EXCLUSIVE: Blunders in Central African Republic sex abuse probe detailed in internal UN review

‘No proper work plan was prepared,’ one UN respondent said. ‘We made things up as we went along,’ recalled another.

(Philip Kleinfeld/TNH)

After nearly 100 women and girls in Central African Republic accused Burundian and Gabonese peacekeepers of rape, sexual abuse, and exploitation, the UN deployed investigators to the country in 2016. The number of allegations rose to more than 130, with more than half ultimately dismissed.

Now, a 50-page internal UN report, marked “confidential draft” and obtained by The New Humanitarian from a former UN staffer concerned over the review’s findings, details blunders in the investigations and lays out how women and girls – as well as UN investigators – were let down in the process.

The draft report details a litany of problems in the way investigators conducted interviews with the alleged victims – from the Burundians discrediting their testimony to the UN failing to ask crucial follow-up questions that could have corroborated their accounts. It also states that:

  • UNICEF failed to take accurate victim testimonies and waited weeks before informing the UN’s investigatory and oversight body of the allegations.
  • The UN failed to provide basic security for investigators.
  • The atmosphere for women and girls making the allegations was described as “threatening”, with one investigator reportedly asking a woman about her alleged perpetrator: “Did you love him?”
  • The system of DNA collection and storage allowed samples to decay – specimens that could have identified alleged perpetrators.

The New Humanitarian’s investigation began last year after on-the-ground reporting in Central African Republic – where one in four people are either internally displaced or living in neighbouring states – discovered problems with the UN probe and the existence of the internal review. TNH obtained the draft report in mid-October. 

At a Glance: ‘Inappropriate questions’, rotten DNA samples, and other missteps

An internal UN draft report obtained by TNH reviews investigations into at least 130 claims of sexual exploitation and abuse brought by women and girls against UN peacekeepers from Burundi and Gabon in 2015-16. More than half of the cases have been dismissed and most of the remainder are still “pending”, according to UN data. The 2017 draft report includes these findings and claims by respondents about missteps when investigating the allegations. The investigations were carried out by the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), and by the Gabonese and Burundian governments.

  • Investigators “asked inappropriate questions and made insensitive and unwarranted comments toward the victims. Some of these questions or comments related to the prior or sexual conduct of the victim; others were humiliating, irrelevant or incongruous”.
  • An investigator asked one woman what she was given for her complaint. 
  • An OIOS team leader called the Burundian investigators’ methods “worrying” and said they “seemed more interested in catching minute inconsistencies with victims who are not only vulnerable but also illiterate or semi-literate”.
  • Burundian and UN investigators missed crucial follow-up questions that could have corroborated victims accounts.
  • DNA samples were left to rot.
  • At least one case was dismissed because of errors by investigators, which the report said were not isolated.
  • UNICEF provided inaccurate initial victim testimonies and failed to report allegations to UN investigators in a timely manner.
  • UN leaders put investigators “at risk” by failing to provide adequate security.

The internal review – commissioned in January 2017 by a director of the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) and submitted in April that year – gives a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of how the UN investigates claims of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA), and shows why it can fail the alleged victims it is intended to serve.

The majority of the allegations were dismissed, according to UN data. The draft report highlighted that at least one case against a peacekeeper was dismissed due to shortcomings in the investigation. The shortcomings weren’t isolated, the review found. 

“The findings of this report show that despite numerous statements, commitments, and much publicised successive SEA policy frameworks, important SEA-related norms and procedures continue to be unknown or unevenly applied; They also show that much remains to be done to eradicate SEA,” the report’s author concluded. 

The draft report was based on responses from 23 UN staff, three former workers, and other respondents involved in the investigation and operation in Dekoa – a remote town five hours drive north of the capital, Bangui – from April to September 2016. 

The most common complaints from people interviewed for the review was poor planning.

“I do not want to renew my experience with this. This was done in disarray,” one responder said in the draft report. 

