(Nairobi) – United Nations peacekeepers in the Central African Republic raped or sexually exploited at least eight women and girls between October and December 2015. Among the survivors are a 14-year-old girl and an 18-year-old woman who said peacekeepers gang-raped them near Bambari airport in the center of the country.

A MINUSCA base behind the Bambari airport, Central African Republic. From September to December 2015 members of the UN peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo guarded the airport and allegedly committed numerous acts of sexual abuse and exploitation against women and girls.

“In a country where armed groups routinely prey on civilians, peacekeepers should be protectors, not predators,” said Hillary Margolis, women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Sending peacekeepers back home is not enough. The UN needs to insist that troops’ home countries bring rapist and other abusers to justice, and that survivors get the support they need.”

Human Rights Watch documented the eight cases of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers, known as MINUSCA, during research in Bambari between January 16 and 30, 2016. Only one of the survivors had received any medical or psychosocial care, available at the Bambari hospital and through non-governmental organizations, before speaking to Human Rights Watch.

All eight said that they believed the peacekeepers responsible were from the Republic of Congo or the Democratic Republic of Congo. A battalion of approximately 800 soldiers from the Democratic Republic of Congo is deployed to Bambari and other towns in Ouaka province. Between mid-September and mid-December, a small contingent of peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo were also temporarily deployed to protect Bambari’s airport. The deployment of Republic of Congo peacekeepers corresponds with the sexual exploitation and abuse allegations Human Rights Watch documented, most of which occurred at or near the airport.

An 18-year-old woman said that when she visited the Republic of Congo troop base near the airport in late 2015 seeking food or money, armed peacekeepers forced her into the bush and gang-raped her. “I didn’t want to have sex with them, but when I went to visit their base they took me into the bush,” she said. “There were three of them on me. They were armed. They said if I resisted they would kill me. They took me one by one.”

A 14-year-old girl said that in November, two peacekeepers attacked her as she walked by the MINUSCA base at the airport. “The men were dressed in their military uniforms and had their guns,” she said. “I walked by and suddenly one of them grabbed me by my arms and the other one ripped off my clothes. They pulled me into the tall grass and one held my arms while the other one pinned down my legs and raped me. The soldier holding my arms tried to hold my mouth, but I was still able to scream. Because of that they had to run away before the second soldier could rape me.”

In all of the sexual exploitation and abuse cases Human Rights Watch documented, the survivors were living at camps for internally displaced people in Bambari when the abuses took place. Several told Human Rights Watch they had sex with peacekeepers in exchange for food or money as ongoing conflict had left them desperate. UN policy on peacekeepers’ conduct prohibits engaging in any sexual relations with members of the local community.

Human Rights Watch reported the cases to UN officials in Bambari and Bangui within days of receiving the information. The MINUSCA leadership, which has made a commitment to actively prevent and address sexual exploitation and abuse, took immediate measures to respond to the allegations and senior UN officials opened investigations. Human Rights Watch later learned that one case had previously been reported to the UN and an investigation opened.

 

A 29-year-old woman who was raped in October 2015 by peacekeepers stationed in Bambari, Central African Republic. 

Under the agreement signed between the UN and countries that contribute troops to UN peacekeeping missions, the relevant troop-contributing country is responsible for carrying out judicial proceedings against soldiers who commit sexual exploitation and abuse. The UN can send troops home and prohibit them from participating in future UN missions, but has no independent capacity to prosecute them.

A 2015 report by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) evaluating the UN’s enforcement of its sexual exploitation and abuse policy noted a lack of information from troop-contributing countries about disciplinary proceedings carried out in troops’ home countries. It also said there was a failure by the UN and troop-contributing countries to hold commanders responsible for sexual exploitation and abuse by their troops.

A subsequent independent review of sexual exploitation and abuse by international peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, released in December 2015, recommended negotiating new agreements with troop-contributing countries to ensure prosecutions, transparency, and cooperation in accountability processes.

The UN should ensure that peacekeepers are vetted prior to deployment and trained on the UN’s zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation and abuse. UN member states should also ensure that MINUSCA’s Conduct and Discipline and OIOS teams, which are under-staffed, receive the necessary resources to respond to sexual exploitation and abuse cases and other crimes by UN personnel.

Human Rights Watch urged MINUSCA to ensure that its response to sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers prioritizes the security and well-being of survivors. That should include maintaining confidentiality to reduce risk of stigmatization, minimizing repeated trauma due to multiple interviews, and ensuring rapid access to medical and psychosocial care.

In June 2014, Human Rights Watch published information on the enforced disappearances of between 11 and 18 people by peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo in Boali and the death by torture of two others in Bossangoa. At the time, the Congolese peacekeepers were under the command of the African Union (AU) mission in the Central African Republic, known as MISCA. The troops involved were eventually withdrawn, but Human Rights Watch is not aware of any investigation or prosecution by judicial officials from the Republic of Congo into these serious crimes.

