In the spring of 2014, allegations that international troops serving in a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (“CAR”) had sexually abused a number of young children in exchange for food or money, were simply called “allegations.” The alleged perpetrators were mostly from a French military force known as the Sangaris Forces, which were operating as peacekeepers under authorization of the Security Council but not directly under UN command. On the interview with a Human Rights Officer (“HRO”) working for the UN mission in CAR, with local UNICEF staff, from six young boys, they reported that they had been subjected to sexual abuse by international peacekeeping troops or that they saw other children being abused. The French Sangaris Forces were mostly the alleged perpetrators. In exchange, they gave the children small amounts of food or cash. All of the incidents happened between December 2013 and June 2014, near the M’Poko Internally Displaced Persons Camp in Bangui. The witnessed children reported detailed information about the perpetrators, such as their names and certain distinguishing features like tattoos, piercings, and facial features. For instance, some of the children described the rape of other child victims (who were not interviewed by the HRO).
It is not sufficient for the UN to report on acts of sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by peacekeepers. It must actively seek to ensure that the perpetrators of such crimes are identified and prosecuted. In CAR, HRJS had a particular responsibility not only to investigate violations and protect individuals at risk but also to follow up on human rights violations and assist in bringing perpetrators to justice. Unfortunately, neither the SRSG of MINUSCA nor the head of HRJS considered the UN to have a duty to pursue the accountability process. As a result, they took no steps to inform the French government of the Allegations. Moreover, UN agencies failed to support legal proceedings initiated by the French government as a result of the allegations. For example, in response to the initial request by the French government for cooperation in its investigation, the UN’s internal services declined to recommend to the Secretary-General that he waive the HRO’s immunity to allow her to participate in the French legal proceedings. Exchanges between the French Permanent Mission and the UN, including with their respective senior officials and legal offices, took weeks for each round of communication. Finally, in July 2015, almost a year after the investigators arrived in CAR, the Secretary-General waived the HRO’s immunity and agreed to transmit the unredacted Sangaris Notes to French authorities. This approach was unnecessarily prolonged and bureaucratic. A balance must be struck between the need for the UN to pursue its mission and to promote accountability.
Peacekeeping missions are often a measure of last resort to protect civilians in circumstances of extreme conflict and play a critical role in allowing both governments and communities to rebuild and move forward. The importance of such works and the personal sacrifices that individual peacekeepers make to achieve them should not be underestimated. Indeed, in the case of CAR, peacekeepers—including the French Sangaris Forces—very likely prevented the death of thousands of innocent civilians. Yet, the persistence of serious crimes against local populations committed by some of the very individuals charged with protecting them puts at danger the sustainability of peacekeeping missions in the longer term. Indeed, the fact that the problem persists even though several expert reports commissioned by the UN over the last ten years only serves to exacerbate the perception that the UN is more concerned with rhetoric than action. If the UN and the TCCs are to rebuild the trust of victims, local civilian populations, and the international community, deliberate, effective, and immediate action is required. The first step is to acknowledge that sexual violence perpetrated by peacekeeping troops is not merely a disciplinary matter, but also a serious human rights violation and may amount to a crime. This recognition will trigger a number of obligations on the UN and the TCCs to respond in a meaningful way to incidents of conflict-related sexual violence, regardless of whether the troops are operating under UN command. It is important that all peacekeeping troops understand, even before deployment, that sexual exploitation and abuse of local populations constitutes a human rights violation and may be met with criminal prosecution. The UN must take immediate action when it receives reports of sexual violence by peacekeepers to stop the violations and hold the perpetrators accountable. They must take meaningful steps to bring perpetrators of sexual violence to justice in a manner that allows victims and the local community to see that troops cannot commit crimes with impunity. Victims also require immediate access to protection, including medical and psychosocial care. Above all, UN staff and agencies must end the bureaucratic cycle in which responsibility is fragmented and accountability is passed from one agency to another. While this change will require a cultural shift both for the UN and for TCCs, such a shift is consistent with and required by, the UN’s Human Rights Up Front initiative. But the UN cannot do it alone. TCCs play a critical role. Unless both the UN and the TCCs are truly committed to zero tolerance, this goal will remain as an illusion and the future of peacekeeping missions will be put in a big risk.
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