The U.N.’s Very Own Civil War

A child sex abuse scandal in the Central African Republic has pitted the U.N.'s two top human rights officials against each other.

French soldiers of the 13th Alpine Hunters Battalion (13th BCA) patrol near the northwestern city of Boda on April 7, 2014. Thousands of people have been killed in a wave of sectarian violence across the Central African Republic that has lasted for more than a year, despite the presence of African Union and French peacekeeping troops. AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL MEDINA        (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)
French soldiers of the 13th Alpine Hunters Battalion (13th BCA) patrol near the northwestern city of Boda on April 7, 2014. Thousands of people have been killed in a wave of sectarian violence across the Central African Republic that has lasted for more than a year, despite the presence of African Union and French peacekeeping troops. AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL MEDINA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)
French soldiers of the 13th Alpine Hunters Battalion (13th BCA) patrol near the northwestern city of Boda on April 7, 2014. Thousands of people have been killed in a wave of sectarian violence across the Central African Republic that has lasted for more than a year, despite the presence of African Union and French peacekeeping troops. AFP PHOTO/MIGUEL MEDINA (Photo credit should read MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images)

Anders Kompass, a high-ranking U.N. human rights official, saw a distinguished 30-year U.N. career fizzle in the time it took to walk from his office on Avenue Giuseppe-Motta in Geneva to the parking garage.

Anders Kompass, a high-ranking U.N. human rights official, saw a distinguished 30-year U.N. career fizzle in the time it took to walk from his office on Avenue Giuseppe-Motta in Geneva to the parking garage.

On April 17, a U.N. official seized his grounds pass and escorted him from his office to his car in full view of his colleagues and subordinates. His access to his work email was severed. And he was subjected to a gag order. U.N. investigators in New York and Vienna, meanwhile, have since scrubbed his hard drive in pursuit of evidence that the former Swedish diplomat had improperly furnished the French government with a highly confidential report documenting abuses of children by French soldiers in the Central African Republic. Kompass also found himself with an unexpected and powerful adversary: the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, who wanted Kompass to tender his resignation. In the eyes of the U.N., Kompass had become an untrustworthy shill for a foreign government.

But Kompass, 59, a lean, flaxen-haired Swede, has refused to go quietly. He maintains that he exposed the sexual abuse of children by French soldiers to the French government because it was the only entity that had the ability to stop the crimes. Kompass also notes that he informed his superiors of his actions within weeks of giving the report to France. “I acted with the only concern of stopping the violations as soon as possible and in the context of the UN zero tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and abuse,” Kompass wrote in an internal account made public by a nonprofit organization, AIDS-Free World, that has come to his defense. The group has published an extensive collection of internal documents dealing with the U.N.’s handling of the Kompass case.

The standoff between Kompass and Zeid pits two pillars of the U.N.’s human rights establishment in a battle of wills that is likely to leave both of their reputations scarred and that threatens to tarnish the legacy of several top U.N. officials, including U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has staked his reputation on zero tolerance for sexual abusers.

The case has implications beyond the United Nations. U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration has privately conveyed its concern to other key governments that the U.N.’s pursuit of Kompass, who is considering seeking protection as a whistle-blower, may imperil American support for the United Nations. In January 2014, Obama signed legislation requiring the U.S. secretary of state certify that U.N. agencies receiving U.S. funds are adhering to best practices for protecting whistle-blowers from retaliation. Under the law, Congress will withhold as much as 15 percent of the U.S. contribution to any U.N. agency or department that fails to protect whistle-blowers.

For the moment, the U.N. leadership has maintained that Kompass is not a whistle-blower. Kompass himself has not yet sought such protection, though sources close to him say he is weighing whether to do so, citing the purported retaliation by Zeid and other senior U.N. leaders.

The feud has been particularly distressing to human rights advocates and U.S. congressional supporters of the U.N., who fear it will undermine public confidence in the U.N.’s work on behalf of the world’s most desperate and who are keen to avoid taking sides in a dispute between two longtime allies.

