner Onana, former head of the Human Rights and Justice Section (HRJS) in CAR, a U.N. unit that did initial on-ground investigation of the alleged sexual abuse; and Carmen LaPointe, recently retired as head of the U.N.’s internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS).
(Ban had already gotten Gaye’s resignation last June, after Amnesty International charged that three U.N. peacekeepers had participated in a rape in CAR’s capital of Bangui.)
Other officials cited by the panelists whose actions apparently did not reach the “abuse of authority” bar but were criticized for their judgment and actions included Ban Ki-moon’s then Chef de Cabinet, Susana Malcorra, who is now Foreign Minister of Argentina; the U.N.’s then-Chief Ethics Officer, Joan Dubinsky, who left the U.N. last August; Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict; and the current High Commissioner for Human Rights, Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein.
All of them denied the charges or confronted the criticism in responses appended to the report.
Zeid in particular strongly defended himself against the notion that he had, as the report put it, “a single-minded determination to pursue an investigation”—not of the alleged crimes, but of a senior U.N. human rights official on his staff, Anders Kompass, who took raw eyewitness testimony about the sexual abuse to French authorities in a bid to stop the sexual abuse, and shortly thereafter told his superiors what he had done.
(Like everyone else in the report, Kompass is mentioned only by title, not by name.)
Nothing happened to Kompass for eight months after his self-outing to his superiors, until he was asked to resign by Zeid’s deputy, and refused. He was then suspended while the internal investigation continued, until a U.N. judge ordered him returned to his job.
Kompass has remained publicly silent ever since, while the internal investigation against him has proceeded. In the wake of the panel’s report, he broke the silence to declare that its findings “coincide with what I have always maintained: in reporting sexual assaults on children in Bangui to the French authorities, I was just doing my job. The welfare of the children was my priority.”
In his rejoinder to the panel report, Zeid pushed back against the notion that there was “something vindictive about my approach to calling for the investigation” of Kompass, but continued to castigate his subordinate for jeopardizing the welfare of sexual abuse victims by failing to redact their names and other details.
For its part, the panel noted that if it had taken the U.N. eight months to react to Kompass’ release of personal information, maybe the release had not been so calamitous.
The panel described the decision by OIOS chief LaPointe to push ahead in defiance of normal procedures with the investigation Zeid called for as the main reason for citing her official “abuse of authority.” LaPointe left her position in September after finishing a normal five-year term.
For its part, the external panel defended Kompass’ whistleblowing efforts as both justified and allowable under U.N. rules and regulations—even though the OIOS investigation against him is still continuing and in its final stages.
The broader problems of the CAR scandal, however, the panelists underlined, go beyond individuals, and have been well-covered in “several high-level reports.”
They are rooted in the U.N.’s dependence on nation-states to provide peacekeeping forces, whether those forces are given official U.N. peacekeeping status or not, and in the sloth and sclerosis of a tangle of U.N. agencies that is often disposed to duck risk and confrontation rather than solve life-and-death problems.
More specifically in the CAR scandal, the panel noted, the U.N.’s “far from adequate” response resulted in part from “a fundamental misperception by U.N. staff of the U.N.’s obligations in responding to sexual violence by peacekeepers.”
Simply put, the U.N. has tended to look on peacekeeper crimes as covered by rules governing U.N. personnel only, or “misconduct as a disciplinary matter,” which leaves troops that are outside U.N. command also outside the U.N.’s jurisdiction.
The other viewpoint, the report noted, “looks at the victim first,” and sees “conflict related sexual violence by peacekeepers”—whether wearing a U.N. blue helmet or not—as “not merely a disciplinary matter but a serious human rights violation.”
During the panel’s investigations, the report noted, “it became clear that in the eyes of many U.N. staff, the human rights framework does not apply to allegations of sexual violence by peacekeepers.”
Indeed, in cases where non-U.N. peacekeepers are involved, “some U.N. staff take the view that the U.N. has no obligation, or indeed authority, to address the reported sexual violence.”
In the CAR case, the external panel pointed, among other things, to such disturbing incidents as:
? an “appalling” year-long lag by UNICEF in providing medical help to six children as young as 8 who claimed they suffered rape and sexual abuse from French and African peacekeepers operating under a U.N. mandate in CAR in late 2013 and early 2014 ;
? the fact that a claim by UNICEF to provide “psychological support” to the abused children turned out to be “a single two-hour session” with a social worker, assisted by a lawyer.
? a lack of follow-up in searching for additional cases, despite the fact that the childrens’ testimony indicated “that the violations were likely not isolated”;
? a “prolonged” refusal to lift the immunity of U.N. officials to testify in French legal proceedings to probe the alleged crimes after they were uncovered.
What to do?
The panel offered an array of recommendations to change the situation, many of them of long standing, and some recently suggested by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in a bid to revitalize the U.N.’s global peacekeeping mission.
But among the newer ones was to urge the U.N. to “acknowledge that abuses by peacekeepers are a form of conflict related sexual violence that needs to be addressed under the U.N.’s human rights policies” to lower the resistance to reporting on peacekeeper abuse.
Another suggestion: end some of the buck-passing and fragmented authority by creating a “Coordination Unit” inside High Commissioner Zeid’s office, backed up by a working group of experts, that would report directly to him and oversee the monitoring, tracking and follow-up on cases of alleged sexual abuse.
The panel also placed weight on making non-U.N. troops more accountable by writing new agreements with all troop-contributing countries (in U.N.-speak, TCCs), blue-helmeted or not, to adopt the blended human rights-plus-U.N. disciplinary approach. These would include “robust measures facilitating investigation and prosecution of crimes of sexual violence” either by the TCC, the U.N., or the “host state” where the alleged crimes occurred.
Would that work?
The ever-cautious Secretary General Ban has been pushing for variants on some of the suggestions for years through his “zero tolerance policy,” and not getting a lot of traction.
In his own statement welcoming the panel report, Ban declared that he intended to “urgently review the panel’s recommendations and act without delay to ensure that systemic issues, fragmentation and other problems are fully addressed. “
He added, “I stress, however, that some of these recommendations will require the involvement and approval of Member States.”
And then he concluded, “For my part, while I may not agree with every assertion in the report, I accept its broad findings.”
For her part, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Powers, who had strongly urged Ban to appoint the CAR panel in the first place, seemed to be in show-me mode.
“Commissioning, producing, and releasing this report are important steps.,” she declared in a statement on her Mission’s website. “Now the world is looking to the U.N. to take urgent and comprehensive steps to make sure this never happens again.”
Don’t count on it, is the rejoinder from Paula Donovan, co-director of a non-government organization named AIDS-Free World, which published internal U.N. documents that focused international attention on the scandal.
On her website, Donovan posted, “For us, it is clear that the Secretary-General’s utterances, assurances and presentations about the goal of ‘zero tolerance’ are not to be trusted. For nine years, while paying lip service to his commitment to the zero tolerance policy, he has managed a set of institutional arrangements that have failed on every front.”
As for the abused children themselves, a spokesperson for UNICEF told Fox News all of them
“are now receiving support, including food and financial assistance. Some are with their families, others in foster care and one is in a care center. They are all in school. Staff from a local organization and UNICEF are visiting them routinely.”
In a formal statement, the child welfare organization also said that “we have instituted a new system of reporting within UNICEF to improve internal oversight of our response to reports of abuse,” along with more oversight of its partners “on the support they are providing to child sexual abuse victims – with periodic follow up by UNICEF regarding that support.”