Last month, an International Criminal Court tribunal found the former vice-president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Pierre Bemba, guilty of allowing his soldiers to commit rape throughout their 2004 deployment in the Central African Republic (CAR). This verdict, an all-too-rare victory for wartime accountability, came just a few weeks before three UN peacekeepers, all Congolese nationals, stand trial for sexual abuse. Their crimes took place amid the CAR’s most recent conflict, nearly a decade after Bemba’s military operations.
The accusations extend far beyond the soldiers currently being tried. Eighteen of their compatriots have also been implicated; military courts in the DR Congo are prosecuting three individuals at a time. UN personnel are not the only ones accused either. Peacekeepers from France, Burundi, Chad, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Guinea, who simultaneously operated in the CAR, have allegedly committed a litany of heinous sexual abuses against the citizens they were tasked to protect, most of whom were minors. As of April 1, the United Nations announced 108 new victims in this growing scandal.
The French ambassador to the UN, François Delattre, has vowed to pursue “exemplary disciplinary action” if the allegations against his citizens prove true. However, negligence from both the UN and France, and the apparent obfuscation of the matter, indicate Delattre’s assurances are long overdue.
France’s peacekeeping contingent, Operation Sangaris, was deployed to the CAR in December 2013, tasked with disarming the Seleka and anti-Balaka militias. By early 2014, initial complaints of sexual abuse began to make their way to UN offices, only to be passed around from desk to desk. One UN investigator, however, did assume the responsibility of both notifying Sangaris’ head commander and interviewing possible victims in May of that year. However, French officials purport that they were not informed of any wrongdoing until months later. According to the investigator, Gallianne Palayret, she spoke personally with a colonel who labeled the allegations impossible and insisted that such atrocities would never transpire among his ranks.
With commanding officers among the accused, one would hope that France investigated this travesty without delay. In fact, an entire year elapsed from the time Palayret initially approached the French military until its government launched a criminal investigation. Now, another year has passed without a single arrest or charge. Although the United Nations eventually demonstrated more urgency than France, the first reaction of its human rights offices was to conceal the matter. Anders Kompass, the internal whistleblower who disclosed the victims’ complaints, was suspended by his superiors and pressured to resign. Only last year was his suspension finally lifted and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon dismissed the head of the peacekeeping mission in the CAR.
This “cancer,” as the Secretary-General describes it, will not vanish on its own. The guilty verdict in Mr. Bemba’s trial is a first step, and must usher in an era of zero-tolerance for sexual abuse committed by peacekeepers. This will require greater expediance in investigating accusations, policies that protect whistleblowers, and a willingness to punish negligent officials who impede justice. In addition to the abuse suffered, what makes this scandal so disturbing is the loss of trust for such a vital component of humanitarian action. Peacekeeping forces are incalculably essential to the prevention of atrocities and protection of human rights. However, allegations of sexual abuse against UN forces have become commonplace. In 2015, 54 cases were reported from the 15 other peacekeeping missions across the world. We can glean that this problem is not an isolated incident, nor is it limited to one military or governing body. Rape has become an epidemic within peacekeeping that threatens to erode the strategy’s core purpose. Yet this scourge will only become intractable if we allow it to be.