Tim Rieser, a senior foreign-policy aide to Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee’s State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee and the author of the whistle-blower protection law, said there is a “lot of respect” for Zeid. “Senator Leahy feels that he is highly regarded. He believes he is doing a good job and that we’re very lucky to have him there,” Rieser said.

As Leahy’s top aide on the subcommittee, Rieser has also known Kompass for more than 20 years and believes the Swedish national is deeply committed to the values of human rights. “I’ve always regarded him as an outstanding person, an experienced professional who is devoted to the ideals and mission of the United Nations.”

Rieser said that while he and Leahy are not familiar with the details of the dispute, Leahy believes the U.N.’s intense focus on Kompass’s alleged leak is misplaced. In Leahy’s view, the organization’s energies would be better spent uncovering the abuses of children by foreign troops in the Central African Republic and figuring out why no one did anything to stop it.

“The bottom line is that Mr. Kompass is not who they ought to be upset about,” Leahy said. “They ought to be upset about the people who have been engaging in this kind of exploitation of children and about those who did nothing about it. That is the real issue.”

* * *

The increasingly bitter fight between Kompass and Zeid stems from a particularly dark episode in an otherwise commendable international effort to end mass violence: the sexual abuse of children in the Central African Republic by African troops serving under a U.N.-mandated African Union peacekeeping mission, known as MISCA, and by French soldiers serving under a separate mission called Operation Sangaris. The U.N. high commissioner’s office and UNICEF opened a probe on May 19, 2014, after local NGOs operating in a camp for the displaced next to M’Poko International Airport in the war-ravaged country relayed word of the abuses to U.N. officials based in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR).

The probe documented how soldiers from France, Chad, and Equatorial Guinea bartered military rations for sexual favors from hungry children as young as 8 years old. Street children and other destitute children displaced by the conflict would routinely approach the soldiers’ encampment to beg for food, according to the report, which was obtained by Foreign Policy. In some cases, the soldiers would offer the children food in return for finding prostitutes based at the camp. On other occasions, according to multiple accounts by children, they would invite the kids themselves into the military compound and exchange food for oral sex. In one case, described by a young boy, three Chadian troops sodomized his young friend. The next day, the abused boy was limping. “He looked really hurt,” the witness said.

The team completed its interviews on June 24. A French U.N. expert produced a report documenting abuses dating back to December 2013. UNICEF claimed that it followed up on the inquiry by providing “medical and psychosocial care” to the victims. But there was no formal investigation to identify the perpetrators or to hold them accountable for their crimes.

Kompass obtained the report on July 15, 2014. In an internal account of his actions that he provided for the U.N. brass, Kompass maintained that he was frustrated that the U.N. mission in Bangui had taken no action to stop the abuses, which had by then been ongoing for more than six months.

The Swedish diplomat approached France’s deputy ambassador in Geneva on July 23, briefed him on the report’s findings, and asked him to make sure Paris took steps to stop it. Kompass subsequently received a request from the French government for the report, along with assurances from the French government that it would be treated confidentially and that French authorities would ensure the safety of the victims. He sent them a copy of the report in late July. Within a week, French police had started an investigation, phoning the U.N. investigator named in the report.

On Aug. 7, shortly after the French investigation started, Kompass informed Flavia Pansieri, the U.N.’s deputy high commissioner for human rights, that he had reached out to the French and had presented them with a copy of the report. Pansieri’s office informed Ban’s office and attached a copy of the report. There are no indications that the U.N. chief or Pansieri expressed any reservations about Kompass’s actions. “I regret to say, that in the context of those very hectic days (we were in the midst of a 20% funding cut with the inherent staff tensions and stress this entailed) I failed to follow up on the CAR,” Pansieri wrote.

