An independent panel appointed by the United Nations Secretary General to investigate the sexual abuse of children by peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic (CAR) found "gross institutional failure" of the world body to handle the matter.
The panel also found that three UN officials — including Babacar Gaye, the head of the CAR peacekeeping mission known as MINUSCA, and Carman Lapointe, then the UN's top investigative official — abused their authority in the course of the matter.
"It's a hideous indictment of the entire system," Paula Donovan, co-founder of AIDS-Free World and the Code Blue campaign for ending UN immunity in sex abuse cases, said by telephone.
The three-member panel, chaired by Canadian jurist Marie Deschamps, was appointed to investigate what critics have called a cover-up of sexual abuse by French peacekeepers in the CAR. UN human rights officers first uncovered the abuse in interviews with children in 2014. A UN senior field officer named Anders Kompass passed the information to the French authorities so that they could investigate.
But Kompass himself ended up under investigation at the urging of the UN's highest human rights official, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, for "leaking" the material to the French. Kompass was suspended, but no action was taken on the abuse allegations until they were published in The Guardian earlier this year.
The panel effectively exonerated Kompass, who nevertheless remains under investigation by the UN.
"In fact he was the only person in the chain of command who really took action and used the latitude of his office to try to protect the children," said Beatrice Edwards, executive director of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower initiative of which Kompass is a client.
The ongoing investigation into his alleged misconduct, Edwards pointed out, was itself noted as an abuse of authority by Lapointe, the former Undersecretary General for Oversight. (Lapointe left her post in October when her contract came to an end.)
"The [investigative] focus on Kompass was a clear attempt to detract from the larger issue — the fact that French soldiers were sexually exploiting young children in CAR," Megan Nobert, a humanitarian worker and founder of Report the Abuse, told BuzzFeed News by phone from South Sudan. "The Deschamps report clears out all of the politics and distractions to get to the heart of what we’re debating."
The report pulled no punches, accusing Renner Onana, then the head of the Human Rights and Justice Section of the UN mission in CAR of "obscuring" the abuse allegations and of "an outright disregard for his obligations as head of the human rights component of the UN mission in CAR."
The panel also found that Onana abused his authority in the course of that obfuscation.
Onana was recently promoted to a regional director position with MINUSCA.
The panel also had harsh words for Leila Zerrougui, the Special Representative to the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG CAAC). "Despite the fact that the sexual abuse of children in the context of armed conflict falls at the core of her mandate, the SRSG CAAC took no steps to inform herself about what was being done by the UN to address the Allegations until the spring of 2015, when the Allegations were being reported by international media," the report says.
The report also took issue with the way the UN handled the allegations in public. Officials repeatedly argued that Kompass endangered the children by releasing a report containing their names to French investigative authorities.
The report stops just short of calling that stance dishonest. If officials were in fact worried about the safety of the victims, "the UN would have taken urgent steps to protect the children when it became known in August 2014 that their identities had been disclosed," the report says. "Instead, no steps whatsoever were taken to find the children, relocate them...or assess their security needs until May 2015," after the sex abuse allegations became public.
Nobert told BuzzFeed News that the Deschamps report echoed her own experiences seeking accountability in the UN system for rape. In February, Nobert was raped by a UN contractor while she was working for a non-profit organization and living on a UN peacekeeping base in South Sudan. A BuzzFeed News investigation into her story in July found that the UN repeatedly declined to investigate her report.
In the CAR report, Nobert said, "I saw more elements of that defensiveness, that immediate jump [to] 'It's not my responsibility… Go find somebody else to deal with this.'"
Nobert said the UN's Office of Investigative Services, which originally claimed it did not have the mandate to investigate her claim, opened a preliminary investigation into her case. A source told BuzzFeed News that the investigation was opened in August, but the UN Secretary General's spokesperson has not answered several months' worth of repeated phone calls and emails asking for confirmation about the investigation and clarification about the apparent change in OIOS' mandate.
Nobert, meanwhile, thinks the UN, and the humanitarian world more broadly, needs to be more adaptable to change — and more willing to admit to and learn from mistakes.
"There is no shame in saying, 'We haven’t handled this well in the past and we’re not sure how to handle it better,'" Nobert said. "That's ok. What we should focus on is correcting how we respond in the future. This should not be too much to expect from the UN and other humanitarian agencies."
But Donovan thinks outside voices are going to have to drive that change — starting with the countries who make up the UN. "The UN member states are going to have to take hold of this and let the Secretary General know that the failure can't be tolerated," she said. "Expecting the same Secretary General [who presided over these issues] to do anything about it this time is naive and misguided."
The Secretary General's spokesman did not return a call requesting comment.