The United Nations is facing new allegations that peacekeepers in Central African Republic sexually assaulted at least three children under 18 and raped three adult women earlier this year, the latest in a series of sexual misconduct claims that have marred U.N. peacekeeping efforts in recent years.
The U.N. said Friday it has detained a suspect after its preliminary inquiry into the allegations involving the minors, who were allegedly abused by Mauritanian troops participating in the peacekeeping mission . The rape accusations pertain to troops from Cameroon who haven't been identified, the U.N. said.
The U.N. is now asking Mauritania and Cameroon to investigate. Their U.N. missions didn't immediately respond to requests for comment. Nor did Central African Republic's mission.
It's normal procedure for the U.N. to ask peacekeepers' home countries to investigate such allegations. The world body could investigate if the countries don't, however. It can't prosecute peacekeepers, but it can provide evidence to their countries, which are responsible for taking action if accusations are substantiated.
The U.N. has gotten scrutiny in recent years over claims of child rape and other sexual abuse by peacekeepers, and the four-year-old mission in Central African Republic has been confronted with a particularly high number of claims. It also has been a focus of criticism from a watchdog group over how accusations have been handled.
U.N. officials said the new claims of sexual abuse of minors involve four Mauritanian peacekeepers and alleged incidents in the southern part of CAR at various times, including in May and August. The U.N. wouldn't divulge more details about the accusations, including the alleged victims' ages or locale.
The peacekeeping mission said in a press release that word of the accusations reached the U.N. special representative for CAR, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, on Sept. 24, and he quickly dispatched staffers to the site of the reported abuse.
"Given to the seriousness of these allegations and the information gathered by the preliminary fact-finding team, the U.N. took immediate and appropriate measures," including detaining the sole suspect who has been identified, spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
The peacekeeping mission added that Onanga-Anyanga would "take further action against identified perpetrators."
The other allegations involve six Cameroonian troops and alleged rapes in April, according to a U.N. chart of sexual misconduct claims. U.N. officials gave no other details but said the organization notified Cameroon of the claim Sept. 28.
An Associated Press investigative series last year uncovered roughly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers in various locales over a 12-year period.
The roughly 11,000-troop peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic counted more sexual misconduct allegations — 52— than any other U.N. peacekeeping mission in 2016, though the number dropped to 19 last year.
The Code Blue Campaign, a watchdog initiative, said last year that leaked case files showed "egregious mishandling" of some of those 2016 allegations, including cases in which alleged victims weren't interviewed.
The U.N. has vowed to end impunity for sexual misconduct and to work with peacekeeper-contributing countries to do more to combat it among their ranks.
Last year, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appointed the U.N.'s first-ever victims' rights advocate, banned alcohol and fraternization for troops and convened a high-level meeting on sexual abuse and exploitation, among other efforts to tackle the issue.
But in the wake of the new allegations, Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and the Code Blue Campaign, said Friday the U.N.'s endeavors amount to "public relations spin" about an ongoing crisis.
"Despite its protestations of 'zero tolerance,' the U.N.'s military and civilian personnel continue to commit depraved sexual violence," Donovan said.
The peacekeeping mission in CAR arose from a regional force deployed after Muslim militias called the Seleka violently took power in the country in 2013, and largely Christian militias fought back. The conflict killed thousands of people and spurred more than a million to flee their homes.