It would be another six months before Zeid, who took up his post as high commissioner for human rights in September, learned that Kompass had shared the report with French authorities, according to an account by Zeid that was leaked by AIDS-Free World. While Zeid and his staff have praised the decision to inform the French, they have faulted Kompass for failing to redact the names of victims and investigators from the report, characterizing it as a flagrant violation of the confidentiality of victims, witnesses, and investigators named in the report.

With Kompass refusing to resign, Susana Malcorra, the U.N. secretary-general’s chief of staff, arranged for a meeting in late March in Turin, Italy, that included Zeid and Pansieri, as well as the U.N.’s internal investigations chief, Carman Lapointe, and the head of the U.N.’s Ethics Office, Joan Dubinsky. By all accounts, the meeting was confusing for the participants, as no one seemed to know whether the abuses had occurred in Mali or the Central African Republic.

A couple of weeks after Kompass was put on administrative leave on April 27, a U.N. administrative tribunal reversed the decision to place Kompass on leave. But the U.N.’s top leadership continues to defend the act to this day, portraying Kompass as an internal threat to the organization.

The decision to place Kompass on administrative leave “was based on an assessment of risk that the officer, because of his position, could destroy, conceal or otherwise tamper with evidence, or interfere with the investigation,” Malcorra wrote in a confidential early June response to questions put to her by a group of 15 governments, including Sweden, that have raised concern about Kompass’s treatment.

But the fact that the U.N.’s senior decision-makers were coordinating the organization’s response to the standoff alongside the head of internal investigations and the chief ethics officer, who is supposed to serve as the in-house champion of whistle-blowers, has raised questions about the independence of the process. Kompass claims that Pansieri told him that the U.N.’s peacekeeping chief, Hervé Ladsous, has encouraged Zeid to force Kompass to resign. Ladsous has denied that is true.

“The optics weren’t great,” one U.N. official acknowledged in an interview with Foreign Policy.

In one email, Lapointe bypassed the standard procedure of convening a panel of experts to determine whether an investigation has merit. Instead, she told her chief investigator that the case was too politically sensitive to convene a panel of investigators to consider its merits. In another email, she expressed a certain confidence that Kompass had been in fault.

At the Turin meeting, Lapointe wrote in an April 10 email to James Finniss, head of investigation in Vienna, “it was clear that Anders Kompass had already admitted to informally transmitting the entire report to the French mission in Geneva, without going through management and normal processes, which would require specific authorization to do so from the High Commissioner, appropriate redaction of the report, and preparation of a logged note verbale to accompany the transmission. Kompass is absolutely familiar with such requirements.”

The decision to bypass her own office procedures prompted her chief investigator, Michael Stefanovic, to recuse himself from the probe, which he said had violated U.N. due process procedures. In a dramatic closed-door May 13 briefing before the U.N. General Assembly’s key budget committee, Stefanovic accused his boss of committing an “abuse of authority” and said that he had filed a formal complaint before the United Nations. He also took aim Lapointe and Dubinsky, saying the allegedly “independent bodies” were acting as “accomplices” with the U.N. secretary-general and Malcorra.

Lapointe’s behavior has alarmed some outside observers as well. “The problem is she seems to have dictated a foregone conclusion to the outcome of any investigation,” said Robert Appleton, a former U.N. anti-corruption investigator, who noted that no one was representing Kompass’s interest in the Turin meeting. “What she has done has certainly undermined the independence of her office.”

Dubinsky, meanwhile, advised Zeid on questions he should put to Kompass to determine whether he is violating U.N. rules. It would “be prudent to speak directly with Mr. Kompass, to inquire into his decisions concerning release of certain information,” she said in an email sent to Zeid’s personal email account. “Such a conversation could shed a great deal of light into his knowledge of standard procedures for sharing human rights related reports, notification to his chain of command, and protection of identities of vulnerable individuals, including witnesses and victims.”

