United Nations peacekeepers bring hope to vulnerable populations when they arrive in war-torn countries and post-conflict areas. But allegations are mounting that they may bring something else: sexual assaults against the very people they were trusted to protect.
Amnesty International urged the U.N. on Wednesday to take swift action on allegations that one or more of its peacekeepers drugged and raped a 19-year-old woman in Central African Republic last month.
The victim told Amnesty International, a human rights organization based in London, that she was sexually assaulted near a checkpoint run by peacekeepers in the town of Bambari on Sept. 30.
Joanne Mariner, the senior crisis response adviser at Amnesty International, said local authorities have confirmed the rape, and the U.N. is investigating the incident. If it is substantiated, she said, the allegation should result in the repatriation and prosecution of the guilty troops.
“Overall, the U.N. still has a long way to go. In this case, it’s too early to say because the U.N. hasn’t announced its findings and we don’t know what actions it’s planning to take,” Mariner told Yahoo News. “What’s really crucial is that these cases be criminally prosecuted. and that generally doesn’t happen.”
U.N. spokesman Stéphane Dujarric announced Wednesday that they had been alerted about the rape allegation, and that the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services carried out a “verification of information inquiry.” (Contradicting the Amnesty account, the U.N. described the victim as a minor.)
The U.N. purports to have a zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and abuse, but experts say sexual abuse by peacekeepers is a widespread problem, and very serious in Central African Republic. An internal review acknowledges the troubling scope of these allegations and “severely deficient victim assistance.”
AIDS-Free World’s Code Blue Campaign, which works to end impunity for U.N. peacekeeping personnel, says the U.N. has demonstrated that it cannot continue to police and judge itself — and called for an independent investigation and special courts to cover each peacekeeping mission.
“The problem is enormous, and it is present in U.N. missions worldwide,” Paula Donovan, co-director of the Code Blue Campaign, told Yahoo News. “With all eyes on the Central African Republic, the country has become an important proving ground for the U.N.’s best efforts to respond and prevent [it], yet both are failing. We recently completed a review of leaked U.N. files that revealed the U.N. hides sexual exploitation and abuse complaints from public view, making cases disappear before they are ever investigated by proper authorities.”
An AP investigation published in April found that there were nearly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by U.N. peacekeepers in the past 12 years, but that only a fraction of the alleged attackers went to jail.
Mariner said the Bambari case differed from most others in a crucial way: Police learned of the assault within hours and launched an investigation, rather than hearing of it much later from a non-governmental organization.
According to the young woman, peacekeepers from the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in northwestern Africa had offered her tea as she walked home from a funeral around 9 a.m., and that she passed out — awakening on the ground stripped of most of her clothing a few hours later. Workers from a nearby medical clinic found her, placed her in a bed and treated her with fluids. One of the Mauritanian soldiers reportedly visited the center that night. The next morning, the woman told a health care worker that she thought she had been raped, so they treated her with anti-HIV medication and emergency contraception.
The young woman told Amnesty International that she hopes her attackers go to prison, and that she’s willing to provide a formal statement to the U.N. and Mauritanian investigators. The alleged rape occurred near a checkpoint run by peacekeepers on the MINUSCA force — the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic.
Sectarian violence in the Central African Republic has reportedly displaced more than 1.1 million people — more than 500,000 in neighboring countries and roughly 600,000 internally. This is the largest number of people uprooted in the landlocked nation since 2013, when Muslim rebels overthrew longtime President Francois Bozize, inciting backlash from Christian militias.
Amnesty International’s Mariner said she arrived in Bambari a day after the alleged rape and stayed until Saturday. She interviewed 11 people with direct knowledge of the case, including the victim and medical staffers who treated her.
There have been other reports of U.N. peacekeepers sexually assaulting women in Bambari, but this is the first to have resulted in a formal criminal investigation.
Peacekeepers with the U.N. are not subject to domestic prosecution, but their countries of origin are responsible for investigating and prosecuting their crimes.
“If this case is substantiated — and obviously there’s very strong evidence — it’s important that the U.N. really push the troop contributing country to prosecute the case,” Mariner said, and “to treat this as a rape case, as if a woman had been raped in Mauritania.”
Mariner said Amnesty International expects the intergovernmental organization to “take vigorous action” and make sure Mauritanian authorities do so as well. She said their response will be closely scrutinized.
Last month, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres announced that Jane Connors would become the first U.N. Victims’ Rights Advocate, responsible for developing systemwide processes for filing complaints that are sensitive to children and people of both genders. Guterres also announced the formation of the Circle of Leadership, which encourages government leaders to “demonstrate resolve and commitment” to eradicating sexual exploitation.
In February, during a ceremony for the deployment of 225 Mauritanian soldiers to the Central African Republic, the country’s defense minister — Diallo Mamadou Bathia — vowed none of the peacekeepers would ever be implicated in sexual abuse.
The U.N. did not respond to requests for comment.
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