Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today pledged to urgently review the recommendations made by an independent panel that found that the United Nations did not act with the “speed, care or sensitivity required,” when it uncovered information about crimes committed against children by soldiers – not under UN command – sent to the Central African Republic (CAR) to protect civilians.
“The Report depicts a United Nations that failed to respond meaningfully when faced with information about reprehensible crimes against vulnerable children,” Mr. Ban said in a statement following receipt of the Report of the External Independent Review of the United Nations Response to Allegations of Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in the Central African Republic, which was made public today.
The review panel, chaired by Marie Deschamps, a former Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, was set up by the Secretary-General in June to examine the UN response to the allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of children by foreign military forces not under UN command and assess the adequacy of the procedures in place.
In the spring of 2014, allegations came to light that international troops serving as peacekeepers in CAR had sexually abused a number of young children in exchange for food or money. The alleged perpetrators were largely from a French military force known as Sangaris, which was operating under authorization of the Security Council but not under UN command.
“I express my profound regret that these children were betrayed by the very people sent to protect them,” said Mr. Ban. “Though the soldiers who committed the abuses were not under United Nations command, the Report shows that the United Nations, which uncovered the abuse, did not subsequently handle the case with the speed, care or sensitivity required.”
The Report found that three UN officials abused their authority: the then head of the human rights component of the UN mission in CAR (MINUSCA); the then Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of MINUSCA; and the then Under-Secretary-General for the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS). Given the gravity of these findings, Mr. Ban said he will act quickly to determine what action might be necessary.
“To uphold the fundamental principle of accountability, and in the light of the history of allegations of sexual abuse by troops in the Central African Republic, including the current allegations, I had previously asked one of them – my Special Representative for the Central African Republic – to resign,” he stated, referring to Lieutenant General Babacar Gaye.
The Report also found that, while there were some shortcomings in the performance of several other UN officials and offices, they had not abused their authority.
“I believe that missteps by these individuals were largely a product of flawed systems. I intend to study these cases further to ensure that all individuals and offices heed the lessons of this review.”
According to its Chair, the panel found that, within the UN, responding to allegations of sexual violence is the responsibility of many but of no one in particular, resulting in a situation where documents “pass from inbox to inbox” and everyone thinks that someone else will take responsibility.
“Most importantly, the lack of coordination between policies leaves most victims unattended and vulnerable,” Ms. Deschamps told a news conference at UN Headquarters, joined by fellow panellists Yasmin Sooka, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Human Rights in South Africa, and Hassan Jallow, the Prosecutor of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).
Ms. Deschamps said the shortcomings in the policies materialized in the response of the UN to the allegations in CAR. “Instead of reporting the allegations in an urgent manner, as the egregiousness of the alleged conduct dictated, they were kept quiet. As those who followed the matter know, it took months before France was given details on the allegations.”
In addition, she noted that while a human rights officer and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) staff initially investigated the allegations, there was no follow-up to the interviews.
“Those UN staff who came across the information did not feel concerned or took the position that someone else should address or was addressing the problem. In our view, this was a serious failure. Not only did this show abuse of authority by senior officials on an individual basis, but it also highlights deficiencies at an institutional level.”
Mr. Ban said he intended to urgently review the panel’s recommendations and act without delay to ensure that systemic issues, fragmentation and other problems are fully addressed. He stressed, however, that some of these recommendations will require the involvement and approval of Member States.
He recalled that over the years, the UN has put in place a host of measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse by its peacekeeping personnel, and to react robustly when violations occur.
“Still, it is clear that we must do much more, especially to better align our peacekeeping and human rights systems,” he stated. “As the report indicates, the handling of sexual exploitation and abuse is particularly complicated when, as in this case, troops are not under United Nations command.
“The United Nations does not have authority over contingents of troops that operate outside United Nations peacekeeping. This in no way diminishes the responsibility of the United Nations to speak out when other troops commit violations. Yet too often, national responses to allegations of abuse are slow, muted or non-existent. We must address this major weakness,” he continued.
“Victims do not care what colour helmet or uniform is worn by those who come to protect them. Our duty is to uphold the trust that must underpin all international engagements.”
The panel highlighted the need for conflict-related sexual violence by peacekeepers to be addressed under a harmonized human rights policy. Among its recommendations is the creation of one single coordination unit, placed under the direct oversight of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, tasked with receiving the reports, following up on the allegations and coordinating the process.
In a statement issued today, High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein voiced his support for the Secretary-General in his determination to eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse by all international peacekeeping forces, both UN and non-UN, and to resolve any systemic weaknesses that have been identified by the review panel.
“Investigations into sexual abuse must be made more systematic and effective, and those responsible for these most toxic of crimes must be punished, not least as a deterrence to others,” he said.
UNICEF said it is reviewing the panel’s report, especially references to those instances where the agency failed to implement its policy on responding to the sexual abuse and exploitation of children, in order to draw practical lessons for the future.
“We, of course, deeply regret those failures, including in not adequately following up on the children’s wellbeing,” the agency said in a statement, adding that it has already instituted a new system of reporting to improve internal oversight of its response to reports of abuse, and is also instituting a new process to require more formal and systematic reporting by implementing partners on the support they are providing to child sexual abuse victims.