(Nairobi) – Ugandan soldiers in the Central African Republic have sexually exploited or abused at least 13 women and girls since 2015, including at least one rape, and threatened some victims to remain silent, Human Rights Watch said today. The Ugandan military has been deployed in the country since 2009 as a part of the African Union’s Regional Task Force to eliminate the Uganda rebel group, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), but recently announced it is withdrawing its troops.
Human Rights Watch interviewed a total of 13 women and 3 girls in early 2017, who described exploitation or abuse since 2010 by Ugandan soldiers in the southeastern town of Obo, where Ugandan forces were based, and heard credible accounts of other cases. Two of the women were girls when the exploitation or abuse took place. Two women and one girl said that soldiers threatened reprisals if they told Ugandan and United Nations investigators about the abuse.
“As counter-LRA operations wind down, Uganda’s military should not ignore allegations of sexual exploitation and rape by its soldiers in the Central African Republic,” said Lewis Mudge, Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ugandan and African Union authorities should conduct proper investigations, punish those responsible, and make sure that the women and girls who were sexually abused or exploited get the services they need.”
Fifteen of the women and girls interviewed said they became pregnant, but in each case the soldier who fathered the child left the country and has not provided any support.
The 16 cases documented by Human Rights Watch clearly under-represent the full extent of sexual exploitation and abuse by the Ugandan forces, not only because sexual violence is generally underreported, but also because others, including the UN and local health workers, have documented other cases, Human Rights Watch said. In the Central African Republic, women and girls often do not report sexual violence or exploitation due to shame, stigma, or fear of retaliation.
In 2016, the UN Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights reported 14 cases of rape by Ugandan forces in the country, including cases involving victims who were children at the time. Four of these cases are among those Human Rights Watch documented.
According to an internal UN report from 2016 obtained by Human Rights Watch, UN investigators in Obo registered 18 cases of sexual violence or harassment by Ugandan soldiers against women and girls who were afraid to give details out of fear of reprisals. The report states that investigators also obtained information about 44 women and girls with children fathered by Ugandan soldiers; the UN team interviewed 12 of them, all girls.
In January 2017, the BBC reported cases of rape by Ugandan soldiers in the Central African Republic, including of a 12-year-old girl who gave birth. The Ugandan military said at the time that it conducted an investigation in Obo and found no evidence of wrongdoing.
Human Rights Watch submitted a series of questions about the allegations to the Ugandan Ministry of Defence and Veterans Affairs on April 20, including about any investigations or disciplinary action, but the ministry has not replied.
Several women and girls told Human Rights Watch that Ugandan military investigators had interviewed them over the past year, but that there was no follow-up and they had no information about the investigation.
Two local organizations, one religious leader, and one journalist in Obo also told Human Rights Watch that Ugandan forces had warned them not to report cases of sexual exploitation and abuse.
The rape survivor interviewed by Human Rights Watch, 15-year-old “Marie,” said a Ugandan soldier assaulted her in January 2016, while she was working in the fields near the Ugandan base at the Obo airstrip. “The man was alone… I could not understand what he was saying,” she said. “He pushed me to the ground [and he raped me]. Afterward, there was real pain.”
“Marie” became pregnant from the rape and gave birth to a child in November 2016.
Fifteen of the women and girls interviewed said they had sex with Ugandan military personnel in exchange for food or money because the ongoing conflict and their displacement had left them desperate. Several said the Ugandan soldiers offered them food and money to be their “local wives,” which entailed having sex and doing domestic work. Fourteen of these women and girls had a child fathered by a Ugandan soldier. All of them said they received no support from the soldier and most said their social and economic situation worsened after the child was born.
Rape; sex in exchange for money, goods, or services; and sex with anyone under 18 by African Union (AU) military, police, or civilians qualify as sexual exploitation and abuse, and are prohibited by the AU. The AU states a zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and abuse.
The women and girls, healthcare workers, and local officials Human Rights Watch interviewed in Obo said that Ugandan soldiers paying for sex was no secret in the community, and women and girls frequently visited the military base by the air strip. “I could spend the night in the base, there were no problems,” said “Karin,” a 15-year-old girl who became pregnant in 2016 by a Ugandan soldier.
