The Dark Side of Peace Enforcement: Sexual Exploitation in CAR

Media reports continue to trickle through detailing rape and indiscriminate killing by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic (CAR). Despite condemnation by UN Headquarters and some moves toward accountability by those states providing troops, the reports of sexual violence and exploitation continue unabated. Some background to the most recent allegations is set out below. I also explore some of the underpinning legal and political gaps that enable a culture of impunity to thrive in a number of peacekeeping operations.

Sexual Violence

  • In April 2014, Anders Kompass leaked the United Nations report to French authorities, which detailed the “rape and sodomy of starving and homeless young boys by French peacekeeping troops” at a camp for internally displaced people in Bangui.
  • The report details abuse by French and nationals of other contributing countries from December 2013 to June 2014. (Access to leaked report as published by Aids Free Project here.)
  • More reports of sexual violence continued through the summer, with the reported rape of a girl under the age of 16 by Moroccan peacekeeping forces.
  • Most recently, a 12 year-old girl was raped and two civilians were indiscriminately killed.

UN Responses

  • “I cannot put into words how anguished and ashamed I am by recurrent reports over the years of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN forces,” said Ban Ki Moon.
  • On August 13, 2015, the Secretary General also requested an emergency meeting of the Security Council. UN Spokesman Stéphane Dujarric added, “He (the Secretary General) stressed that zero tolerance means zero complacency and zero impunity and that when allegations are substantiated, all personnel whether military, police, or civilians must be held accountable.”
  • In a May interview with Newsweek, Tony Banbury, the UN’s assistant secretary-general for field support, stated: “We have challenges in achieving criminal accountability justice, but immunity is not one of them.” He did not focus on criticizing or analyzing the placement of prosecutorial responsibility with contributing states, but rather discussed the “challenges with criminal responsibility and criminal prosecution.” Banbury continued, saying: “The objective is zero cases, but this is an imperfect world. There probably are going to continue to be some cases.”
  • Graça Machel stated, “the evidence is that things have not changed or improved. Currently, they have gotten even worse.”
  • Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire claims that the “chaos” of the conflict and atmosphere “merely makes it available for those who might be so inclined, who might actually tip over and might actually do it.”

France

  • The Huffington Post reports that “[m]ilitary authorities and the Paris prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation and investigators went to Central African Republic in August.”
  • The French Ministry claims to be in pursuit of criminal prosecution, which will result in “the strictest sanctions against those responsible for what would be an intolerable attack on the values of a soldier.”
  • François Hollande has stated: “If some soldiers behaved badly, I will be merciless. If this information is confirmed, there will be exemplary punishment.”

Central African Republic Officials

  • Central African Republic Justice Minister, Aristide Sokambi spoke out to say that the Central African Republic will also be pursuing prosecution of the French soldiers responsible. He added: “I deplore the fact that we haven’t been joined about this investigation when we have cooperation agreements with France. So I’ve instructed the public prosecutor to open an inquiry and then try to collect evidence already available to the French.”

Despite these protestations of horror at the infliction of sexual harm on minors and women in the CAR, the challenge of addressing sexual violence caused by peacekeepers and international personnel is not a new one. During missions in various African states in the mid-1990s to the present, Belgian, Canadian, Italian, and Pakistani peacekeepers were implicated in crimes ranging from torture to rape to murder. Reports of survival prostitution and human trafficking remain a mainstay of the peacekeeping economy.

What would change this? It is fair to say that peacekeeping has a positive impact in many countries experiencing or emerging from conflict and its absence would create multiple other insecurities for populations in conflict-affected states. Taking away the peacekeepers is not the solution. However, when readily identifiable troop contributing states have been consistently implicated in sexual violence, and have consistently shown an unwillingness to train, discipline, and make their soldiers criminally accountable, then the privilege of UN service should be withheld. The bottom line on preventing sexual violence by peacekeepers in the CAR and elsewhere is accountability.

That accountability starts at the very top. Where a force has been implicated in sexual violence then, the United Nations Secretary General has an obligation to seek the resignation of the force commander. This realization emerges in the decision taken by the Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon asking General Babacar Gaye, the head of UN peacekeeping operations in the Central African Republic to resign. In a universe of military command responsibility, the head of a peacekeeping mission is ultimately responsible for the systematic exploitation and violence against populations that troops have a responsibility to protect.

The second step is to meaningfully implement investigation and prosecution procedures. In most cases of sexual violence, a UN investigation takes up to or beyond 18 months. By the time the investigation is over, the evidence has disappeared, victims are more vulnerable, and the soldiers have been whisked off home. Investigations have to be resourced intensively and become effective mechanisms to show those harmed that their injuries are taken seriously.

The third step is punishment. In most cases of peacekeeper violence, there are few consequences for the perpetrators. Consistent standards must be enforced by the terms of Status of Force Agreements with troop contributing states. These standards must set out consistent processes and penalties for sexual violence without exception. When soldiers know that the penalties and costs are near zero for violence committed in places far from home, a culture of impunity reigns.

The United Nations continues to issues platitudes to the victims, and occasionally senior heads will roll. In reality though, unless there is consistent articulation and enforcement of penalties within the military chain of command, including for commanding officers, the litany of sexual violence will not go away. 

About the Author(s)

Fionnuala Ní Aoláin

Robina Chair in Law, Public Policy, and Society at the University of Minnesota Law School, Professor of Law at the University of Ulster’s Transitional Justice Institute in Belfast, Northern Ireland Follow her on Twitter (@NiAolainF).