The UN and troop-contributing countries should take urgent steps to end ongoing sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic and put into operation effective measures to investigate these crimes, bring those responsible to justice, and provide services and support to victims.

“Peacekeepers who rape, exploit, or kill should not simply be sent home with no commitment to justice,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The UN should use its full leverage with troop-contributing countries to ensure that those who abuse victims and tarnish the UN and its mission face justice befitting their crimes.”

For detailed accounts of the abuse cases Human Rights Watch documented, please see below.

Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by Peacekeepers in Bambari
Human Rights Watch documented the following cases of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers in late 2015. They include two cases of gang-rape, one of them a child; four cases of rape, including two of children; and four cases of sex in exchange for food or money, one of which involved a child. Two of the rape survivors said they had also engaged in transactional sex, fitting the UN definition of sexual exploitation.

Case 1: A 14-year-old girl said that two peacekeepers attacked her in November as she was returning home from the MINUSCA base at the airport. They are presumed to be from the Republic of Congo contingent who were guarding the airport. She told Human Rights Watch:

The men were dressed in their military uniforms and had their guns. I walked by and suddenly one of them grabbed me by my arms and the other one ripped off my clothes. They pulled me into the tall grass and one held my arms while the other one pinned down my legs and raped me. The soldier holding my arms tried to hold my mouth, but I was still able to scream. Because of that they had to run away before the second soldier could rape me.

Case 2: A 30-year-old woman said that a peacekeeper raped her in Bambari in November while she was cutting wood in the bush near the airport:

I raised my head and saw a person. He was in his uniform with a gun…. He took me by force and said, ‘We are going to have sex like a man and wife.’ I was afraid and I tried to resist and he punched me in the face. I fell on the ground behind me. He took my clothes and had forced sex with me… Since then I am afraid to go to this part of the [displacement] camp... Emotionally, I think about it a lot. We fled to come here [to the displacement camp]. We lost everything.

Case 3: An 18-year-old woman said that armed peacekeepers forced her into the bush and gang-raped her when she visited the base of Republic of Congo troops near the airport in late 2015 seeking food or money. She said: “When someone refuses [to have sex with] the soldiers, they say their chief is going to come. They sometimes come in groups and rape her.” In the months before she was raped, this woman also engaged in sex with peacekeepers based at the airport in exchange for food. She said:  

Before, when we would go there, we had to have sex before they gave us things…They would ask us to go in the bush and there they would ask us to have sex with them…. It was always after sex that they gave us things.

Case 4: A 14-year-old girl said she was walking by the MINUSCA base at an old cotton factory in late December when a peacekeeper from the Democratic Republic of Congo attacked her:

I was on a path in the bush and had walked by the MINUSCA guards when a soldier jumped out at me. He was in a uniform like the other soldiers from the [Democratic Republic of the] Congo. He had his gun with him. He slapped me in the face and made me continue to walk on the path… We walked for a while, then he ripped off my clothes and used them to tie my hands behind my back. He threw me on the ground, placed his gun to the side and got on top of me to rape me. When he was done he just left. I had to put my clothes on and I went home…. There should be some justice done to this man.

Case 5: A 29-year-old woman said that a soldier from the Democratic Republic of Congo raped her in October 2015:

It was at night and I was washing myself in my hut. I heard a knock on the door and I said I was busy. But a man said, “No, open the door…. I have come to see you.” I ignored it and thought a few minutes later that he had left. But as I finished washing he just came in. It was a MINUSCA soldier in a blue hat. I said, “What are you doing here?” and I told him to leave. But he forced himself on me and as he was stronger I had no choice.

The woman also engaged in sexual relationships with MINUSCA peacekeepers in exchange for food and money earlier in 2015. She said:

The conditions of life at the [displacement] camp were precarious. I did not know what to do so I started having sex with the international forces. For this they gave me fish, chicken, jam and bread. Sometimes they give me between 1,000 and 2,000 CFA (approximately $1.60 to $3.30 USD)…. Before [the conflict], things were not like this…. I had to make decisions because life was so difficult so I chose to enter into these relations for survival.

Case 6: A 16-year-old girl said that a peacekeeper from the Republic of Congo who was based at the airport gave her food and money in exchange for sex from October to December. She said that soldiers instigated sexual relationships with her when she and a friend went to the base to sell alcohol: “I met him when he was on guard duty at the airport. We had sex there. After that he would come to my hut.” She said that the peacekeeper would give her food or 1,000 CFA (approximately $1.60 USD). The girl said that when the conflict started in Bambari she had no choice but to move near the airport for her safety and that of a family member with a disability. Once there, she said she had no means to provide for herself and her relative and felt she had no option but to exchange sex for food and money.

Case 7: An 18-year-old woman said that in November she exchanged sex for food and money with soldiers presumed to be from the Republic of Congo, who were based at the airport. Her friends, who were already trading sex for basic supplies, and a family member encouraged her to approach the contingent because her family had “problems of food and money.” She said that her friends told her, “Instead of staying in your situation you should go with the Congolese so they will give you money to feed your family.” She said: “I got it in my head to go there. I already knew they were asking for sex. I said to my friends, ‘Ok, my father is dead, my mother is dead. I can’t just die.’ I followed my girlfriends, and the things they did, I did.”

