Recent reports are exposing new horrors in the almost forgotten war in the Central African Republic (CAR). During the conflict that began in 2013, thousands of civilians fled the fighting so when French troops arrived in Bangui, the CAR capital, in December 2013, many took refuge near their base, believing they would be safer there.
Sadly, according to a United Nations report, some French soldiers acted as predators rather than protectors, sexually abusing children in exchange for food or money. Although the abuse apparently took place between December 2013 and June 2014, it only recently become public information when news broke that a UN official who in July leaked an unedited version of the report, containing the victims’ names, to the French ambassador in Geneva, had been suspended. A UN dispute tribunal temporarily lifted that suspension while there is an internal review of the case.
Media reports about the UN investigation indicate that six boys between the ages of 9 and 13 had been abused themselves or had witnessed sexual abuse of other children in exchange for food. When the French authorities received the leaked UN report in July, they passed it to a French investigative judge, who dispatched gendarmes to Bangui on August 1 to investigate the allegations. The French kept the allegations confidential at the time, and they have not yet revealed whether any alleged perpetrator was arrested. There are now allegations that peacekeepers from other countries have committed similar crimes and these too need to be investigated.
It is vital to shine a light on abuse, particularly when it involves vulnerable victims like children, and ensure that credible investigations are conducted to identify perpetrators and hold them to account. It’s equally important that steps are taken to prevent any repeat of the abuse to others or further harm to the victims.
In conducting the investigations, investigators experienced in cases of sexual violence should be involved, who place an emphasis on protecting the rights of victims and not exposing them to additional harm or retaliation from perpetrators, family members or their community. Sexual violence is highly stigmatized and children who are identified as victims risk being abandoned by their families and communities.
As the media continues to report the story – as they should – journalists also need to make sure that they are not re-victimizing victims by subjecting them to the trauma of recounting their abuse over and over, or by providing information that allows them to be identified. It is important to shine a light on these terrible crimes, but it must not be done at the expense of the victims.