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UN rights official resigns amid scandal over CAR abuse claims

United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri has resigned.
United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Flavia Pansieri has resigned. AFP file photo

A top UN human rights official who admitted in March that she “failed to follow up” on allegations that French soldiers sexually abused children in the Central African Republic (CAR) resigned from her post on Wednesday, citing health reasons.


"I can confirm that Flavia Pansieri has resigned and she cited health reasons for her resignation," UN spokeswoman Vannina Maestracci said.

Pansieri, the UN’s deputy high commissioner for human rights, has said she did not pursue the abuse claims when they surfaced in 2014 because she believed French authorities were investigating and was preoccupied with other responsibilities, including departmental budget cuts.

Pansieri said she first heard about the allegations "most probably [in] September", when a senior legal adviser told her about French requests for information.

"I regret to say that in the context of those very hectic days, I failed to follow up on the CAR situation," Pansieri said in a signed statement obtained by the Associated Press that was marked "strictly confidential" and dated March 26 of this year.

"[B]oth the HC (high commissioner) and I knew that on CAR there was an ongoing process initiated by the French authorities to bring perpetrators to justice,” she said, but added: “I take full responsibility for not having given the matter the necessary attention.”

The alleged abuse took place between December 2013 and June 2014 at a centre for displaced people at an airport in the capital Bangui, the French defence ministry has said. The children, between the ages of 9 and 15, allege that French soldiers sexually abused them, sometimes in exchange for food. Bangui residents told the Associated Press that soldiers offered food, cookies or bottles of water in exchange for sodomy or oral sex.

French troops arrived in Central African Republic in late 2013 and had a UN mandate to assist an African Union peacekeeping operation until the mission was taken over by the UN in September 2014. At the time of the alleged abuse, the French soldiers were not under UN authority.

While France, like every UN member country, bears the responsibility for investigating the actions of its troops, the UN human rights office must also follow up on any allegations of abuse.

Soon after France was informed, prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation and French investigators went to the Central African Republic in August 2014. Fourteen French soldiers are now under investigation in connection with the claims.

There are about 900 French soldiers currently serving in CAR, down from an initial contingent of 2,000 that was gradually reduced to make way for a UN peacekeeping force tasked with countering the inter-religious violence that has plagued the impoverished country since a March 2013 coup.

Internal UN inquiry leaked

Pansieri’s resignation comes amid criticism of the UN for failing to take swifter action on the allegations. The United States and several aid agencies have called for the United Nations to carry out a thorough investigation into the scandal and the world body appointed a panel in June to conduct an "external, independent review" of the UN response to the abuse claims.

A statement from the office of UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon in April said that the UN Office of Human Rights in Bangui first began conducting an investigation into the abuse claims by late spring of 2014.

An unredacted version of the ensuing internal report was leaked to French authorities by veteran UN rights worker Anders Kompass in July 2014, even before it had been passed to senior officials. The UN said the leaked copy of the report “included the identities of victims, witnesses and investigators”.

The UN called the leak a “serious breach of protocol” and Kompass, the office's director of field operations, was placed on paid administrative leave. The UN Dispute Tribunal rejected his suspension in a May appeal and the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services is still investigating his case.

Kompass leaked the claims because he didn't think the new UN peacekeeping mission taking over in September would act on them, according to Pansieri. "He felt that no action on it was being taken by the mission in Bangui, nor that there was any intention to do so in the future," her March statement said, adding that Kompass had told her "the names in the report were fake ones and that there was no risk, therefore, for witnesses".

The United Nations sent an official copy of its Bangui probe to the government of France, with key names redacted, on March 28, 2015 ̶  eight months after Kompass leaked the allegations.

Aid worker Paula Donovan, co-director of the advocacy group Aids Free World, then passed the report to Britain’s The Guardian newspaper. Donovan told FRANCE 24 that a team of investigators and experts commissioned by the UN secretary general found that the incidents took place against a backdrop of “tremendous” abuse.

The UN subsequently submitted written responses to France’s inquiries on April 29, the Paris prosecutor's office said – the same day that The Guardian newspaper first made the allegations public.

The French prosecutor's office has blamed the UN "hierarchy" for the delay in answering its requests for information.

‘We could have done better’

"No one in the chain of command took action, in other words, until Kompass did," Beatrice Edwards, the executive director of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project, told the AP in May. "They were documenting, monitoring and reporting, despite the fact that the abuse was heinous, immediate and ongoing."

The UN human rights office has no specific guidelines on reporting child sexual abuse, nor any requirements for mandatory reporting.

The UN’s new high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein of Jordan, took up the post on September 1. A confidential statement he made on March 29 that was obtained by the AP said a senior legal adviser told him last fall about the report and its allegations being "leaked" to the French.

"All of this – aside from the deeply disturbing allegations of sexual abuse – was alarming," his statement said.

Zeid, who a decade ago wrote a landmark UN report on preventing sexual exploitation by peacekeepers, questioned why France hadn't moved more quickly to pursue the allegations. In a May interview he asked how the abuse could have gone on for so long without the French forces being aware.

"How is it that nobody knew about these abuses between December and May? It is seldom just a case of one soldier, two soldiers, 12 soldiers, 15 soldiers ̶  others would know. They could be non-commissioned officers, they could be junior officers, they could be platoon commanders ̶  how is it that nobody knows?" he asked.

The high commissioner said that France's intervention in CAR had saved it from "almost certain collapse" but added that the reports of “savage” abuse were likely just "the tip of the iceberg".

But he has also said the UN bore some responsibility.

"In the way it was eventually handled," Zeid said, "we could have done better at the time".

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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