Senior officials say that the meeting’s intent was more innocent than it seemed to U.N. member states and that they were simply trying to decide the appropriate way to handle the case. It is standard practice, said one U.N. official, for senior U.N. managers to ask the internal investigations office to conduct an investigation into possible allegations. Dubinsky and Lapointe were present in order to help determine whether Kompass deserved whistle-blower protection. They also noted that Lapointe, as the head of internal investigations, has the authority to decide on her own whether to initiate an investigation.

* * *

Many in the human rights community believe Kompass and Zeid — who both declined to comment publicly for this article — share a genuine commitment to helping the world’s most powerless and desperate, making their increasingly bitter fight both surprising and upsetting.

Zeid, 51, a member of the Jordanian royal family, served as a U.N. political officer in Bosnia in the 1990s and mounted an unsuccessful campaign in 2006 to become U.N. secretary-general. He also served from 2002 to 2005 as the president of the International Criminal Court’s membership body.

As Jordan’s ambassador to the U.N., Zeid spearheaded an effort to compel the U.N. to conduct a major internal review of its failure to stop the massacre of several thousand Bosnian men in Srebrenica. Zeid’s own experience in Bosnia — where U.N. peacekeepers were accused of sexually exploiting women — left him embittered by the failure of U.N. member states’ governments to take responsibility for abuses by their own troops. In 2004, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Zeid to head an investigation into the sexual exploitation of women and children by U.N. personnel around the world. He produced a landmark report that called for reforms aimed at holding U.N. personnel accountable for sexual exploitation of poor women and children on mission.

Zeid’s deep understanding of the lengths countries will go to in order to protect their peacekeepers from facing criminal charges for their misconduct helped shape his response to the controversial French mission to the Central African Republic. Zeid praised France for intervening there, potentially averting a genocide, but faulted the French military for missing the signs of sexual abuse by its own troops there. “The abuses are alleged to have started in December 2013, and they continued through the winter and spring,” he told reporters in early May 2015, saying it is “regrettable” that the blame has almost entirely fallen on the U.N. “How is it that there was no investigation by the French military at the time?”

Kompass, for his part, began his career as an exchange student in the mid-1970s in Guatemala, volunteering in an indigenous community. Between stints as a Swedish diplomat, Kompass served as the U.N. human rights office’s representative in Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala. In Geneva, Kompass rose to the highest ranks in the high commissioner’s office, where he currently directs the high commissioner’s far-flung field operations around the world.

By all accounts, Zeid hit it off with Kompass after he arrived in Geneva in September 2014.

Kompass, who has served as a Swedish diplomat in Latin America, was excited to have a new leader with deep diplomatic contacts, according to friends. During his first visit to Washington, Zeid invited Kompass along, an early sign of confidence. Kompass also served as acting high commissioner when Zeid and his deputy, Pansieri, were traveling.

But Zeid was also beginning to express frustration to friends about what he saw as an endemic culture of leaks in his office. Foreign envoys posted in Geneva were routinely briefed on closed-door meetings by staff. He also expressed doubts about the loyalty of top advisors to the cause of human rights, telling one friend that the organization was riddled with careerists and civil servants who were basically spying on behalf of their governments.

On March 24, less than two weeks after calling for Kompass’s resignation, Zeid ran into Sweden’s U.N. ambassador in Geneva, Jan Knutsson, at a reception hosted by the German ambassador, Joachim Rücker, the current president of the U.N. Human Rights Council. The Swedish envoy told Zeid that he’d heard something about Kompass being a whistle-blower and warned that any action against Kompass could prove damaging to the U.N.’s reputation if it became public. Zeid countered that this was not “a whistle-blower-type scenario.”

The next day, on his drive into work, Zeid spotted Pansieri, his deputy, having a conversation with the Swedish envoy outside U.N. headquarters.

She was “speaking to the Swedish ambassador on a side street leading to the office, with the Swedish ambassador dressed casually, all of which struck me as being odd,” Zeid wrote in an account made public by AIDS-Free World. “Why did they not meet in her office? Or why did he not ask to see me, if he wanted to follow up on the previous day’s conversation?”