Ben Swanson, the OIOS director who ordered the review, emailed The New Humanitarian on 27 and 30 October, saying that the draft was unedited, “potentially damaging” as written, and based on a “range of highly subjective opinions”.

The draft was shared with OIOS Under-Secretary General Heidi Mendoza at the time, Swanson said, adding that lessons offered in the draft were taught and applied.

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“The lessons have been applied in investigations where we have had to deploy large numbers of staff to deal with multiple witnesses/victims, particularly with due regard to case management, an ‘eagle-eye’ view of the investigations and continuity,” Swanson said. “We have not had to deal with a similar investigation requiring a large-scale deployment into austere conditions.”

OIOS, formed in 1994, performs three oversight functions inside the UN: internal audits, investigations, and evaluations. Fatoumata Ndiaye of Senegal this month succeeded Mendoza as OIOS under-secretary-general. 

In its annual report in 2017, OIOS said the review of the Dekoa investigation had led to reforms: “That experience resulted in the Division (OIOS) reviewing how it responded to the challenges of investigations into sexual exploitation and abuse, especially in terms of gathering testimonial, physical, medical and forensic evidence…”

A former OIOS investigator, who asked to remain anonymous because the review was meant to be internal, shared the draft report with TNH, hoping its findings would be publicised and more could be done to assist the women and girls who made the allegations. The review’s author, who is also an investigator, declined to comment when contacted by TNH and asked that he not be named given the sensitivity of the internal draft.

Swanson described the results of the investigation as “quite good”, and said it was unclear why Burundi dismissed the majority of the cases or why the results for Gabon were still pending nearly four years later. “Evidence was found to support a number of allegations made by the victims,” he said. “We submitted two large investigation reports which substantiated a number of allegations.”

Neither Gabon nor Burundi responded to questions from TNH by the time of publication. Troop-contributing countries are responsible for investigating their own soldiers, but OIOS often assists them. 

2015-19: From rape allegations to UN investigations and dismissed cases

December 2015

First women and girls in Dekoa make allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against UN peacekeepers (MINUSCA) to a child protection officer for the International Rescue Committee (IRC).

January & February 2016

IRC informs UNICEF, which deploys staff to Dekoa to conduct interviews.

March 2016

UNICEF representative in Bangui informs the head of MINUSCA, which begins investigations alongside various UN agencies. Head of investigations at UNICEF informs the director of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the UN’s investigatory body.

March-May 2016:

Majority of DNA samples taken, on a voluntary basis, from alleged victims and perpetrators.

April 2016:

Gabon and Burundi, which supplied the peacekeepers who are the alleged perpetrators, agree to conduct investigations alongside OIOS, after a request from the UN. OIOS staff deploy to Dekoa, spending 137 days and interviewing 435 people.

January 2017:

OIOS director commissions an internal UN review of the Dekoa investigations.

April 2017:

DNA samples from alleged victims and perpetrators arrive at the OIOS office in Nairobi – most are already rotten. Internal review submitted to OIOS.

July 2018:

An investigation by The New Humanitarian reveals stark gaps in assistance to women and girls who made the allegations – most of whom had no idea of the status of their cases – and learns of the internal UN review.

October 2019:

TNH obtains a draft of the internal review report, which details multiple problems in the Dekoa investigations.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

‘I have no power to complain’

TNH discovered problems with the sexual abuse investigation in Dekoa last year during a reporting trip to Central African Republic, which has been in crisis since 2013, when an alliance of northern rebels known as the Séléka ousted then-president Francois Bozizé, eventually triggering the peacekeepers’ deployment.

READ MORE: The UN and sex abuse claims

The UN has been plagued by SEA claims for decades, but tackling them is a complex challenge. The UN is reliant on troop-contributing countries for its peacekeeping missions, and it’s up to those same countries to decide whether allegations get prosecuted. Most never have been. 

