The United Nations said on Thursday it was looking into allegations that complaints of sexual abuse and exploitation made against its peacekeepers in the conflict-torn Central African Republic were mishandled or unreported.
The U.N.'s 10,000-strong mission in Central African Republic (MINUSCA) has been dogged by accusations of sex abuse since it deployed in 2014 to curb fighting between mainly Muslim Seleka rebels, who had ousted the president, and Christian militias.
Internal U.N. case files handed to Code Blue — a campaign by a nongovernmental organization seeking greater accountability for U.N. troops — detail 14 initial fact-finding inquiries into complaints made against MINUSCA peacekeepers from nine nations.
Under U.N. rules, peacekeepers are under the exclusive jurisdiction of the countries that sent them to serve abroad.
Yet the files — which were not seen by Reuters — reveal that 10 of the 14 cases were handled only by U.N. personnel, without involvement of investigators from the accused soldiers' home countries, and that in eight of the 14 cases, the alleged victims were not interviewed, Code Blue said.
"These 14 cases demonstrate that the U.N. filters reports of complaints, usually tossing them out before the matters ever reach the competent authorities from troop-contributing countries," said Sharanya Kanikkannan, a lawyer with Code Blue.
"This filtering ensures that there is no access to justice for the vast majority of victims since they cannot gain access to law enforcement authorities without first convincing U.N. staff to believe them," Kanikkannan added in a statement.
MINUSCA said in an email that it is "reviewing and will transparently report on allegations [made by Code Blue] ... of unreported cases of sexual exploitation and abuse."
"MINUSCA has made the fight against sexual exploitation and abuse its core business," said spokesman Vladimir Monteiro. "It recognizes that sexual exploitation and abuse cases have severely affected the mission's credibility and reputation in the past."
Following the MINUSCA response, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York late on Thursday that he did not believe the leaked files were a "representative sample."
In December 2015, an independent review panel criticized the United Nations for grossly mishandling allegations of child sexual abuse and rape by international peacekeepers in 2013 and 2014 in Central African Republic, where heavy fighting wages on.
Thousands have died and a fifth of Central Africans have fled violence that broke out in 2013, with U.N. peacekeepers and national security forces struggling to contain ethnic violence which is stoking fears of a backslide to full-blown conflict.