Shocking new revelations about what happened to little boys sexually abused in the Central African Republic by peacekeepers, three years ago, were revealed in a Code Blue Campaign press conference.
The actual voices of the boys are heard in a new documentary produced by SVT (Swedish Public Television). The film updates the notorious saga of boys interviewed by staff from UNICEF and the UN’s Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and then ignored for nine months. The news that the UN had failed to protect or assist the children after documenting their sexual abuse by French and other soldiers produced global headlines and public outrage in 2015. UNICEF defended itself against the charges of neglect: “During and after helping gather and report the testimonies… UNICEF focused on the children’s wellbeing —including supporting the provision of medical and psychosocial care for all those affected.”
Pressed by UN member states to investigate, the then-Secretary-General commissioned an external “CAR Review Panel” to examine how, where, and why the UN had failed. Its findings, reported by panel chair Justice Deschamps six months later, characterized the entire UN system’s response to sexual exploitation and abuse as a “gross institutional failure.” And UNICEF’s claims of providing help and protection for the children, the panel reported, were unfounded.
Now Karin Mattisson and her team at SVT’s Uppdrag Granskning news program in Sweden have documented evidence that the UN’s neglect continues. UNICEF’s Country Representative, questioned in CAR about the children’s wellbeing, states unequivocally on camera, “They are with their families. They are back in school. They are in vocational training programs…We follow them on a regular basis, on a weekly basis…” Asked if all the children interviewed back in 2014 are now in school, being protected and cared for by UNICEF, the head of office replies: “Absolutely; absolutely.”
Three of those children were located in CAR by the investigative team, and they tell a very different story. One young victim—13 years old when he was assaulted by France’s so-called ‘Sangaris’ soldiers after begging for food—recounts the details he already provided to the UN, and tells Mattisson of his mental anguish since then as he waits, still, for the help, protection, and schooling UNICEF promised: “I have a load of different feelings. It’s just chaos. Sometimes I just suddenly burst out crying.” A second boy recounts what happened to him, and describes how he struggles to survive on the streets to this day: “[The soldiers] did the same with me as they did with the other children…I have not received any help…We are trying to get it together on our own.” The team speaks to staff at an orphanage now caring for a third victim, who was just eight years old and already showing signs of deep trauma when UN staff took his testimony in 2014. The boy tried to attend school, but he’s too troubled, says the manager. UNICEF has never come by to check on him.
In a second interview, the UNICEF Representative responds to what the team has learned from three of the boys: “Well, there may be a gap here and a gap there.”
The team learns of another young victim, and the news gets worse: UNICEF’s neglect of those boys seems to be less indicative of “gaps” than of a pattern.
They meet “Martha,” who was 14 when she was sexually abused by a 35-year-old UN peacekeeper. Today, she has a young toddler and is living with HIV. “Initially UNICEF said that they would make sure that the soldier was imprisoned and take care of the mother and baby to help us. But then…nothing. No one came to visit. They just gave us a present.” The ‘present’ was a bag of rice, some milk, some sugar, and the equivalent of 20 US dollars. After that, UNICEF never returned.
In her CAR Review Panel’s explosive December 2015 report, Justice Deschamps had stated unequivocally that “UNICEF did not take any steps to locate additional children who had reportedly been abused to determine if they required protection or medical services. This…was a serious breach of UNICEF’s duty to protect children.”
Sixteen months have passed, marked by the creation within the UN of a “high-level steering group” including the Executive Director of UNICEF, the appointment of an Under-Secretary-General charged exclusively with improving the UN’s response to its sex abuse crisis, official visits to CAR from her and a range of other top UN officials, numerous task forces, a number of formal and informal consultations with UN member states, and strategic plans. And the ‘serious breach of UNICEF’s duty to protect children’ continues.
Speaking on behalf of the AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue campaign to end impunity for peacekeeper sexual abuse, Paula Donovan called for a drastic shift in the culture of accountability within the UN system. “UNICEF has an unparalleled ability to help children in crisis, but something has gone terribly wrong,” she said. “In the instance of peacekeeping, protecting the world’s children has taken a backseat to protecting the UN’s reputation. This twisted pattern damages the UN in the eyes of the world.”