What do we really know about has been happening in the Central African Republic (CAR) for the past few years? Well, not much, and definitely not enough. What usually comes to mind when you hear the word ‘Sangaris’, or the name of the French stabilisation operation which was launched in December 2013 in CAR, is the rape allegations that were made against French soldiers.
Rape is a commonly used war tactic. Sexual assault has been used throughout history to disgrace and punish the enemy. In CAR, the parties to the sectarian conflict used this method to punish the women and girls “suspected of interacting with people on the other side of the sectarian divide.” The UN Secretary General Report of March 2015 outlined that “2,527 cases of conflict-related sexual violence were documented in the Central African Republic” between the end of 2012 and the publication of the report.
The fact that rape is commonly used in conflicts does not, however, make the practice acceptable as it strongly goes against human rights. The fact that soldiers, who were third parties in a conflict and were deployed to protect the local populations would take part in such practices makes it even more gruesome. French soldiers were not the only one to be accused of sexual assault in CAR as the personnel deployed within the frameworks of the African Union, the United Nations and the European Union were also accused of similar wrongdoing.
It is not the first time that international troops are accused of rape or paedophilia. If morals alone should prevent soldiers from perpetrating sexual abuses, a legal framework has been set in place to prohibit such actions. It is outlined in the UN policy on peacekeeper’s conduct (Secretary General’s Bulletin of 9 October 2003) that the deployed personnel taking part in a UN mission is not allowed to engage in any sexual relations with members of the local community. It seems that very few soldiers and contributing-countries have read the memo.
The Central African Republic
The Central African Republic is an enclaved country, located, as the name would suggest, in the centre of Africa. Very poorly connected, and badly hit every year by the rain season, CAR has a long history of instability, having faced five coups in the last fifty years.
Unstable since its independence from France in 1960, the situation of the Central African Republic worsened further when a coalition of armed and primarily Muslim insurgency groups, named Seleka seized the capital, Bangui, and toppled the government in March 2013. As a reaction, the Christians organized themselves into the anti-Balaka to fight the Seleka, thus adding a religious component to the struggles. The extreme demonstrations of violence between the two groups is responsible for a humanitarian crisis in CAR, where 6,000 individuals have been killed and a quarter of the population displaced.
Deployed to CAR in December 2013 one year after the President of CAR, François Bozizé, appealed to the French and the Americans to help push back the Seleka who were gaining importance in the country and threatening the capital, the French troops arrived in the country amidst ethnic violence and the collapse of all governmental infrastructures.
France deployed with the support of the UN responding the worsening humanitarian situation and although President Hollande had declared that he wanted to put an end to France’s interventionism in its former colonies. It needs to be noted that France usually had 250 troops positioned in CAR in order to protect French citizens and ensure the protection of the local government. Additional soldiers were sent to CAR following the increasing instability of 2012-2013 (around 600 soldiers). At the high point of Opération Sengaris, around 2,000 French soldiers were deployed throughout CAR. Sengaris was intended as a temporary mission, first to support the work of the African Union, which aimed at guaranteeing the stability of the country in order for the local officials to rebuild a functioning government with the help of the UN. Jean-Yves Le Drian, French Minister of Defence, has announced that the operation will be terminated in 2016.
Opération Sengaris is France’s seventh deployment to CAR since 1960.
So, what happened in CAR? Here is a timeline of how things went down, from the moment troops were deployed in CAR, how the sexual allegations were revealed to the situation now.
5 December 2013
UN Security Council Resolution 2127 (2013) authorises the African-led International Support Mission in the CAR (MISCA) of the African Union, and French troops (Opération Sangaris) to support them, to deploy to CAR in order to reinstate stability in the country and offer the best breeding ground for new and functioning governmental infrastructures to be built. The troops are immediately deployed.
May and June 2014
The UN orders a report following numerous allegations of sexual abuse on children and women collected by NGO workers in refugee camps. Titled “Sexual abuse on children by international armed forces”, it is based on interviews carried out by an official from the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) justice section and a member of Unicef. The victims are eight/nine and fifteen.
The report accuses French soldiers from Opération Sangaris, as well as troops from Chad and Equatorial Guinea who are with the MISCA. Interviews report that sexual abuse was conducted in exchange for food, water and money, and perpetrated in and around the centre for internally displaced people near the airport of the capital.
29 July 2014
The UN report is leaked to the French government by Anders Kompass, director of field operations at the office of the high commissioner for human rights in Geneva. The report had been passed on from UN department and agencies without any action and had not been officially sent to France despite any offending-country’s obligation to prosecute their contingencies in case of misconduct.
Anders Kompass is suspended for breaching the confidentiality of the UN.
The French government, however, immediately instigates a preliminary investigation.
France requests the help of the UN to lift the immunity of the employee who collected the testimonies of the alleged victims in order to question her to support the French court’s inquiry. The demand is rejected and a written commentary is sent instead. The document only reaches Paris on April 29th, 2015.
The United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) take over from MISCA.
Birth of a child allegedly resulting from the rape of a teenager by a French soldier of Sangaris.
29 April 2015
The Guardian, alerted by a member of the UN staff, reveals that Anders Kompas, the UN senior employee who leaked the confidential report to the French government, had been sacked for acting as a whistleblower against the UN’s inefficiency in tackling the various cases of alleged sexual abuse in CAR.
The article reveals the accusations against France as well as other peacekeepers.
