U.N. investigators expand investigation into veteran U.N. human rights official who disclosed abuses against children in the Central African Republic.
- By Colum LynchColum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. He previously wrote FP’s Turtle Bay blog, for which he was awarded the 2011 National Magazine Award for best reporting in digital media. He was also the silver medal recipient of the 2013 Elizabeth Neuffer Memorial Prize for a three-part series documenting the U.N.’s systemic failure to protect civilians in Darfur, Sudan. Colum’s investigations have uncovered an American spy operation in Iraq, Russia’s monopoly of the $1 billion-a-year U.N. aircraft leasing market, and a Chinese diplomatic campaign to silence U.N. investigators scrutinizing Chinese arms deals in Africa. His deep digs into the U.N. bureaucracy have exposed sexual misconduct by U.N. blue helmets from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and documented monumental dysfunction in the U.N. office charged with rooting out misconduct and corruption. He now devotes his reporting chops to documenting President Donald Trump’s efforts to reorder the international system. Born in Los Angeles, Colum received a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1985 and a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism in 1987. Before moving to FP, Colum reported on diplomacy and national security for the Washington Post for more than a decade. He has appeared frequently on national news programs, including the Lehrer NewsHour, as well as on MSNBC, NPR, and the BBC.
United Nations investigators have reopened an internal probe into whether a top U.N. official improperly shared confidential information about efforts to promote human rights in Western Sahara with a senior official from Morocco, which has long sought to limit the monitoring of abuses there, senior U.N.-based officials told Foreign Policy.
The move marks an escalation by U.N. watchdogs to establish whether Anders Kompass, a highly-regarded U.N. human rights official from Sweden, has leaked sensitive information to foreign governments on the internal workings of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. Kompass is already the target of a separate probe by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) regarding allegations that he wrongfully provided the French government last July with a confidential U.N. report documenting the sexual abuses of children by French soldiers in the Central African Republic.
The case against Kompass has rankled the United States and many other governments, which fear the leak investigation will feed public perception that the United Nations is seeking to silence an official who intended to halt ongoing abuses against children. The United States has urged the United Nations to pursue an independent investigation into the sexual abuse allegations and the organization’s handling of the case.
Meanwhile, OIOS Chief of Investigations Michael Stefanovic has recused himself from the leak inquiry of Kompass, telling governments during a May 13 meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York that the probe by the nominally-independent unit was being directed by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s chief of staff, Susana Malcorra. Stefanovic also told diplomats that his own boss, Canadian Undersecretary-General for OIOS Carman Lapointe, had bypassed established procedures for determining whether the case merited an investigation. Stefanovic said he filed a formal complaint to Ban’s office saying the U.N. investigations unit was being turned into an accomplice in an effort by senior management to get rid of Kompass. U.N. officials said Lapointe believes she can launch an investigation under her own authority, and did so in this instance because of the political sensitivity of the case.
The situation first came to light on May 6, when the Guardian reported that the United Nations had suspended Kompass from his post for giving French authorities the confidential report, which included the names of the victims, investigators, and alleged perpetrators. The six-page report, which was obtained by FP with the names of individuals redacted, details multiple examples in which soldiers from France, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea traded military rations and money for sexual favors from children as young as 8 years old. The soldiers were serving under the command of the French military and the African Union, not the United Nations.
Kompass has since been reinstated to his post by a judge in the U.N.’s administrative tribunal, pending the outcome of the investigation. The intergovernmental organization has defended its decision to investigate Kompass, saying that his actions potentially endangered the very children he claims to have been trying to protect.
“The leaked document contains notes of interviews, including, notably, names and other identifying information pertaining to alleged child victims,” Malcorra wrote in a confidential letter to U.N. members obtained by FP. “The disclosure of this document may endanger the safety or security of the children, violate their rights, and invade their privacy.”
In an effort to illustrate the risks, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein of Jordan, told reporters in Geneva last month that the names of the victims had been widely leaked to the media, including a French television crew that tracked down one mother who said that she beat her son so badly after learning that he had engaged in a sex act with a French soldier that “if someone had not stopped me, I would have killed him.” But that woman, who accompanied her son when he initially described the abuses to U.N. investigators, was aware of what happened long before the report had been disclosed to the French.
The handling of the case has generated little support from governments at U.N. headquarters. A group of about 15 countries, including several Latin American and Scandinavian governments, as well as Canada, Japan, Singapore, South Africa, and Tanzania, have pressed Ban to get to the bottom of what happened and to examine the U.N.’s treatment of Kompass.
Officials from those governments say the United Nations seems more committed to disciplining Kompass than taking action to curb violations in the Central African Republic. Skepticism deepened after Paula Donovan — a former U.N. official and co-founder of the nonprofit organization Aids-Free World, who leaked the Central African Republic report to the Guardian — published a string of internal emails and memos documenting the U.N.’s efforts to force Kompass out of his job as the third-highest-ranking official at the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Kompass first came under scrutiny in late 2014, when an anonymous source, using the Twitter handle @Chris_Coleman24, tweeted links to a string of alleged emails from the Moroccan ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Omar Hilale, to his foreign minister in Rabat. The emails showed Hilale boasting that he had placed a number of individuals, including Kompass and then-U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay, in his pocket.
Soon afterward, Prince Zeid was appointed high commissioner and asked the Office of Internal Oversight Services to look into allegations against Kompass.