On April 19, 2017, the Ugandan Defense Ministry announced its withdrawal from the Central African Republic, saying, “the mission to neutralize the LRA has now been successfully achieved.” Ugandan forces could join the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, MINUSCA, to continue operations against the LRA, the ministry added.
MINUSCA should not consider accepting any Ugandan troops for the UN mission until allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse have been credibly investigated and abusers held to account, Human Rights Watch said.
While in Obo, Ugandan forces received logistical and intelligence assistance from the United States. The US government should condition future support for the Ugandan military on Uganda promptly and thoroughly investigating the allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse in the Central African Republic and punishing the abusers, among other concerns, Human Rights Watch said.
The Ugandan and AU authorities should prioritize the security and well-being of survivors in its response to sexual exploitation and abuse, Human Rights Watch said. That should include assuring survivor’s safety, maintaining confidentiality to reduce the risk of stigmatization, minimizing repeated trauma due to multiple interviews, ensuring timely access to medical and mental health, or psychosocial, care, and providing socioeconomic support to survivors abandoned with children fathered by Ugandan military personnel.
AU forces in the Central African Republic have committed other serious crimes with impunity in recent years. In June 2016, Human Rights Watch published information on the murder of at least 18 people, including women and children, by peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo. At the time, the Congolese peacekeepers were under the command of the AU mission in the Central African Republic, known as MISCA. The AU prepared an internal report on the killings but has not released the findings.
“Both AU and troop-contributing countries should demonstrate full commitment to punish sexual exploitation and abuse in deployment areas,” Mudge said. “They need to enforce the zero-tolerance policy and prevent abuse of the people these missions are meant to protect.”
The Effort Against the LRA
In 2011, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council authorized the Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the LRA (RCI-LRA), which included as the military component the Regional Task Force (RTF). The RTF drew its operational forces largely from the Ugandan army. Approximately 1,500 Ugandan military forces were deployed to the Central African Republic.
The US announced in October 2011 that it would send 100 US Special Forces personnel as military advisers to the Ugandan army and other armed forces in the region to assist in apprehending LRA leaders. In recent years, and as LRA groups have moved, nearly all of the US military advisers and Ugandan army soldiers involved have been based in the southeast, with a headquarters in Obo.
Both Ugandan and US forces have announced they will withdraw from the mission in the upcoming months.
Sexual Exploitation and Rape
Human Rights Watch documented one case of rape of a girl (15 years old), and 15 cases of sexual exploitation by Ugandan military forces, including of two girls (15 and 17 years old), and two who were girls at the time the exploitation took place.
Thirteen of the cases occurred after 2015, with the most recent in late 2016. Fifteen of the 16 subsequently gave birth, including two who were 17 when they became pregnant.
“Marie,” the 15-year-old rape survivor, told Human Rights Watch that her attacker was a soldier based in Obo. “He was a young man,” she said. “This soldier raped me and now it is difficult to think about what happened. It was not good and I think about it a lot.”
“Marie” received some medical care after the attack but no information about getting an abortion after she learned she was pregnant (see below). She gave birth to the child in November 2016.
Among the cases investigated by the UN, according to an internal report Human Rights Watch reviewed, one was of a 13-year-old girl who was “raped two times by UPDF [Ugandan military] soldiers in Obo, first in August 2015 and the second time on May 20, 2016.”
A 25-year-old woman, “Blandine,” said she felt she had no choice but to be a Ugandan “wife” because a soldier gave her between 3,000 CFA and 5,000 CFA per week (approximately US$5 to $8.30) in return. “I needed the money,” she said. “I am a farmer and I am poor. I only went to school for a few years… With that money I would buy food and I would do small business.”
A 28-year-old woman, “Margaret,” said she was also not able to refuse money from a Ugandan soldier. “He would give me 1,000 CFA (approximately US$1.60) or some small food after sex. It would be a sachet of corn meal or maybe cabbage or tomatoes,” she said. “I started this relationship with [him] because I needed this small amount of money he gave me, that is all.”
“Francine,” 23, said she had sex with a Ugandan soldier for two to three months in 2015 because he gave her food and money. “He was looking for a woman that he could have sex with but he did not want too many [women] for fear of contracting AIDS,” she said. “He said he would give me 10,000 CFA (approximately US$16.70) to be his wife.”
