Child sex abuse claims shake UN as revelations continue

May 30, 2015, 1:19 PM

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The boys said they approached the French soldiers because they were hungry. Some were so young 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.

U.N. 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 sprawling displaced persons camp in the conflict-torn capital, Bangui.

One year later, revelations about how the U.N. 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.

On Saturday, the high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, said his office was sending a team to Central African Republic to look into what the statement called “possible further measures to address human rights violations,” including sexual violence. The office also will ask “concerned states” what they have done to investigate them and prosecute anyone.

No arrests have been announced, and it’s not clear where the accused soldiers, who were supporting a U.N. peacekeeping force, are now. The U.N. seems unable to say when the abuses stopped, or how long it continued to investigate.

On Friday, more documents were released by a non-governmental organization run by two former U.N. staffers that’s calling for an independent investigation into the case. The documents show U.N. officials scrambling not so much to help a French inquiry into the allegations but to investigate the human rights staffer who told French authorities in the first place.

A separate report with the children’s allegations, obtained by The Associated Press, says the first account was heard 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. An 11-year-old said he had gone “looking for empty wrappings to play with” when a French soldier first called him over, later giving the boy food and a little money in exchange for oral sex. Another boy, 9, “had been severely beaten by his mother when he told her what had happened.”

When approached by French authorities in Bangui, UNICEF referred them to the U.N.’s legal office in New York. UNICEF also gave the U.N.’s special representative for children and armed conflict information about the cases on July 16, UNICEF spokeswoman Najwa Mekki, said in an email Saturday. “In light of this case we are reviewing our practices, procedures and guidance” for staff and for reporting, she said.

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.

Even when French gendarmes showed up at the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bangui to investigate the allegations — the report shared with French authorities is on the mission’s letterhead — they were told they had to go through proper U.N. channels and talk to the human rights office in Geneva instead.

That was in August. At the end of March, the U.N. finally handed France a redacted copy of the same report they already had. The U.N. says the report first given to the French included the names of the children and witnesses and was a breach of protocol.

The children’s allegations didn’t make their way to top officials at U.N. headquarters in New York for months. On Friday, U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous told reporters he first heard about them this spring. When asked why the mission in Central African Republic didn’t alert his office in New York right away, he said, “Some reporting lines maybe didn’t function.”

The NGO that on Friday released internal U.N. documents related to the case, AIDS-Free World, called for an independent investigation into the way the allegations were handled from the start.

“The grim reality is that those with experience within the U.N. system are unlikely to be surprised,” its statement said. “They know that this is not an unusual case; it is simply one that has come, partially, to light.”

A spokesman for the U.N. human rights office did not comment Friday. The spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters that the documents “may or may not be authentic.”

It is not clear whether a U.N. commission of inquiry on Central African Republic looked into the child sexual abuse allegations. It has said that because of limited resources it focused on incidents involving alleged deaths.

The commission’s final report in December suggests that the U.N. secretary-general report alleged violations by all peacekeepers in Central African Republic, regardless of whether they are part of a U.N. mission.

But on Friday, his spokesman said the secretary-general only heard of the child sexual abuse allegations this spring.

Among the documents released Friday is a March 24 statement by the human rights staffer who interviewed the children. The statement is for the U.N. investigation into what it calls the “leak” to French authorities.

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.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Child sex abuse claims shake UN as revelations continue