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UN to probe ‘disturbing’ handling of CAR child sex abuse claims

French peacekeepers on patrol in the Central African Republic
French peacekeepers on patrol in the Central African Republic AFP

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon ordered an independent external review on Wednesday into how United Nations staff handled allegations of sex abuse in the Central African Republic (CAR) by French and African soldiers.

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"His intention in setting up this review is to ensure that the United Nations does not fail the victims of sexual abuse, especially when committed by those who are meant to protect them," spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters on Wednesday.

Dujarric said that the Secretary General was “deeply disturbed” by how UN staff allegedly handled information that children were being abused, and stressed that the inquiry would also serve to address how action is taken in the future.

Six children aged between nine and 13 told UN staff they were sexually exploited in return for food by French soldiers at a centre for displaced people near the Central African capital of Bangui, between December 2013 and June 2014.

Interviews with the boys were carried out in May and June 2014 by a member of staff from the office for the UN high commissioner of human rights and a UNICEF specialist. But the ensuing report, entitled “Sexual Abuse on Children by International Armed Forces,” remained a work in process – each page stamped “confidential” – until last month, when Geneva-based Director of Field Operations Anders Kompass leaked it to the French and Swedish authorities.

UN officials admit that such the delay in releasing the report was unacceptable. The UN’s deputy high commissioner for human rights, Flavia Pansieri, said that she thought the French were following up on the allegations, but also said she was distracted by other concerns, including budget cuts. Others failed to follow up on the claims.

“It’s probably down to a stupid procedural gaffe: a mix up between Geneva, New York and the Department of Peacekeeping” one official told FRANCE 24 on condition of anonymity. “People don’t respect deadlines here.” The official said that staff felt confident that the review could bring reform to a chaotic system. Once the chronology of the procedures is determined, “heads will roll,” he said.

But he also stressed that the UN had “done its work,” albeit very slowly. “If it wasn’t for us this scandal might never have been investigated,” the official said. “These were French troops, not UN troops, it’s a good thing we were there.”

Leak 'dangerous'

The UN is keen to deflect damning criticism over what was initially reported as a “cover-up” of the investigation. The suspension of Kompass, a Swedish national, led to a diplomatic outcry over what was seen as a case of shameful censorship by the UN.

Kompass said that he leaked the report in order for the French to begin mounting an investigation.

But staff with knowledge of the report said they couldn’t understand why he leaked the text when it was “completed and only needed editing,” and questioned an ulterior motive. One UN official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that it was “very dangerous” to leak the raw text because it included the names of the victims. The official said those close to the inquiry were concerned that the French authorities could try to silence victims if they were privy to information in the report before it was officially released.

Judges in France have opened an investigation into the claims and 14 soldiers have been placed under investigation, but no arrests have been made.

The Central African Republic government has also launched legal action against the French soldiers.

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