Anders Kompass’s suspension is lifted as an “appeal tribunal found his suspension was illegal”, and more precisely the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) points out the UN’s failure to address the issue and preferred to punish the one who shed light on the bureaucratic inefficiency.
12 August 2015
The Head of the MINUSCA, the Senegalese Babacar Gaye, quits after several cases of wrongdoing by UN Peacekeepers are revealed. 61 cases are reported, including 12 concerning sexual abuse.
October- December 2015
New cases of sexual abuse and rape continue to emerge. Human Right Watch collects eight testimonies, all allegedly perpetrated by soldiers from the Republic of Congo, and which can be read here.
The French investigation continues. It concerns “the rape of minors under 15 years old by persons who had abused the authority conferred upon them by their roles, and complicity in this crime”.
On December 8th, four soldiers are questioned (one is formally detained). No prosecution is made public.
Cases pile up. Six new ones accuse EU troops, four new ones accuse UN Blue Helmets from Bangladesh, Congo, Niger and Senegal, and another case accuses a Moroccan soldier deployed in CAR as part of the MISCA.
16 February 2016
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon presents his report on the increase of sexual assault cases the UN has been faced with. He announces that new allegations of sexual exploitation or sexual abuse received by the UN totalled 99 in 2015. 69 of them are confirmed and concern UN personnel other than peacekeepers, personnel of the UNHCR and UNDP, and UN Peacekeepers. That number was recorded in the UN’s 16 peacekeeping missions around the world. 22 cases come from CAR (in 2015 only).
For the first time in this report, faulty countries are named (DRC, Morocco, South Africa, Cameroon, Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Canada, Gabon, Germany, Ghana, Madagascar, Moldova, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, Slovakia, Togo).
Ban Ki-moon reiterates the UN’s zero tolerance policy, and demands that countries take responsibility and put measures in place in order to prevent such dramatic events from occurring.
Sexual Abuse and Soldiers
As outlined before, the situation of CAR has been deplorable for many years, spreading despair and poverty among the population, which created the perfect breeding ground for forced prostitution as women’s bodies are often their last resort in the hope of feeding their family. And “these factors can create a heightened vulnerability for sexual exploitation and abuse.”
It is far from being the first time that the UN’s Blue Helmets are accused of misconduct during a peacekeeping mission. Kosovo, Chad, Liberia, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo are the best examples of that. In his report, the UN Secretary General puts part on the blame of the soldiers’ behaviour on “the rehatting of troops”, that is their lack of preparation for deployment and the excessive length of the deployment for certain contingents, as well as their proximity with the local populations.
Based on voluntarism and the goodwill of UN members, Peacekeeping operations gather contingents from many different countries who do not follow the same standards for their militaries. The lack of structure that some contributors demonstrate is widely used in trying to justify the Blue Helmet’s behaviour.
All in all, the report declares that “it is deplorable that United Nations personnel would take advantage of this situation, and the United Nations is committed to taking measures to eradicate this behaviour.” For this matter, the UN has listed several measures to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse from happening again. They include information campaigns; transparency of the UN in reporting allegations; enhance complaint reception mechanisms; strengthening investigation mechanisms, and so forth. They, however, remain very weak in light of the importance of the crimes that have been committed.
11 March 2016
The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2272, based on the recommendations of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, “to prevent and combat sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers”. The resolution urges “that the Secretary-General replace all units of the troop- or police-contributing country from which the perpetrator is from if appropriate steps have not been taken by the country to investigate the allegation, and/or when the perpetrators have not been held accountable, and/or when there has been failure to inform the Secretary-General of the progress of its investigation or actions taken.”
This resolution has been accused of being too drastic, as one isolated crime will force a whole national contingent to go home. What should have been the focus, in my opinion, is how crimes committed by international troops who represent the UN and the values it represents are being prosecuted. It is the lack of transparency that comes with a military affair that should be changed. Soldiers should be trialled like any citizen and the information be made public. The UN should also allow for all UN peacekeepers to be judged based on the same rules if the organization wishes that all Blue Helmets behave the same way when deployed under the UN flag.
The political use of sexual abuse allegations
There have been many discussions on the allegations of rape against French soldiers in particular. If you ask the military (which I have), they will tell you that French troops would never do such a horrid thing as to rape children. Use prostitutes, yes. But not touch children. True or false, I have my doubts.
It needs to be highlighted, though, that such accusations have heavy political consequences for whoever is targeted. And considering France’s interventionism in Africa, discrediting French soldiers is an effective strategy that could make African countries and international organizations think twice before asking Paris to intervene anywhere. Who would that serve? Countries who have interests in not keeping the old colonial power around. Conspiracy theory, maybe; but it is nonetheless a possibility.
What this political crisis did is to highlight the UN’s inability to react and punish those who faulted. By not passing on the report to France, they did not allow for Paris to prosecute the soldiers accused of serious wrongdoings, as outlined in the peacekeeping procedures.
The UN’s reaction to Anders Kompass’s leaking of the report questions the organisation’s moral standing and legitimacy. Yes, he leaked a confidential document, but the fact that the UN failed to take action following the accusations that had been reported to them is a clear violation of their responsibilities and duty to protecting human rights.
All in all, the UN must react strongly in order to prevent further damaging its credibility. As the main international peace-promoting platform, it is the organisation’s duty to demonstrate the appropriate behaviour to have in any circumstances. Because if the good guys act like the bad guys, then we will definitely not head towards peace.