A UN investigation into scores of allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers in Central African Republic has identified 41 alleged perpetrators among the troops.
The inquiry, which began in April when fresh allegations of sexual abuse emerged within CAR, reported its findings on Monday at a briefing held by the secretary general’s press secretary in New York.
In a statement on Monday, the UN said an investigation by a team from the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) had interviewed 139 complainants. All had alleged sexual exploitation and abuse at the hands of UN peacekeepers in 2014 and 2015 in the Kémo province of CAR.
Some identified troops who had allegedly abused them via photographs and other corroborating evidence, and 41 soldiers – 16 from Gabon and 25 from Burundi – were identified as alleged perpetrators, said Stéphane Dujarric, the secretary general’s spokesman.
The allegations are the latest in a stream of abuse claims made by women and children in the country which suggest the troops – who were sent to protect civilians amid violence between Muslim rebels and Christian militias in 2013 – were able to exploit their position to target the vulnerable.
The UN said it was now up to the authorities in Gabon and Burundi to take action against the accused soldiers, all of whom had left CAR before the allegations emerged in March.
Of 130 possible victims, 83 were unable to corroborate their accounts or identify the perpetrators, Dujarric said. Three accounts were found to be unreliable. But 45 alleged victims were able to identify 41 alleged abusers, the investigators said. Twenty-five children alleged sexual abuse and exploitation by the troops.
“The investigators relied primarily on the testimony of possible victims and witnesses, given the lack of medical, forensic or any other physical evidence,” Dujarric said. “This was due to the fact that the majority of the allegations referred to incidents that took place a year or more earlier. Everyone who came forward with claims, both minors and adults, were assisted by national and international partners.”
He said the UN had shared the report with Gabon and Burundi, including the names of the identified alleged perpetrators, and had requested appropriate judicial actions be taken to ensure criminal accountability.
“Responsibility for further investigations lies with Burundi and Gabon. The United Nations has requested from the Burundian and Gabonese authorities that they review the OIOS findings and conduct the interviews of the alleged perpetrators who had all been rotated out from Central African Republic before the allegations surfaced. The United Nations has asked for a copy of the final national investigation reports to be transmitted urgently,” Dujarric said.
“The United Nations condemns, in the strongest terms, all acts of sexual exploitation and abuse committed by peacekeepers or any other UN personnel and will maintain follow-up so that perpetrators of these abhorrent acts are brought to justice.”
The UN was previously heavily criticised for not responding more quickly to allegations of sexual exploitation by French peacekeepers in CAR in 2014.
This inaction led a whistleblower, Anders Kompass, to pass an internal report on the abuse to French prosecutors. In December 2015 an independent panel said the response had been “seriously flawed” and a “gross institutional failure”.
When new allegations emerged relating to Gabonese and Burundian troops within the UN’s peacekeeping force Minusca in March this year, the response was swift and came from the top.
Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN human rights chief, said at the time that investigators “must leave no stone unturned”.
“We are taking these allegations, some of which are particularly odious, extremely seriously. It is vital that the victims are protected and receive all necessary care,” he said.
Most of the allegations related to Burundian and Gabonese peacekeepers in Kémo between 2014 and 2015 when the troops were under the UN mandate as peacekeepers in Minusca.
By April this year the OIOS had sent officials to the region to investigate the allegations against members of the Minusca force. The team worked with Burundian and Gabonese police. At its height the investigation involved 31 OIOS officials.
People who came forward to make allegations were supported by Unicef via a local charity, which provided financial support as part of what Unicef said was a routine part of the response to sexual abuse allegations made worldwide.
A leaked draft memo from the investigation team published by Reuters in October suggested some individuals might have come forward for financial gain.
In the end however UN investigators said only the accounts of 3 individuals were deemed unreliable.
The memo dated 24 August was written by Mercedes Gervilla, the chief of the UN’s field support conduct and discipline unit, who suggested individuals were coming forward for financial gain.
She wrote: “OIOS notes that many of the complaints followed a specific pattern of accusations; many of the complainants’ stories were nearly identical, lacked specific details and fell apart when probed. It appeared as though the complainants had memorised a script.”
The memo claimed the charity had provided one-off payments of $35 to 106 complainants – a claim that has not been denied.
Unicef defends the practice of giving financial support, saying it has a longstanding arrangement with a local charity to provide care to children and women who come forward as victims of sexual abuse. It said the payment was part of a package of support for victims of gender-based violence.
A Unicef spokeswoman said it was not the job of the agency to pass judgment on allegations of sexual abuse. “As a first-line responder to these incidents, Unicef proceeds on the assumption that a person coming forward as a victim is entitled to care and support,” she said.
But for some critics the practice highlights problems of conflict of interest and a lack of independence within the UN when tackling peacekeeper abuse allegations.
Paula Donovan, of Code Blue, which campaigns to highlight how peacekeepers can sexually abuse with “impunity”, said: “The system now in place permits almost all the criminal perpetrators within UN peacekeeping missions to escape prosecution.”
Code Blue is calling for the establishment of special courts within countries where peacekeepers are stationed, to deal with sexual abuse allegations. Funded by member states and staffed by an independent team of lawyers, they would focus exclusively on the investigation and prosecution of peacekeeper perpetrators of sexual abuse on civilians.
“Overnight this solution would correct the two major defects in the system of justice now – the conflict of interest every time UN staff step in as unauthorised intermediaries in criminal matters, and … the damage done when the UN preaches good governance without practising it,” Donovan said.
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