UN chief moves to quell C.Africa child sex abuse scandal

Carole Landry
French soldiers patrol the streets of Bangui during 'Operation Sangaris', on May 2, 2015 (AFP Photo/Pacome Pabandji)

United Nations (United States) (AFP) - UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday moved to contain a scandal over the United Nation's handling of child sexual abuse allegations in the Central African Republic by ordering an independent, external review of the case.

The United Nations has been badly shaken by accusations that it failed to act quickly to respond to serious claims that French and African troops had sexually abused children at a camp for displaced civilians, from December 2013 to June 2014.

Ban'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," spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

France announced last month that 14 French soldiers had been placed under investigation, but this was 10 months after it received a leaked UN report detailing the testimony of children who said they were forced to perform oral sex in exchange for food.

The report by the UN rights office also provided accounts from children, aged 8 to 13, who said troops from Chad and Equatorial Guinea brutally raped boys.

French troops were deployed to the Central African Republic in December 2013 to help African Union peacekeepers restore order after the country exploded into violence triggered by a coup.

Hundreds of troops were stationed outside Bangui at M'Poko airport, which was sheltering thousands of people displaced from the violence, when the alleged abuse took place.

The allegations were revealed by The Guardian newspaper in April, which obtained the UN report from the advocacy group AIDS-Free World.

- Systems failed -

The group has since released documents from an internal UN enquiry showing that senior officials from the UN office of human rights knew of the allegations for months, but did not follow up.

"There are systems that failed here," Dujarric told reporters. "This was not handled in the way that the secretary general would want it to be handled."

AIDS-Free World welcomed the announcement and said the outside panel must be allowed to look into decisions taken at all levels of the United Nations including Ban's own staff.

"What happened in the Central African Republic was an atrocity, but the fact that the UN stood silent for nearly a year after its own discovery of widespread peacekeeper sexual abuse (even if by non-UN troops) is itself a bitter commentary on the Secretary-General's declared policy of zero tolerance," the group said in a statement.

The French troops were serving as part of the Sangaris military intervention in the Central African Republic, while the soldiers from Chad and Equatorial Guinea were part of the African Union's MISCA mission.

While the allegations did not target troops serving under the UN blue flag, the case raised questions about how the United Nations handles serious allegations directed at foreign troops sent to help deal with a humanitarian crisis.

Under UN policy, UN officials look to the country of origin to take action against their soldiers when accused of misconduct, but they admit they have little leeway to push those countries to prosecute.