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France hushes up allegations of peacekeeper child abuse while the UN betrays its trust

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A French soldier en route to Mali in 2013.

Each day brings new reasons to ponder the limitless depths to which humankind can sink. Often enough they relate to the neverending abuse of children around the world, both girls and boys, crimes so vile they still have the ability to shock: child porn, pedophilia, child soldiers, child marriages, sex slaves...

Even so, some revelations hit harder than others, like when French peacekeepers working with the United Nations violate young boys whom they are ostensibly protecting. And when the UN fails to do a thing about it. And when the only person punished is the honourable man who blew the whistle. For those of us who still believe the UN with all its profound defects remains the last best hope for humankind, this is a real body blow, beyond disheartening.

Maybe we've been naive, or forgetful. The UN's Ethics Office, which examines complaints of retaliation against whistleblowers, received 297 such complaints between 2006 and 2012. It sided fully with the whistleblower just once. As the Economist observed, "In theory the UN cherishes and protects whistleblowers. In practice, a clubby atmosphere prevails in which dissent counts as disloyalty."

Three years ago I reported in The Globe and Mail that my colleague Professor Victoria Fontan, then of the University For Peace, had uncovered three instances of UN peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo having violated Congolese girls. After a few hopeful high-level conversations with and assurances from UN officials that they take "the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse very seriously", nothing happened. Except this: At the same time, someone at the UN also approached The Globe and Mail questioning whether Prof. Fontan had been in the Congo at all, although her bona fides was never in doubt.

But this was only a single report. Last year alone there were 79 other reported victims of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers, and former general Romeo Dallaire reports that he's heard similar accusations for the past 14 years.

Mr. Dallaire was in New York last week for a press conference organized by AIDS-Free World, an NGO co-directed by Paula Donovan and Stephen Lewis. Ms. Donovan has played the key role in exposing not only the rape scandal, but the failure of both the UN and the French government to stop the abuse and protect the victims.

Both the UN and then France learned about a year ago the shocking news that a dozen French peacekeepers in the troubled Central Africa Republic had apparently raped and sodomized homeless and hungry boys as young as eight and nine. The UN interviewed six victims who provided sickening and seemingly irrefutable details of their ordeals. But the UN has never released these "confidential" findings. The French were then informed -- by a whistleblower! -- and they began an investigation of their own. But it, too, has never been made public.

Nor has the UN shown any interest in the French investigation. Nor has France yet charged a single one of their accused soldiers. Nor, it seems unbelievably enough, has either the UN or France taken action to protect the victims or possible new victims. On the contrary, over the past year countless UN officials have been busy trying to cover up the entire scandal, and they just about pulled it off.

But a record of the children's interviews found its way into Paula Donovan's possession, who passed it on to The Guardian. Suddenly, the story began getting the international attention it deserved. It was in this atmosphere that Aids-Free World held its press conference on the global crisis of sex abuse in peacekeeping missions, at which Ms. Donovan, Mr. Dallaire and Mr. Lewis, were joined by Graca Machel, Nelson Mandela's widow and an expert on violence against children, and exposed the sordid story. Calling their campaign Code Blue, they demanded that the immunity from prosecution that still governs UN non-military peacekeepers be ended.

There is an outrageous sidebar to the central scandal that can only add to the dismay the issue generates. The UN's report of interviews with the children, labelled confidential, was passed on to French authorities by a Swede named Anders Kompass, hoping they would take immediate action to stop any ongoing abuse since the UN was doing nothing. Mr. Kompass, a senior official for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has now been suspended and is actually being investigated by the UN. Instead of being celebrated for putting the welfare of abused children first, he's being made the fall guy, accused of the apparently more serious crime of breaching UN protocols on confidential documents. Even cynics are shocked.

Given past precedents, there is a very good chance that Mr. Kompass will be disciplined for his principled, courageous act of whistleblowing. In fact he may end up being the only person punished. Normally, it would also be a good guess that Code Blue's objective -- the demand to end immunity for UN peacekeepers guilty of heinous crimes -- will fail. But this doesn't won't sit well with AIDS-Free World, as relentless, unflagging and undaunted a group of crusaders as exists anywhere. As UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon knows only too well, if anyone can force the UN to pay attention it's them. And we better hope they succeed. The struggle for simple decency very badly needs a victory.


This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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