Some observers say that Zeid’s concerns were well not entirely unfounded and that some staff members often serve as the eyes and the ears of their governments.

Still, they found it hard to believe that Kompass was serving anyone else’s interests.

“Kompass is not somebody who was pushing another agenda; he was a genuine human rights guy,” said one advocate who knows both Zeid and Kompass. “He may have made a mistake but clearly he did so with good intentions. It was not a capital offense; it was an error made in the context of a broader well-intentioned effort to get the issue addressed.”

“The best thing for the organization,” the human rights advocate added, is for both “to get off of their high horse and come to some sort of reconciliation.”

* * *

The private fight between Zeid and Kompass erupted into public view on April 29, when the Guardian reported that Kompass had been suspended for sharing the sexual abuse allegations with France and was at risk of losing his job. On May 8, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, weighed in, characterizing the allegations as “very credible and very disturbing” and urging the U.N. to take action to investigate the charges and punish those responsible.

But strains in the two men’s relationship had begun much earlier over an issue that had nothing to do with the Central African Republic sex scandal.

In late 2014, Kompass came under suspicion for leaking sensitive U.N. information to the Moroccan government, which was seeking to block the U.N. from scrutinizing Morocco’s human rights conduct in Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony that has been under Moroccan control since the 1976.

An anonymous source who set up a since-suspended Twitter account with the name @chris_coleman24 began posting a series of alleged cables from Morocco’s then-ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva, Omar Hilale, describing his successes in converting top U.N. officials, including Navi Pillay (the former high commissioner for human rights), Kompass, and several other U.N. officials, to the Moroccan cause. Kompass was described as a high-value informant who shared confidential information on U.N. policy in Western Sahara and was sympathetic to the Moroccan cause.

The authenticity of the cables published by the anonymous leaker has never been established by the U.N. The U.N.’s peacekeeping department took the allegations seriously enough to conduct an internal analysis of the documents leaked on Twitter by @chris_coleman24, the Guardian reported on June 17. The British newspaper cited an internal U.N. document that concluded that Morocco had employed “unethical tactics” — including the interception of U.N. communications — to persuade the U.N. leadership to turn a blind eye to human rights violations in Western Sahara.

The Moroccan government, according to the leaked U.N. document, also donated $250,000 to the high commissioner’s office in an effort to make Pillay “more attentive to our concerns,” according to a document cited in the report. The donation was combined with an intense lobbying effort aimed at blocking a visit by Pillay to Western Sahara and foiling pressure to set up a human rights monitoring office in Western Sahara.

The Guardian article makes no reference to Kompass. But it cited a meeting in which Hilale discussed the leaked cables with Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs. According to the Guardian, Hilale “did not reject their overall substance, only stating that some portion of the cables had been edited.” A U.N.-based source familiar with that meeting told FP that Hilale in fact acknowledged that the cables leaked by @chris_coleman24 were largely authentic. But when pressed by Feltman to explain why his own previous private discussions with Hilale had been twisted in the cables, Hilale said that some of them may have been altered.

Kompass and other senior U.N. officials named in the cables have also maintained that Hilale twisted the accounts of his own discussions in an effort to exaggerate his diplomatic achievements back home. But the U.N. brass went ahead and pressed Zeid to request an investigation.

In late October, Zeid instructed Pansieri to invite the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) in Vienna to open an investigation into the allegations. He assured Kompass that the investigation was simply a formality and that he was sure to be cleared, according to a U.N. source familiar with the investigation.

Kompass, who was selected by Pillay to oversee Western Sahara matters at the U.N. and to deal with Hilale, informed U.N. investigators that he had interacted with Hilale and had even invited Hilale to his home, but he denied ever improperly providing him with sensitive information. An examination of Kompass’s hard drive, emails, and telephone logs turned up no evidence of wrongdoing on his part, according to an internal OIOS investigation. The case was formally closed in early June 2015.