Case 8: Human Rights Watch received credible information from multiple sources, including a parent of the survivor, about the rape of a 13-year-old girl in mid-November by two MINUSCA peacekeepers near the Bambari airport. The girl had sex with one peacekeeper in exchange for food. Then two other peacekeepers appeared and raped her.

UN Measures to Combat Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (SEA)
Rape, sex in exchange for money, goods or services, and sex with anyone under 18 by UN military, police, or civilians qualify as sexual exploitation and abuse, and are prohibited by the UN. The UN professes a zero tolerance policy with respect to sexual exploitation and abuse.

In 2005 the UN established a Conduct and Discipline Unit to provide oversight on such issues in peacekeeping missions. OIOS investigates, submits reports and recommends action on alleged abuses by UN peacekeepers. But there is only one temporary OIOS officer in the Central African Republic to investigate a multitude of allegations.

Countries that contribute troops to UN peacekeeping missions sign a memorandum of understanding with the UN that outlines their obligations with regard to the conduct and discipline of their peacekeepers. Sexual exploitation and abuse training is mandatory for all UN personnel upon arrival at a mission. Countries are also asked to conduct pre-deployment training on sexual exploitation and abuse based on UN guidelines.

If a peacekeeper is accused of sexual exploitation or abuse, the soldier’s home country has the primary responsibility to investigate. When agreed upon, the UN and the troop-contributing country can conduct joint investigations. Failing a response from the troop-contributing country within 10 days of receiving information about an allegation, the UN can begin an investigation on its own.

If an allegation is substantiated, disciplinary measures—including prosecutions—are determined by the soldier’s home country. Direct action by the UN is limited to repatriating the accused peacekeepers and barring them from any further peacekeeping missions. Troop-contributing countries are required to report back to the UN the outcome of investigations and any disciplinary measures taken or sentences imposed. If this requirement is not fulfilled, the UN is to follow up with further requests for information at regular intervals. The UN recently announced a six-month deadline for troop-contributing countries to conclude investigations or proceed with prosecutions.

Other Sexual Exploitation, Abuse by Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic
In May 2015 a UN report from 2014 was leaked detailing sexual abuse of boys as young as 9 by French soldiers.

In August 2015, Amnesty International alleged that a MINUSCA peacekeeper raped a 12-year-old girl in Bangui.

Following repeated allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded the resignation of Babacar Gaye, then-head of MINUSCA, and reiterated the UN’s zero tolerance policy.

Later in August, MINUSCA publicized allegations that peacekeepers raped three women in Bambari, where troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo were based. All MINUSCA peacekeepers from the Democratic Republic of Congo are scheduled to be repatriated in February 2016 after they failed an internal UN assessment evaluating equipment quality, vetting procedures for soldiers and preparedness.

In early January 2016, MINUSCA announced that it was investigating newly discovered cases of sexual exploitation and abuse in the M’poko displacement camp in the capital, Bangui. The abuses, allegedly by peacekeepers, include attacks against children. On January 29, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed that additional cases of sexual exploitation and abuse against children had been discovered. The attacks, which occurred primarily in 2014, were allegedly by French Sangaris and Georgian EUFOR forces.

At a news conference on January 29, Assistant Secretary-General Anthony Banbury stated that there were 22 confirmed sexual exploitation and abuse allegations against UN peacekeepers in Central African Republic in 2015, out of 69 confirmed cases across all UN missions. Banbury said that in 2016 the secretary-general will issue a report detailing such allegations. The report will name the countries of origin of accused troops, detail the status of investigations, and include regular updates.

Other Abuses by Republic of Congo Peacekeepers
Human Rights Watch has reported on other serious crimes by peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo when they were under the authority of the African Union force, MISCA. These include the enforced disappearance of between 11 and 18 people in Boali on March 24, 2014, and the deaths from torture of two anti-balaka prisoners in Bossangoa on December 22, 2013.

On December 22, 2014, the International Commission of Inquiry on the Central African Republic published its report detailing its own investigation into the disappearance of the people in Boali detained by the MISCA troops from the Republic of Congo and concluded that it believed the case fell within the definition of enforced disappearances. The commission also found that the two men from the anti-balaka, local militia formed to fight the mostly Muslim Seleka, detained in Bossangoa in December 2013 had died under suspicious circumstances.

On June 5, 2015, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report in which it found that MISCA troops from the Republic of Congo had committed acts of enforced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings at Boali.

In another incident, first reported by the UN on June 10, 2015, after troops from the Republic of Congo had been transferred from the AU into the UN mission, at least one person was killed outside of Berberati in the southwestern part of the country following the excessive use of force by Republic of Congo troops. While a group of soldiers from the Republic of Congo was sent home after this event, the UN has not confirmed the progress or conclusion of national investigations into this incident.