“Francine” stressed how common the exploitation was in town. “All the Ugandans do this,” she said. “They don’t need to hide it because it is completely normal.”
Exploited and Abandoned
Seven women and one girl said they knew the name of the Ugandan soldier who had paid them for sex, but the others did not. None of the 15 who had a child as a result of the exploitation knew how to contact the soldier who had abandoned them.
“Claire,” 25, said that when she was six months pregnant, the Ugandan soldier who had impregnated her told her he was leaving the following day. “He refused to give me his number in Uganda,” she said. “When I insisted he said, ‘What for? You are just going to call and bother me.’”
“Margaret” said that the Ugandan father of her child, born in early 2015, refused to give her his phone number in Uganda. “No, the child is my gift to you,” she said he told her. “It will be a souvenir to remember me by.”
Six women and girls said Ugandan military personnel had promised to take them to Uganda for a better life in exchange for acting as a soldier’s “wife.”
A 25-year-old mother of a child from a Ugandan soldier, “Claude,” said a Ugandan soldier convinced her to become his “wife” in 2014. “He said he would marry me and take me to Uganda if I accepted to be his ‘wife,’” she said. “He said he would give me what I wanted and needed as his ‘wife,’ so I accepted.”
“Rebecca,” 22, said she agreed to be a Ugandan soldier’s “wife” when she was 17. “He fooled me and he said he would take me to Uganda as his own wife – I believed him,” she said. “I was young and stupid. We were together for a year. Sometimes he would come to the house, sometimes I would go to the base.” “Rebecca” had a child with the soldier when she was still 17.
A 21-year-old woman, “Alphonsine,” said a Ugandan soldier promised her money, food, and a home in Uganda. Over the course of five years, they had two children together. He abandoned her and the children in November 2015, when he returned to Uganda. “I think about my situation and how I was fooled,” she said. “Now it is very difficult for me to find money for food and soap.”
30-year-old “Jeanette,” who had a child from a Ugandan soldier in 2015, said she had sex with him because she needed money and food. “Now I need more money and food because I have to feed and clothe this child, too,” she said.
Services for Survivors
Most of the women and girls interviewed had not been able to get medical or mental health care.
“Marie,” the rape survivor, was able to access some critical post-rape medical care in the days after she was attacked. She was tested for HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections, but no one provided her with information about access to abortion after it was established she was pregnant.
Eight women said the Ugandan soldier with whom they had sex gave them money, ranging from 1,000 CFA to 30,000 CFA (approximately US$1.60 to $50), for medical care during their pregnancy. But all of them said it was not sufficient for the multiple check-ups required, and they either had to find the money elsewhere or forgo appointments.
None had any psychosocial support to deal with the trauma, despite the presence of at least one international organization that offers this service. The women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch said they were not aware this service existed.
None had received social or economic support from the AU or other agencies. Several spoke of stigma in their communities associated with having a “Ugandan baby.” This stigma could lead to greater socioeconomic needs. “People in the neighborhood call my child ‘the Ugandan,’” said Rebecca. “The other kids make fun of her and tell her I am the abandoned wife of a Ugandan.”
Ugandan military investigators interviewed several survivors over the past year, but the survivors said they had not had any communication with the investigators after the interviews and were unaware of other follow up. The women and girls said they had no means to contact the investigators.
Human Rights Watch sent a letter to the Ugandan Defense Ministry on April 20, 2017, asking, among other questions, what steps the ministry had taken to investigate the allegations. The ministry has not replied.
A Ugandan military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Richard Karemire, told the BBC in January that military investigators had visited Obo but found no evidence of wrongdoing. “A team went on the ground and did a very good investigation and they never found anything really to implicate any UPDF [Ugandan military] individual for having perpetrated such crimes,” he said.
Threats to Stay Silent
Two women and one girl who were sexually exploited said that Ugandan soldiers had warned them not to speak to any investigators looking into sexual exploitation and abuse. “Claire” said that Ugandan soldiers approached her in 2016, before Ugandan investigators arrived in Obo. “The soldiers came to my house and told me to say the child was a Central African,” she said. “They told me, ‘Don’t say the boy is a Ugandan or it will make problems for you. It will be bad.’ I said, ‘How can it get worse? I have been abandoned with nothing anyway.’”