But the U.N.’s chief investigator, Lapointe, reopened the case earlier this month on the grounds that key witnesses, including Hilale, had not been interviewed by the U.N.’s investigators, according to U.N.-based sources.

A U.N. official who is sympathetic to Kompass described the investigation as a “witch hunt” designed to place a cloud of suspicion over Kompass as the U.N.’s own treatment of Kompass is coming under scrutiny.

* * *

The fight over the fate of Kompass, a relatively unknown diplomat, is slowly erupting into a major PR and legal nightmare for the diplomat’s nominal bosses in Turtle Bay.

Washington has pressed the U.N. to investigate the allegations of misconduct against Kompass, as well as the U.N.’s subsequent response. A senior U.S. official has personally appealed to the U.N. secretariat to farm out the investigation of its handling of the Kompass case to an independent panel of experts.

The United States has also worked behind the scenes to encourage other governments to apply pressure on the U.N. to investigate the matter. U.S. diplomats have quietly conveyed their concerns to a group of 15 countries, including several Latin American and Scandinavian nations, that have also been urging the U.N. to carry out an investigation to determine whether the U.N. trampled Kompass’s rights.

In a closed-door meeting in May, Guatemala’s U.N. ambassador, Fernando Carrera, said the Kompass case could complicate Power’s efforts to rally broader support for U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world. He also fretted that it could trigger a cutoff of some U.S. contributions to the U.N. under the Leahy whistle-blower law and trigger an anti-U.N. backlash from Congress. “What if Grassley picks it up?” Carrera asked the group, in a reference to Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, a fierce critic of the U.N. who now serves as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.*

In a recent interview, Carrera said the group of 15 governments is also worried about the fact that the U.N. has devoted so much attention to pursuing Kompass while doing so little to get to the bottom of the actual sexual abuse scandal in the Central African Republic. “There was a general feeling that things were getting worse and worse in terms of the public image of the U.N.,” Carrera said. “We were also concerned about how this might affect the legacy of the U.N. secretary-general.”

On Monday, Secretary-General Ban appointed a three-member panel to review the U.N.’s handling of the sexual abuse scandal in the Central African Republic and the U.N.’s treatment of Kompass. The panel will be chaired by Marie Deschamps of Canada, a former justice of Canada’s Supreme Court, and it will receive “unrestricted access” to U.N. records and personnel. Hassan Jallow, a Gambian prosecutor at the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and Yasmin Sooka, a South African human rights activist, will also serve on the panel. “The panel will review the United Nations response to the allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of children by foreign military forces not under United Nations command and assess the adequacy of the procedures in place,” according to a statement by Ban’s office. “This will include any allegations of abuse of authority or retaliation by senior officials.”

Zeid has pledged to abide by any decisions the panel makes. He and Kompass, meanwhile, have gone back to working together to promote the U.N.’s human rights works.

“In recent weeks, there has been much criticism of the U.N. made by a number of observers, and specifically of my office and its leadership, in respect of how we handled allegations of appalling child abuse in the Central African Republic last year,” Zeid said in a June 15 statement to the Human Rights Council. “The conduct which drew the criticisms deserves judgment, and I support the secretary-general’s decision to establish an external review in which those criticisms and the conduct will be examined and judged. I will accept the result and abide by its findings, of course, whether they relate to my office or my own conduct in this matter. We must all be held to account, with no exceptions. And we must all be guided always by the needs of victims in our thoughts and deeds.”

“My own conduct, and the conduct of my office, must always accord with the highest standards of professional integrity in relation to those who suffer,” he added.

Clarification, June 26, 2015: After this story ran, Carrera denied singling out Grassley and Power by name. “I have not used any references to specific names in any of our meetings,” he told Foreign Policy. “Only references to the broad political actors (U.N., Congress, etc.).” However, a diplomat who was part of the conversation subsequently reaffirmed Carrera’s remarks. FP did not ask Carrera directly about his comments about Grassley prior to publication. (Return to reading.)

Photo credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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