U.N. Sex Abuse Scandal in Central African Republic Hits Rock Bottom

After more than a year of seemingly endless allegations of sexual exploitation by peacekeepers,the U.N. is finally taking action. But critics say it's too little too late.

United Nations peacekeepers patrol outside a vote-counting centre for the presidential and parliamentary elections on January 2, 2016 in Bangui. 
UN troops stood guard over the main vote-counting centre in Bangui on December 31, 2015 after a peaceful election in the Central African Republic aimed at turning the page on years of inter-religious violence. / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO        (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)
United Nations peacekeepers patrol outside a vote-counting centre for the presidential and parliamentary elections on January 2, 2016 in Bangui. UN troops stood guard over the main vote-counting centre in Bangui on December 31, 2015 after a peaceful election in the Central African Republic aimed at turning the page on years of inter-religious violence. / AFP / ISSOUF SANOGO (Photo credit should read ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images)

BANGUI, Central African Republic — A French commander tied up four girls and forced them to have sex with a dog. A Congolese peacekeeper raped a 16-year-old in a hotel room. And soldiers from France, Gabon, and Burundi sexually abused at least 108 women and children in a single province between 2013 and 2015. These are just some of the latest allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by international forces in the Central African Republic (CAR), where the U.N. mission has been roundly condemned for preying on the very citizens it was sent there to protect.

These most recent allegations, first reported on March 30 by the advocacy group AIDS-Free World, stem from leaked correspondence with U.N. investigators. The awful details represent a new low for the United Nations — but also, perhaps, a turning point. After a litany of scandals, the U.N. is now finally taking concrete actions to curb peacekeeper abuse. But critics say it isn’t going nearly far enough.

The U.N. mission in the Central African Republic, known by its French acronym MINUSCA, replaced a beleaguered African Union force in 2014 with a mandate to protect civilians in that country at a time of spiraling sectarian violence and to support a fragile political transition. Since then, it has been implicated in dozens of cases of sexual abuse, including 25 separate allegations lodged in just the first three months of 2016. The mission’s botched handling of these cases, together with earlier allegations of pedophilia by French forces stationed in the capital, Bangui, was later deemed a “gross institutional failure” by a panel of independent experts that excoriated high-ranking officials for deliberately obstructing investigators. In August of last year, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon took the unprecedented step of sacking his special representative in CAR, Babacar Gaye.

“Enough is enough,” Ban declared upon accepting Gaye’s resignation.

Except the allegations kept coming. To date, more than 150 accusations of sexual misconduct, including rape and sexual assault, have been lodged against international forces in CAR, although MINUSCA says it is still assessing whether the latest 108 are credible. (Forty-five cases of alleged abuse have been credibly linked to MINUSCA personnel so far.) As the list of official embarrassments has mounted, the United Nations has scrambled to put in place measures to curb peacekeeper abuse, such as expelling troops accused of misconduct and limiting the amount of contact off-duty peacekeepers have with the civilian population. And in the wake of the shocking new allegations last week, it has proposed setting up in situ military courts and requiring pre-deployment DNA tests for peacekeepers, both of which would require the consent of troop-contributing countries.

“Though the problem certainly did not begin with MINUSCA, our mission is where the scandal really took off, and we have taken it upon us to make it a battleground for the eradication of this scourge,” Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, who replaced Gaye as special representative of the U.N. secretary-general in August 2015, told Foreign Policy in an interview.

To that end, MINUSCA has mandated that off-duty peacekeepers stay exclusively in their barracks, since troops that were not on active duty are alleged to have committed many of the abuses. The mission has also begun patrolling outside its own bases to ensure this new regulation is respected. And in places like Bambari, CAR’s third-largest city, where camps for displaced people spilled over into U.N. bases, physical barriers were set up at the beginning of 2016 to divide the two areas — though not until Human Rights Watch published damning allegations of sexual abuse.

MINUSCA will also benefit from broader measures to curb abuse by peacekeepers in U.N. missions around the globe. In February, Ban appointed former U.S. Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Jane Holl Lute as a special coordinator to work exclusively on the problem of sexual exploitation by peacekeepers. She arrived in CAR this week. In addition, the U.N. Security Council voted on March 11 to give the secretary-general the right to repatriate entire units if their home countries fail to prosecute alleged perpetrators of sexual misconduct within six months. (Previously, the United Nations could only repatriate individual alleged perpetrators, as it did in February, when it expelled 120 peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo after a string of accusations of sexual abuse.)

“These measures put MINUSCA at the forefront of the fight to end sexual violence by peacekeepers and will hopefully set effective precedents,” Onanga-Anyanga said, adding that expelling entire contingents has its drawbacks since “countries aren’t exactly queuing to contribute troops to peacekeeping missions.”

