UN rights chief seeks wider probe into CAR peacekeeper abuses

  • Agencies, United Nations
  • Updated: May 30, 2015 20:43 IST

The UN human rights chief said on Saturday that he had asked several countries to probe allegations of rape and killings by their troops in the Central African Republic following reports of child abuse by French peacekeepers.

A statement said the allegations concerning soldiers from other countries were "very serious" and ranged from executions, abductions to rape.

The appeal came after shocking revelations that French soldiers deployed in the chronically restive, impoverished nation have been accused of sexually abusing children in return for food.

Fourteen French soldiers are under investigation after a group of children alleged troops sexually abused minors at a centre for displaced people in the capital Bangui between December 2013 and June 2014.

The children said they approached the French soldiers because they were hungry. Some were so young that they didn't quite understand the acts the soldiers demanded in return.

One boy, 8 or 9 years old, said he did it several times to the same soldier, "until one day an older kid saw him and told him what he was doing was bad." Another boy, 9, said he thought the soldiers had been urinating. United Nations investigators heard such stories of sexual abuse from several boys in May and June 2014 in Central African Republic, where French soldiers were protecting a displaced persons camp in the conflict-torn capital, Bangui.

One year later, revelations about how the UN handled the boys' accounts have horrified people both inside and outside the world body. Statements marked "strictly confidential" have shown that its top human rights officials failed to follow up for several months on the allegations their own office had collected.

Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights said there had been reports of abuse by soldiers from other countries as well. "These allegations are extremely disturbing," he said.

"Some of these incidents have been at least partly investigated, and some states have apparently sanctioned some of the soldiers involved," he added.

No arrests have been announced, and it's not clear where the accused soldiers are now. The UN seems unable to say when the abuses stopped, or how long it continued to investigate. Zeid said apart from asking the countries involved to track down and punish offenders, his office was sending an investigating team to Bangui.

Although France sent police to investigate the claims after receiving an internal United Nations report last August, no children or soldiers were questioned and the information was not made public.

The case didn't make its way to top officials at UN headquarters in New York for months. On Friday, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters he first heard about the allegations this spring. It was only after The Guardian newspaper reported on the affair last month that a full, public investigation was launched.

Both France and the UN have denied there was a cover up, but a UN official who leaked the report to France last summer was temporarily suspended for disclosing the information.

A separate report with the children's allegations, obtained by AP, said the first account was heard on May 19 by a human rights staffer and a Unicef child protection officer. The interviews continued through June 24. A Geneva-based human rights staffer shared the report with French authorities in July.

The boys' accounts are simple and stark. A 11-year old said he had gone "looking for empty wrappings to play with" when a French soldier called him over, gave him food and a little money in exchange for oral sex. Another 9-year old boy "had been severely beaten by his mother when he told her what had happened." A Unicef spokeswoman did not immediately respond to questions about how the children's agency reported the allegations, and to whom.

The case has exposed a glaring weakness in a world body that considers human rights one of its three main pillars: It has no specific guidelines on how to handle allegations of child sexual abuse, and no requirement for immediate, mandatory reporting. "The grim reality is that those with experience within the UN system are unlikely to be surprised. They know that this is not an unusual case; it is simply one that has come, partially, to light." a statement said.

"But this is not sufficient. The punishment must fit the crime, and some other incidents were reported that may not have been fully followed up on by the states concerned. We need to get to get to the bottom of what precisely was done by whom and when. There must be accountability for serious crimes no matter who commits them," said Zeid.

Among the documents released on Friday is a March 24 statement by the human rights staffer who interviewed the children. Between September and March, the staffer says, she didn't hear anything about the case. But she offers, "I still have all the notes I took of the interviews if they would be of any help."

(With inputs from AFP and AP)

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