U.N. whistleblower reinstated as sexual abuse investigation picks up

French forces patrolling in Sibut, some 200kms (140 miles) northeast of Bangui, Central African Republic. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay, File)

Yesterday, a tribunal at the United Nations ordered for the reinstatement of employee Anders Kompass, the man who was suspended for leaking a report detailing sexual abuses carried out by French soldiers in the Central African Republic. The United Nations says it will continue to investigate the leak, citing concerns about the victims of the abuse.

Authorities in both France and the Central African Republic issued statements that each will investigate the allegations. The state prosecutor for France said the country was waiting to speak with the U.N. investigator who wrote the initial report, but was unable to due to her diplomatic immunity. She issued written evidence to French authorities on April 29, allowing the investigation to begin. At the same time, Central African Republic Justice Minister Aristide Sokambi said the country will carry out its own investigation.

“We regret the fact we were not brought into these investigations despite the cooperation agreements we have with France,” said Sokambi. “So I have instructed the public prosecutor to open a probe and seek the evidence already at the disposal of the French.”

Reports indicate that 14 soldiers sexually abused or raped 10 children, the youngest was 9 years old. The assaults took place near the airport in the capital city of Bangui, where displaced Central Africans were staying to escape fighting in the city. The incidents occurred between December 2013 and June 2014, the period when fighting and displacement accelerated in the Central African Republic. Some of the soldiers traded food for sexual favors, the French government reported.

The United Nations and France learned of the abuses in the middle of 2014. The French Defense Ministry said its investigation started by the end of July 2014. It was made public when the report leaked by Kompass passed from the advocacy group Aids Free World to The Guardian.

Kompass told the U.N. tribunal that he learned of the abuse mid-July 2014. He spoke with a French diplomat about it later in the month and passed along the report to French authorities on Aug. 7. Kompass said he also spoke with one of his bosses, but the U.N. claims it did not know of the leak until March 6 of this year. Just six days later, officials asked Kompass to resign. A suspension followed in April and the tribunal reinstated him to work. The United Nations says it is still investigating the claims and the early findings are shocking.

According to U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville, Kompass was suspended over concerns about victim safety.

“Obviously, this is a matter of great importance, which is why such rules exist. Victims, witnesses and investigators may be extremely vulnerable to reprisals,” Colville said to VOA. “We know of plenty of cases elsewhere where they have disappeared. The protection of sources must be of paramount importance and I am sure you understand this, especially when you have these young children involved. … We know for a fact that at least one of the individuals named in this document has been contacted by a number of different media organizations in the last few days. This is very worrying.”

Colville explained that the French are taking the lead with an independent investigation. French President Francois Hollande pledged “no mercy” if the allegations prove true. In addition, Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged soldiers who committed the crimes to step forward.

“If someone has sullied our flag – because that’s what it is – he must say so right now, because it’s a betrayal of comrades, the image of France and the army’s mission,” said Le Drian to Le Journal de Dimanche last weekend.

A group of French soldiers joined the U.N.-mandated European Union and African Union peacekeeping missions to the Central African Republic in December 2013. The Séléka rebels deposed President François Bozizé in March 2013. The rebels were accused of human rights violations in the months following the coup, but things grew worse by the end of the year as opposition fighters, calling themselves anti-balaka, launched attacks of their own. Some watchers suggested the makings of a genocide were building in the country. The international community increased its response to the crisis on both humanitarian and security grounds.

After heavy fighting slowed, more than 400,000 people were displaced within the Central African Republic, and 462,000 were living as refugees in neighboring countries. Some 10,750 military personnel are still in the country to help preserve what the U.N. undersecretary-general for the U.N. peacekeeping operations characterized as a “fragile” state.

The current allegations are reminiscent of other incidents of sexual misconduct by international forces. U.N. peacekeepers have been accused of sexual misconduct against the people they were supposed to protect in Haiti, Liberia, Kosovo and elsewhere. The United Nations’ handling of the cases sparked outrage and widespread attention.

“The regular sex abuse by peacekeeping personnel uncovered here and the United Nations’ appalling disregard for victims are stomach-turning, but the awful truth is that this isn’t uncommon,” said Paula Donovan, co-director of the advocacy group Aids Free World, to The Guardian. “The U.N.’s instinctive response to sexual violence in its ranks – ignore, deny, cover up, dissemble – must be subjected to a truly independent commission of inquiry with total access, top to bottom, and full subpoena power.”

Updated from original story published May 4.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.