The Dekoa allegations came a year after allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse against French troops in CAR came to light. Children as young as nine were allegedly raped and sodomised in Bangui in 2013 and 2014 by the French soldiers, according to an internal UN report handed to the Guardian newspaper in April 2015.

Since his appointment in 2017, UN Secretary-General António Guterres has vowed to eradicate UN sexual exploitation and abuse. Some $2 million has gone into a trust fund for victims, an electronic tool was developed to screen UN staff dismissed because of SEA, and a ‘circle of leadership’ with 87 current and former heads of state was created to provide direction on the issue. Some 3,340 victims, including in Central African Republic, have benefited from the trust fund, the UN says.

Despite the UN’s pledge to tackle SEA in its missions, the problem hasn’t gone away. 

Last year, there were 259 allegations of UN sexual exploitation and abuse – an increase compared to the previous two years, and one the UN attributed to higher reporting due to a greater awareness around the issue. 

It was at a displacement camp in Dekoa that much of the alleged abuse and exploitation occurred. Some peacekeepers allegedly offered women and girls military rations in exchange for sex; others allegedly gave them money to spend on better housing outside the camps – behaviour prohibited by the UN’s code of conduct for peacekeepers.

“Are your family able to support you and buy you the things you need?” a Gabonese peacekeeper allegedly asked a 23-year-old woman who spoke to TNH last year. 

The woman said the soldier then raped her; eventually she entered a relationship with him.

A former UN investigator deployed in 2016, who asked not to be named as he wasn’t authorised to speak about the investigation, told TNH last year that the probe into SEA allegations had been hampered by delays, sudden changes of leadership, and inappropriate victim and witness interviews that may have harmed the alleged victims’ cases.

When TNH interviewed alleged victims last year, none knew about the status of the investigations. Most had more immediate concerns: a mattress to sleep on or money to put themselves or children through school.

Years after their alleged mistreatment by UN peacekeepers, the women and girls who spoke to TNH last year described largely feeling abandoned; UN agencies and NGOs provide support to victims of sexual exploitation and abuse, but few if any provisions are made for women whose claims are under investigation.

“I have no power to complain,” one 19-year-old woman who alleged she had been raped by a Burundian peacekeeper told TNH last year.

Read more → Central African Republic: Little peace to keep, but 4.7 million lives to live

Some women who made allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse were under the age of 18, while two women who claimed to have been raped by Gabonese troops said they were looking after the children of those rapes on their own. Paternity was disputed in both cases.

“I am expecting support from the international community,” said a 26-year-old woman allegedly raped by a Burundian peacekeeper. “They are the ones who sent the troops that abused me. That would be justice.”

IN THEIR WORDS: UN investigators

21 investigators from the UN’s Office of Internal Oversight Services, or OIOS, rotated in and out of Dekoa, interviewing more than 400 people over a 137-day period in 2016. Read some of their testimonies, as found in the draft report, below.

“I believe some investigators were inexperienced in handling minors and victims of sexual crimes. It was evident to me that some investigators had never received training in interviewing victims of sexual assault. Some investigators showed no empathy to the victims and gave no weight to the victim’s accounts from the outset, lacking a victim-centric approach.”

“Other than standard OIOS guidance materials which don’t contain any guidance relating to specific issues that arise during SEA investigation, there was very little guidance provided to investigators in the field.”

“Some colleagues appeared to have insufficient appreciation of the techniques for conducting sexual violence interviews… leading to hasty judgements as to the credibility of their accounts.”

“OIOS should intervene more severely whenever the NIO (National Investigations Officer) team asked inappropriate questions.”

“We sent a lot of people to CAR without ensuring there was adequate infrastructure to support the investigation...The location in Dekoa had secured beds, but nothing else; there was no food or supplies prepared, no security in place, no communication methods and no transportation secured.”

'Humiliating' and 'irrelevant' questions

Investigating allegations of sexual abuse is difficult at the best of times. The boundaries of “exploitation” and “consensual relationships” are often blurred when people – especially women and girls – are reliant on assistance in humanitarian crises. 

