UNITED NATIONS (AP) — For months, the U.N.'s top human rights officials knew about allegations of child sexual abuse by French soldiers in Central African Republic, collected by their own staff. But they didn't follow up because they assumed French authorities were handling it, statements marked "strictly confidential" show, even as France pressed the U.N. for more information about the case.
In a signed statement obtained by The Associated Press, the deputy high commissioner for human rights also says that her colleague who first informed French authorities last July did it because he didn't think the recently created U.N. peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic would act on the allegations.
A year after the U.N. first heard allegations from children as young as 9 that French soldiers had sexually abused them, sometimes in exchange for food, it seems that the only person who has been punished is the U.N. staffer who told French authorities.
The deputy high commissioner, Flavia Pansieri, says she was distracted from the case by other issues, including budget cuts, from last fall until early March, when her boss, the high commissioner, brought up the case.
"I regret to say that in the context of those very hectic days, I failed to follow up on the CAR situation," Pansieri says in the statement dated March 26. She adds that "both the HC and I knew that on CAR there was an ongoing process initiated by the French authorities to bring perpetrators to justice. I take full responsibility for not having given the matter the necessary attention."
The Paris prosecutor's office this month, however, blamed the U.N. "hierarchy" for taking more than six months to supply answers to its questions. The office wanted to speak with a U.N. human rights staffer who had interviewed some of the children, saying she was willing to talk.
The U.N. finally handed over written answers on April 29, the Paris prosecutor's office said — the same day that the Guardian newspaper first made the French and U.N. inquiries public.
French soldiers had been tasked with protecting civilians in Central African Republic from vicious violence between Christians and Muslims. Thousands of scared people had crammed into a camp for displaced people in the capital, Bangui. Residents have told the AP that soldiers offered cookies, other food or bottles of water in exchange for sodomy or oral sex.
It is still not clear where the accused soldiers are now. France has not announced any arrests.
When the allegations were first publicly reported, part of the uproar was over the suspension of the Geneva-based U.N. human rights staffer who first informed French authorities, Anders Kompass. The U.N. says he breached protocol in sharing the report without redacting the names in it. The U.N.'s Office of Internal Oversight Services is investigating. He could be fired.
A spokesman for the U.N. human rights office, Andre-Michel Essoungou, said Monday that the office would not comment on Pansieri's signed statement, noting the ongoing investigation of Kompass.
While France, like any country, has the responsibility to investigate its own troops, the U.N. human rights office has the responsibility to follow up on alleged abuses and offer its help.
French troops arrived in Central African Republic in late 2013 and had a U.N. mandate to assist an African Union peacekeeping operation that was later taken over by a U.N. mission last September. France's defense ministry has said children told U.N. officials of sexual abuse by French soldiers between December 2013 and June 2014. France says it was informed of the allegations in July.
At that time, the abuse was thought to be still going on.
When the U.N. peacekeeping mission was created in April 2014, it included human rights staffers with a mandate "to monitor, help investigate and report publicly" on abuses. That included, specifically, abuses against children.
One of the human rights staffers took stories of alleged sexual abuse from children in May and June. That person's superior, the mission's human rights chief, reports to both the U.N. human rights office in Geneva and the head of the peacekeeping mission.
In this case, the human rights chief told the Bangui-based head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in July, "when French gendarmes arrived and asked to speak to U.N. investigators," the peacekeeping office said in a statement Tuesday.
That was about three months after the U.N. first heard the abuse allegations.
The French gendarmes were told to "clear the request through the standard human rights channels," the statement says. Several days later, the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission decided the French should be told through the U.N. human rights office in Geneva, because the French were not U.N. peacekeepers.
The head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission did not tell his bosses at U.N. headquarters.
Observers have pointed out a key weakness: The U.N. human rights office has no specific guidelines on reporting child sexual abuse, including any requirement for immediate, mandatory reporting.
"No one in the chain of command took action, in other words, until Kompass did," said Beatrice Edwards, the executive director of the Washington-based Government Accountability Project. "They were documenting, monitoring and reporting, despite the fact that the abuse was heinous, immediate and ongoing."
The spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general told reporters Tuesday that the ongoing investigation will examine how the entire U.N. system handled the allegations. "We want to learn from how this issue was handled," Stephane Dujarric said.
After France received the sexual abuse allegations in July, its authorities opened a preliminary investigation, and investigators went to Central African Republic in August.
Pansieri's statement says she first heard about the allegations weeks later, in "most probably September," when a senior legal adviser told her about the French authorities' request for more information.
At the same time, she was told that Kompass, the office's director of field operations, had notified French authorities. She asked him why.
"He felt that no action on it was being taken by the mission in Bangui, nor that there was any intention to do so in the future," her statement says, adding that he said "the names in the report were fake ones and that there was no risk therefore for witnesses."
Kompass has not spoken publicly because his case is still under investigation.
As for how to respond to France's request for additional information, Paniseri said she and legal staff decided to give the French a redacted copy of the same report that Kompass had already given them.
The report was handed over on March 30, a U.N. spokesman said this month.
"In the intervening months I have not focused on this matter (which, I repeat, I understood being under investigation by the French authorities)," Pansieri's statement says.
The high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, took up his post Sept. 1. His confidential statement obtained by the AP says his senior legal adviser last fall told him about the report and its allegations being "leaked" to the French. "All of this — aside from the deeply disturbing allegations of sexual abuse — was alarming," his statement, dated March 29, says.
This month, he told reporters he had known there was an investigation but didn't know the details until much later.
Zeid's statement also says he more than once mistakenly thought the allegations were about French troops in Mali, having confused the acronyms for the peacekeeping missions in Central African Republic and Mali, MINUSCA and MINUSMA.
In early March, the issue came to Zeid's attention again. It's not clear why.
On March 12, Pansieri's statement says, she gave Kompass, a Swedish citizen, "the request of the HC that he submit his resignation." Kompass protested. Zeid's statement says Sweden's ambassador indicated to Pansieri that firing Kompass "may affect Swedish funding to the office." Kompass was suspended.
The U.N. Dispute Tribunal early this month rejected the suspension, saying that not doing so would irreparably harm Kompass' reputation.
Zeid, who a decade ago wrote a landmark U.N. report on preventing sexual exploitation by peacekeepers, this month asked why France hadn't moved more quickly to pursue the allegations, asking how no one knew before the U.N. did.
He also noted the U.N.'s delayed response to the Central African Republic case. "In the way it was eventually handled," Zeid said, "we could have done better at the time."