[3 June 2015] - The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has made a dramatic intervention in the scandal of French peacekeepers allegedly abusing children in Africa by announcing an independent external review of how his organisation handled the affair.
The move is the first public intervention by the secretary general into what has become a growing controversy for the UN. Pressure is growing on the organisation and on the French authorities to explain when and how they reacted to revelations by children in the Central African Republic last year that they were being sexually exploited by French soldiers at a camp for internally displaced people.
In April the Guardian revealed that a senior UN official, Anders Kompass, had been suspended for disclosing an internal report on the alleged abuse to French prosecutors. Documents released last week, including a statement from Kompass, stated his position that he had passed the report to the French because he was concerned the UN would do nothing to stop the abuse. He has been reinstated but is still under internal investigation and could be dismissed.
On Wednesday as the row over the scandal continued. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the UN chief, announced there would be an external inquiry into the whole affair.
“His [the Secretary-General’s] 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,” she said.
“There are systems that failed here. This was not handled in the way that the Secretary-General would want it to be handled.”
Ban Ki-moon’s spokeswoman said the review would examine the treatment of the specific report of abuse in the Central African Republic, as well as a broad range of systemic issues related to how the UN responds to serious information of this kind.
“As has been stated over the past few weeks, the secretary general is deeply disturbed by the allegations of sexual abuse by soldiers in the Central African Republic, as well as allegations of how this was handled by the various parts of the UN system involved,” she said.
The allegations against the French troops emerged during interviews by a UN staff member with young boys in a camp for displaced people in the capital Bangui. The report from the interviews was passed in July last year to Kompass, director of field operations for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, by one of his colleagues who passed it to the French.
He was suspended from his post in March – on the order of the High Commissioner for Human Rights – and put under internal investigation for leaking a confidential UN document. The UN said he had not followed protocol and in particular had failed to redact the identities of the children and the interviewers, potentially putting them at risk. He was reinstated after a UN appeal tribunal rules his suspension was unlawful.
Pressure has grown on Moon over the revelations, specifically over what his organisation did when it received the internal report detailing the sexual abuse last year.
In a letter to Moon, seen by the Guardian, the president of the UN staff association accused her own organisation of trying to “kill the messenger” in its treatment of Kompass.
Barbara Tavora Jainchill called for the resignation of the two senior officials who are in charge of internal investigations, Carmen Lapointe, head of the Office of Internal Oversight Services in the UN and Joan Dubinsky, chair of the organisation’s ethics committee.
“I strongly hope that Ms Lapointe and Ms Dubinsky act with honour and tender their resignations since both of them – not the whistle-blower – failed this Organisation and its staff members,” she wrote. “If they don’t resign, I hope that you terminate their contracts without delay since their actions are an embarrassment to the UN in general, their offices, their fellow staff members and to you, Sir.”
Jainchill added: “I am personally very disappointed at the nonchalant, almost indifferent way that a serious crime, involving the most vulnerable of our 'clients' – displaced children in a refugee camp – was (NOT) dealt with.”
French prosecutors are also under pressure over a failure to act quickly to identify and prosecute the suspected soldiers. They were passed the report by Kompass last summer and began an investigation, but it was only last month that the French began a criminal investigation into the allegations.
The French blamed the UN for refusing them access to the author of the report, saying it had taken months for the UN legal process to provide them with written answers from her to their questions. A request to interview her directly was refused.
Last month the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein admitted that the UN could have handled the child abuse allegations differently, and said: “We could have done better,” he told a press conference in Geneva.
He admitted there had been months of delays before the UN legal department allowed the author of the report to answer questions from French prosecutors. The French were never allowed to interview her directly.
But he blamed the French – who had jurisdiction over the soldiers – for not responding sooner to the allegations.
Aids Free World, which published a series of documents relating to the case last week, said the inquiry must be “a truly external and independent inquiry”, adding that no member of existing UN staff should be appointed to investigate.
“It must be understood that top members of the secretary general’s own staff will have to be subject to investigation,” the statement said.
“This must go right up to the level of under-secretaries general.”