U.N. investigators based in Vienna questioned Kompass, examined all of his official emails and telephone records, and scrubbed the hard drive of his computer, according to a senior U.N.-based official familiar with the investigation. They found no evidence that he wrote any of the purported emails.
In March, Malcorra informed Prince Zeid that the investigation into sensitive information given to the Moroccans “could not substantiate any responsibility for Anders Kompass,” according to an account by Prince Zeid’s deputy, Flavia Pansieri, which was leaked by Donovan’s outfit.
Earlier this month, the OIOS informed Kompass in a letter that the investigation into the possible disclosures of confidential information to Morocco had found no evidence implicating him and that the case had been closed, according to a person familiar with the matter. But the OIOS left open the possibility that the case could be revisited if new evidence surfaced.
The U.N. investigations division also produced a so-called “closure report” declaring the Western Sahara investigation over. But Lapointe refused to sign off on the report on the grounds that crucial witnesses, including the Moroccan ambassador, had never been questioned in the course of the investigation. From Lapointe’s point of view, the case has never been closed.
It remains unclear whether U.N. investigators have obtained new information. But the investigators plan to approach Hilale, who is currently serving as Morocco’s envoy to U.N. headquarters in New York.
Hilale did not respond to a request for comment.
Around the same time Malcorra informed him the Morocco investigation turned up no evidence of wrongdoing, Prince Zeid discovered that Kompass had also admitted to sharing the U.N.’s internal report on violations in the Central African Republic. At that point, Prince Zeid instructed Pansieri to urge Kompass to resign from his post.
Kompass refused and told Pansieri he would fight against stepping down. Stockholm also weighed in: A senior Swedish diplomat in New York warned U.N. ethics officer Joan Dubinsky that “it would not be a good thing if the High Commission for Human Rights forced Mr. Kompass to resign. If that occurred, it would go public and a harmful and ugly debate would occur.” Dubinsky is supposed to represent whistle-blowers at the United Nations.
A week later, Malcorra hosted a meeting in Turin, Italy, with Prince Zeid, Pansieri, and Dubinsky to address the standoff with Kompass. Following the meeting, Pansieri asked Kompass to provide an account of his disclosure of the Central African Republic report to France.
Kompass has denied providing sensitive information to the Moroccans. But he said he decided to furnish France with a report on abuses because he felt the U.N. mission was not prepared to act on its findings, and he was confident that Paris could help bring the abuses to an end. “I acted with the only concern of stopping the violations as soon as possible and in the context of the U.N.[‘s] zero-tolerance policy for exploitation and abuse,” Kompass said in a memo he drafted in his internal account.
Kompass maintains he has never hidden the fact that he provided the report to the French, which he delivered with a U.N. cover letter and his signature. Less than two weeks after he gave the report to French authorities, he informed Pansieri that he had done so and attached a copy of the redacted report, according to his account. Kompass maintains that Pansieri’s special assistant sent him an email on August 8 confirming the receipt of the report, and indicating that the report had also been shared with Ban’s office, more than six months before the United Nations began investigating him. Pansieri, Kompass noted, “had never indicated that my behavior had been mistaken.”
The high commissioner’s office said that while it may have been appropriate to alert the French, it was reckless to release a report that included the names of the abused children and the investigators. U.N. officials maintain that the investigator on the ground was mortified at the leak. “I believe this lack of respect for the confidentially of the sources endangered both the alleged victims and interviewers,” the investigator wrote in a March 19 letter to Prince Zeid.
Diplomats speaking to Foreign Policy said the Turin meeting left the impression that the U.N.’s nominally-independent internal investigators and ethics officer were operating under instructions from the secretary-general’s office.
Diplomats from these governments say the United Nations appears to have devoted a disproportionate amount of effort to pursuing Kompass, while doing little to focus on the abuses underway in the Central African Republic. Facing pressure from the United States and others, Ban on June 3 announced he would launch an “external, independent review” of the allegations and examine the U.N. response. “The secretary-general is deeply disturbed by the allegations of sexual abuse by soldiers in the Central African Republic, as well as allegations of how this was handled by various parts of the U.N. system involved,” according to a statement from Ban’s office.
“This is not good for the reputation of the U.N.,” said one European diplomat, who spoke to FP on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue more candidly. “The key issue certainly for us is that these are grave violations that we have seen in the Central African Republic, but for the outsider it looks like nothing is being done until they finally shoot the messenger. It’s the imbalance in their reaction.”
Fernando Carrera, the U.N. ambassador from Guatemala, said the controversy surrounding the allegations of abuse in the Central African Republic threatens to blight the international reputation of the global diplomatic body as it heads into its 70th birth anniversary.
Guatemala is one of 15 counties — including some from Scandinavia and Latin America, as well as Australia and Japan — that for weeks have been pressing Ban to investigate the U.N.’s handling of the case. Carrera said some members of that group also have conveyed concerns by the United States that the handling of the case against Kompass, who has claimed whistle-blower status, could jeopardize congressional funding to the United Nations. A senior U.S. official has personally appealed to the U.N. secretariat to assign the investigation to an independent panel of experts.
“There is a wide consensus that anyone who comes out denouncing the sexual abuse of children or women by peacekeeping operation or troops is doing the right thing,” the U.S. official said. “People who dare to say things [on behalf of young victims] should be protected — not punished.”
Photo credit: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images