“Karin,” the 15-year-old girl who was sexually exploited and left pregnant, said Ugandan soldiers warned her not to speak with Ugandan investigators. She decided to speak to the investigators anyway because she had already been abandoned while pregnant and felt she had nothing to lose.
The internal UN report Human Rights Watch obtained says that UN investigators in Obo registered 18 cases of sexual violence or sexual harassment by Ugandan soldiers against women and girls who were too fearful of reprisals by Ugandan soldiers to give details about their cases. Two local organizations, a religious leader, and one journalist in Obo also said Ugandan forces had warned them not to report sexual exploitation and abuse. The religious leader said: “The Ugandans are here to protect us, but they can also threaten us. They know that they are not meant to [have sex with people in the community] and they do not want people talking to journalists about it.”
The Central African Republic is not the only country where Ugandan soldiers have raped and exploited women and girls while on an AU mission. In 2014, Human Rights Watch documented that Ugandan and Burundian military personnel from the AU mission in Somalia, known as AMISOM, had exploited and abused women, including raping women who were seeking water or medical assistance on AMISOM bases. Some women said they did not report the abuse because they feared reprisals from their attackers. Human Rights Watch has previously raised concerns with the Ugandan Defense Ministry regarding similar allegations against Ugandan troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2011.
AU Policy on Sexual Exploitation and Abuse
The UN defines exploitation as “any actual or attempted abuse of a position of vulnerability, differential power, or trust, for sexual purposes, including, but not limited to, profiting monetarily, socially or politically from the sexual exploitation of another.” The UN considers “sexual abuse” to mean the actual or threatened physical intrusion of a sexual nature, whether by force or under unequal or coercive conditions.
In September 2014, Human Rights Watch reported on 21 acts of rape or sexual exploitation by Ugandan and Burundian military personal with the AU mission in Somalia, AMISOM. Following this report, the AU sent an independent investigation team to Somalia. A recommendation in its final report called for the AU Commission to establish an Office of Internal Oversight Services with similar responsibilities to an independent UN office that investigates, submits reports, and recommends action on alleged abuses by UN peacekeepers. The UN policy on peacekeepers’ conduct prohibits engaging in any sexual relations with members of the local community. The AU should establish a permanent and adequately trained and resourced independent investigative body to investigate allegations of misconduct and abuses, including sexual exploitation and abuse, Human Rights Watch said.
Despite allegations made in the past, the AU does not have a comprehensive conduct and discipline policy for AU peacekeepers or soldiers who commit sexual exploitation and abuse. It is working on a policy framework that will include prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse, how to respond to reports of other types of offenses, and a whistleblower policy. It is unclear if the policy will result in establishing an independent investigative mechanism, along the lines of the UN agency as recommended in the report from Somalia.
The UN considers rape; sex in exchange for money, goods, or services; and sex with anyone under 18 by UN military, police, or civilians to be sexual exploitation and abuse, which are prohibited by the UN. The UN professes a zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation and abuse. There have been numerous allegations of such abuse against UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, including in cases documented by Human Rights Watch in February 2016.
The United Nations Secretary-General’s 2003 Bulletin on protection from sexual exploitation and abuse states that exploitation involves situations in which women and girls are vulnerable and a differential power relationship exists.
Other Abuses by AU Peacekeepers in the Central African Republic
Human Rights Watch has reported on other serious crimes by troops operating as AU peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. In June 2014, Human Rights Watch published information on the killing of at least 11 people, including women and children, in Boali in March 2014, and the death by torture of two others in Bossangoa in December 2013.
In June 2016, Human Rights Watch published another report on the killings in Boali, highlighting the discovery of a mass grave containing the remains of 12 people who were identified as having been detained by the peacekeepers in March 2014, as well as two prisoners executed in Mambéré in February 2014.
The killings in Boali, Bossangoa, and Mambéré were by peacekeepers from the Republic of Congo under command of the AU mission, known by its French acronym, MISCA.
Following the exhumation of the mass grave at Boali, Human Rights Watch wrote to President Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of Congo and to the AU urging credible investigations to bring those responsible to justice. Human Rights Watch never received a reply.
In 2015, staff at the AU embassy in the Central African Republic told Human Rights Watch of an AU report into the murders at Boali. Despite official requests in 2015, 2016, and 2017, Human Rights Watch was never shown the report nor been told of its contents.