A forgotten African country has spent more than two years in the throes of near-genocide, and now the foreign peacekeeping troops stationed there are being accused of acts as horrific as those they were sent to stop.
Last summer, a disenfranchised senior employee with the United Nations leaked confidential documents to the French government that showed French soldiers may have sexually abused refugee children in the Central African Republic (CAR). Instead of providing safety at a displaced persons’ camp in the capital city, the soldiers are accused of forcing kids to perform sexual acts out of intimidation or in exchange for food and money. Reports of abuse committed against a dozen children span a six-month period in 2014. The report was passed to the Guardian earlier this week.
Anders Kompass, a 30-year-veteran of the international agency, served as director of field operations until his suspension last week. He says he turned in the leaked report to the French authorities for investigation because the UN had failed to stop such abuse. In one case described in the report, a 9-year-old boy said he was forced to perform a sexual act with his friend when they went searching for food.
A UNICEF representative told The Daily Beast that it was part of the team that investigated the recent child-abuse allegations alongside the United Nations. The investigation is now being carried out by French authorities.
On Thursday, French President Francois Hollande pledged his government would have better results. “I am proud of our armed forces, and so will show no mercy to those who have behaved badly, if that is the case,” he said.
But this isn’t the first time soldiers deployed in CAR under a mandate of peacekeeping have been accused of stomach-churning violence and brutality. Watchdog groups have been long been reporting incidents of foreign peacekeepers killing civilians, including children; blocking fleeing refugees from getting to safety; and disappearing entire families.
“The entire international response to the crisis in the Central African Republic has been characterized by failures and serious allegations of abuses committed by peacekeepers, including cases of executions and sexual violence,” says Human Rights Watch’s Director of Emergencies Peter Bouckaert.
Earlier this year, Bouckaert wrote in a report that peacekeepers, in alignment with government orders, had blocked persecuted civilians from fleeing the country for safety.
The Central African Republic has had three incarnations of peacekeeping forces, resulting in a piecemeal response that was both too understaffed and unaccountable to stop a vicious civil war.
Fighting in the Central African Republic began bubbling in late 2012, and a year later, the country exploded into violence. On December 5, 2013, the UN Security Council patched together a 5,500-strong dispatch of African Union troops and a French peacekeeping force of 1,600 called Operation Sangaris. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon admitted it was a temporary solution for the sake of expediency, and hoped for a more comprehensive plan, including a full-fledged peacekeeping operation.
But by the UN’s own admission, the deployment was far too small to stop the thousands of killings and mass displacements, or ease the climate of impunity and fear that had seized the nation.
This assessment was echoed elsewhere, with particular condemnation on the sluggish peacekeeping efforts. A damning Amnesty International report (PDF) in early 2014 outlined “their failure to disarm both Seleka forces and anti-balaka militias”—referring to the two warring sides—has “allowed an increasingly intimidating atmosphere to take hold.” It urged the international community to “immediately start” planning for the transition into a United Nations peacekeeping operation, and better coordinate the various outside military forces.
In March 2014, a collection of leading international groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, wrote a letter to the United Nations demanding it deploy an official peacekeeping mission in CAR as soon as possible. It cited the deterioration of human rights and said the current troops were “not sufficient” to stop the ethnic cleansing and “adequately protect civilians.”
Then, in June, some 20 members of the African Union peacekeeping operation, called MISCA, were accused of disappearing a group of people from a town 40 miles outside the capital city of Bangui. The mysterious detentions were thought to be revenge for the death of a peacekeeper who was killed earlier that day. It mirrored an earlier incident when, in December 2013, MISCA troops reportedly tortured to death two militia leaders after a peacekeeper was killed.
In 2014 alone, members of the peacekeeping force had been accused of opening fire on a crowd and killing children, shooting into a market and killing civilians, and other serious violations. In response, the entire Chadian contingency—more than 800 soldiers—was removed from the peacekeeping mission. But no MISCA peacekeepers were investigated for their crimes, according to Amnesty International.
“In some instances MISCA forces failed to protect civilians, while in others members of its contingents allegedly committed serious human-rights violations with impunity,” an Amnesty report claimed earlier this year.
In September, the African Union force was transitioned into MINUSCA, the current peacekeeping operation, which has nearly 10,000 troops on the ground.
The United Nations is quick to draw a line between MINUSCA and the French operation. The allegations of abuse occurred before the official peacekeeping mission arrived in the country. Now, the two peacekeeping forces coexist, but barely. They work together in operations, but are not administered in the same way because the French are not an official peacekeeping mission.
"The forces referred to in the Guardian story are French and do not fall under UN authority," says a UN official. "The issue of confronting sexual exploitation and abuse by UN personnel remains one of our highest priorities."
But the backlog of abuses isn’t being sufficiently addressed, says HRW’s Bouckaert. “None of these cases have been properly investigated or prosecuted. These latest allegations sadly add to a long list of abuse, and we hope that they will be properly investigated and prosecuted if appropriate.