U.N. peacekeepers accused of raping civilians

Story highlights

  • A senior U.N. official heads to the Central African Republic amid a new wave of abuse allegations
  • U.N. official: Over 100 women, children said they were sexually abused by U.N. and non-U.N. forces
  • Accusations of sex abuse have emerged since peacekeeping forces entered the country in 2014

(CNN)A United Nations official is headed to the Central African Republic after reports that over 100 women, girls and boys were raped and abused -- many by U.N. peacekeepers.

Jane Holl Lute, a senior U.N. official tasked with leading efforts to curb peacekeeper abuse, was en route to the country Wednesday, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said.
    Allegations of sexual abuse by foreign and local forces have plagued the Central African Republic since the United Nations sent forces to the country two years ago. But they're still just as shocking as ever.
    "When the most vulnerable in this world -- women and children who have lost everything -- when they look to the United Nations for protection, they should do so in the belief that their suffering is over, not just beginning," said Peter Wilson, the UK's deputy representative to the United Nations.

    Years of violence

    The United Nations sent peacekeepers to the Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest nations, to try to quell political violence that began three years ago.
    A coalition of mostly Muslim rebels ousted President Francois Bozize in March 2013, and Christian and Muslim militias battled for control before a tentative political transition began.
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    The violence prompted a humanitarian crisis, with hundreds of thousands of people fleeing their homes. Other African countries and France also sent peacekeepers.
    But more than 100 victims said they were sexually abused by U.N. peacekeepers and non-U.N. forces, a U.N. official said Tuesday.
    "Tragically, the vast majority of the victims are children," said Edmond Mulet, the U.N. chief of staff on sexual exploitation and abuse.
    He added that these allegations "remain reports" and that "we need to verify and investigate them swiftly and professionally." No victims testified at a meeting to discuss the accusations at U.N. headquarters in New York on Tuesday.
    If the allegations are substantiated against particular units, then the United Nations can decide whether to repatriate them -- but not prosecute them.
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    Accountability, Mulet said, is a "shared responsibility."
    "It is only by working with member states, especially troop-contributing countries, that we will be able to ensure accountability and justice for the victims," Mulet said.
    "All member states (must) live up to their responsibility to bring to justice those who have committed crimes while serving with the United Nations."
    But this week marks an important step in holding U.N. peacekeepers accountable, said Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
    "1st trial for DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) peacekeepers accused of horrific sex abuse in #CAR began this week," she tweeted. "Vitally impt step twd acctability & ending this plague."

    U.N. credibility in jeopardy, report says

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    A 14-year-old girl told Human Rights Watch she was walking down a path in the bush when a soldier approached her in December.
    "He ripped off my clothes and used them to tie my hands behind my back," she said. Then she was assaulted.
    The United Nations issued its own report in December about sexual assault by its peacekeepers. It's over 100 pages, but the findings can be summed up in two words: We failed.
    "Overall, the response of the U.N. was fragmented and bureaucratic, and failed to satisfy the U.N.'s core mandate to address human rights violations," it said.
    "In the absence of concrete action to address wrongdoing by the very persons sent to protect vulnerable populations, the credibility of the U.N. and the future of peacekeeping operations are in jeopardy."

    More allegations

    But as this year has progressed, more sexual abuse allegations have surfaced involving peacekeeping forces in the Central African Republic.
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    A U.N. report in March indicated 17 of the allegations last year have so far been investigated, with 10 found unsubstantiated. The U.N. Security Council issued its own resolution on March 11, calling attention to the issue and issuing recommendations.
    But a wave of particularly horrifying allegations surfaced at the end of the month, spurring a series of strongly worded news releases for a diplomatic body like the United Nations. CNN cannot independently confirm the allegations.
    The U.N.'s top official in charge of human rights called the new accusations "sickening."
    And Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said they were "despicable, depraved and deeply disturbing allegations."
    But the U.N. would not confirm to CNN what specifically the new allegations were.

    Call for action

    At the meeting Tuesday, Atul Khare, the U.N.'s under-secretary-general for field support, called on the countries that sent those accused to discipline them and carry out "criminal sanctions warranted under their national laws."
    Khare also said new legislation should be proposed if current law would not cover prosecution of these alleged crimes.
    The United Nations has also said that implicated troops must remain confined to their camp, "except for essential operational tasks and increasing the presence of military police at affected locations."
    Khare said officials are working with children's agency UNICEF to ensure services and extra funds are available to help affected communities.
    He said the number of allegations is expected to rise.