The United Nations denies trying to cover up allegations of sexual abuse of children by French soldiers in the Central African Republic.
It says a senior U.N. official suspected of leaking a confidential report has been suspended for having breached rules aimed at protecting the young victims.
The U.N. Human Rights Office says it is constrained by what it can say because two investigations are under way. U.N. spokesman Rupert Colville says the first and most important investigation is being conducted by French authorities. He says the probe into extremely serious allegations of sexual abuse of children by French soldiers in the Central African Republic was started last year on July 31.
“The allegations of what happened to these children are abhorrent," Colville said. "The details, contained in interviews with alleged victims and witnesses by U.N. investigators, including one of our staff last summer, are utterly odious.”
The United Nations has a zero tolerance policy for sexual abuse by its peacekeepers. It says the policy does not extend to the French force in CAR, which was not under the umbrella of the U.N.
Fourteen soldiers reportedly are charged with demanding sexual favors from young boys in return for food. They were part of a larger French peacekeeping force sent to the CAR to help restore order after fighting erupted in December 2013. Soldiers from Chad and Equatorial Guinea also are implicated.
The French ministry of defense says the sexual abuse of around 10 children, one as young as nine, reportedly took place at a center for internally displaced people near the airport of the capital, Bangui, between December 2013 and June 2014. The abuse reportedly occurred before and after MINUSCA, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the CAR was set up.
The incidents became public when a senior U.N. official, Anders Kompass, allegedly leaked a confidential U.N. report. Kompass has been suspended with pay while an internal U.N. investigation is ongoing.
Colville says the investigation is being carried out by the Office of Internal Oversight Services at the request of the High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra-ad Al Hussein. Colville says the leak of the internal report may have breached strict rules that exist to protect victims, witnesses and investigators.
“Obviously, this is a matter of great importance, which is why such rules exist. Victims, witnesses and investigators may be extremely vulnerable to reprisals," Colville said. "We know of plenty of cases elsewhere where they have disappeared. The protection of sources must be of paramount importance and I am sure you understand this, especially when you have these young children involved ... We know for a fact that at least one of the individuals named in this document has been contacted by a number of different media organizations in the last few days. This is very worrying.”
Colville says implications that U.N. human rights chief Zeid would try and cover up the sexual abuse of children is offensive and highly unlikely. He notes the high commissioner is the author of the 2005 Zeid Report, which he says is the definitive U.N. report on sexual abuse in peacekeeping operations.