But not everyone is convinced that such measures will adequately protect civilians. Peacekeepers enjoy immunity from prosecution in the countries where they are deployed, and the U.N. relies on their home countries to mete out justice when necessary. But while U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of everything from human trafficking to systematic rape of women and children, few of them have ever been prosecuted. This week, three Congolese peacekeepers went on trial in the Democratic Republic of the Congo for crimes allegedly committed in CAR, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

The main problem is that members of peacekeeping missions who want to commit sexual offenses know that they have practically every chance of getting away with it,” said Lewis Mudge, a researcher focusing on CAR at Human Rights Watch. “They know very well that, legally, the hands of national authorities and the United Nations are tied.”

After the latest round of allegations, top U.N. officials signaled some willingness to remove these legal obstacles. During a visit to Bangui last week, U.N. peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous floated the idea of creating special martial courts to try alleged perpetrators in the countries where the abuses occurred (though he didn’t say who would sit on them). He also raised the possibility of requiring DNA samples for all troops set to deploy to U.N. peacekeeping missions in order to “facilitate paternity tests.”

“This would show victims that their case is, indeed, taken care of and guarantee that decisions are made transparently, which might not otherwise be the case,” Ladsous said.

But reforms like these would require the consent of troop-contributing countries, which have historically been reluctant to concede authority over their solders to the United Nations. According to multiple U.N. sources, they are not likely to change their stance on this issue.

“Everybody in New York is basically trying to cover their backs,” said one U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Measures are evoked regardless of whether or not they are realistic, communication on the subject is strictly monitored, and you can expect a real witch hunt for those who leaked the cables.”

But the focus on military personnel obscures the fact that civilian staff who answer directly to the U.N. have also been implicated in the sexual abuse scandal — and in shockingly high numbers. According to data from the U.N.’s Conduct and Discipline Unit, civilian staff have accounted for as many as half of sexual misconduct cases in some U.N. missions, despite the fact that they are greatly outnumbered by uniformed peacekeepers. In CAR, three civilian staff members have been accused of sexual abuse and exploitation to date. (Unlike peacekeepers, the nationality of civilian U.N. staff accused of sexual misconduct is not made public.)

These staff members should be easier to prosecute in the countries where the missions are taking place, at least in principle. Although they benefit from immunity just like peacekeepers, U.N. missions can request a waiver from the secretary-general for serious criminal cases, such as rape. If the request is granted, the accused staff member would fall under the jurisdiction of the host government. According to a U.N. official, the investigation into the three civilian MINUSCA staff members is still ongoing, and no U.N. personnel have been referred to local authorities to date.

“It just seems that the U.N. is more set on protecting itself, gearing up damage control mechanisms and controlling to what extent new cases should or shouldn’t be made public, rather than on protecting the victims,” said Paula Donovan, the co-director of AIDS-Free World.

It is also not clear that MINUSCA has always acted with the victims’ best interests at heart. “There are serious questions as to what the U.N. is doing, and what it can do, regarding the welfare of victims,” said Mudge. “Though it does provide some crucial support, in some cases women and girls may have been re-traumatized following multiple interviews with U.N. and other NGO staff. A woman or girl who has been raped by a peacekeeper should not have to replay it over and over again to various U.N. agencies.”

Donovan pointed to the internal U.N. investigation whose leaked preliminary findings her organization published last week as an example of MINUSCA’s reckless handling of abuse allegations. She said that the investigative team “was not given any formal guidelines on how to operate, how to handle evidence, protect the chain of custody, and so on.” Given the “completely ad hoc fashion” in which they were sent into the field, she said, it is uncertain whether the evidence they have collected will be admissible in court.

Just as worrying, the most recent allegations occurred in a zone where MINUSCA’s regional director, Renner Onana, was accused last year by an independent panel appointed by the U.N. secretary-general of “obscuring” the abuse allegations and of “an outright disregard for his obligations as head of the human rights component of the U.N. mission in CAR.” (Despite these damning accusations, Onana was subsequently promoted to the regional director post.) When asked whether Onana had any role in the investigations underway, MINUSCA’s public information unit said it could not make the names of investigators public.

After more than a year of seemingly endless allegations of abuse, it seems MINUSCA has finally been forced to take some action to halt peacekeeper abuse. But unless the U.N. can get troop-contributing countries on board with the kinds of aggressive accountability measures floated by Ladsous, the organization’s most vocal critics are unlikely to be satisfied.

“Hiding behind existing rules should never be an excuse for inaction,” said Roméo Dallaire, who commanded the U.N. mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and has been a vocal supporter of AIDS-Free World’s campaign to hold MINUSCA accountable. “The U.N. needs to reconstruct its framework so that all those involved in peacekeeping missions, both civilian staff and soldiers, can be prosecuted in a transparent way if they commit a crime.”

Note: This piece has been updated to reflect the fact that MINUSCA’s investigation into three civilian staff members accused of sexual abuse and exploitation is still ongoing. 

Image credit: ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images