But a litany of mistakes made by investigators and detailed in the review may explain why so many of the allegations brought by women and girls were dismissed.

Burundian investigators lacked skills and experience and were “initially more concerned with discrediting witnesses than taking their testimonies”, the draft report stated.

The interviews were “interrogatory” and involved questions and comments described as “humiliating”, “irrelevant”, and “incongruous”. One OIOS team member even suggested pulling out of the joint investigation altogether, the draft report noted.

Some OIOS investigators were also described as inexperienced and lacking empathy, while others reported getting pressure from supervisors to produce a minimum number of interviews per day, potentially compromising cases. 

READ MORE: How the investigations evolved

In Dekoa, the first women and girls made allegations in December 2015 to a child protection officer for the International Rescue Committee. The IRC then informed UNICEF, who sent staff members to Dekoa in January and February 2016, the draft report stated.

The UN’s peacekeeping mission in Central African Republic, known as MINUSCA, was informed in March. OIOS investigators began work a month later to support investigators from Burundi and Gabon, which – like all countries in UN peackeeping missions – are responsible for deciding whether or not to prosecute suspects of sexual abuse. In the end, Gabon did not conduct interviews and instead relied on OIOS. 

According to publicly available UN data, 69 allegations against Burundi and one allegation against Gabon were unsubstantiated. More than 60 other cases – all Gabonese – remain pending – years after the investigation began. There are discrepancies in the total number of allegations between the public data and the draft report. Swanson put the number at 163 but said he thought there may have been more. 

There were also corruption claims, though investigators only found out about those allegations after they were on the ground. One local official, for example, was accused of soliciting false testimonies of sexual abuse and exploitation in exchange for payment. The allegation of fraud and corruption, however, was not properly followed up, the draft stated. 

Both OIOS and Burundian investigators also failed to ask critical follow-up questions, which led to one woman’s account being dismissed, the draft report claims. 

In that case, the woman – known as Victim A – said she fell pregnant from a Burundian peacekeeper and was hospitalised after an abortion. Ultimately, her alleged perpetrator was cleared because of errors. 

READ MORE: How Victim A’s allegations were dismissed

The review concluded that Victim A’s account was dismissed because of “tactical mistakes”, adding that the case was “not isolated”. The mistakes mentioned included:

  • Investigators failed to interview the doctor who treated her after the abortion complications. Talking to the doctor could have bolstered her claim. 
  • Victim A told investigators the Burundian peacekeeper gave her a box of rice. The box could have linked the ration back to the soldier’s base, but no one asked. 
  • Burundian investigators said the woman failed to identify her alleged perpetrator. The review found this to be incorrect. In the first photo display of 13 pictures, investigators failed to include the man’s picture. On the second try, Victim A identified him “immediately” out of 140 pictures. 
  • The woman told investigators that the peacekeeper was a heavy drinker who had been disciplined by his fellow soldiers for being drunk – another unchecked detail that could have bolstered the woman’s claims. 

Neither Burundi nor Gabon responded to questions on whether information in the draft report could lead to the re-opening of some of the cases. 

This year, the UN mission in Central African Republic has seen more than 20 allegations involving 33 UN personnel – just over half the total number of people accused of sexual exploitation and abuse across all the UN missions.

MINUSCA did not respond to questions on why the CAR numbers remained high. 

IN THEIR WORDS: Women and girls of Dekoa

Last year, The New Humanitarian travelled to Dekoa, a remote town in Central African Republic, to investigate whether women and girls who made allegations against UN peacekeepers had received the support they were promised. Here’s what they said:

‘There is so much stigmatisation, I have in my community. They call me the “woman of the Burundians”. There is nobody who will fall in love with me. It has continued to this day. Whenever I pass they say things to me.” – 22 year old alleged victim of Burundian peacekeeper.

“I need money to run a business and a mattress to sleep on. I would like to go to school. I have not been in the past two years. Because of this incident my family said I was a big woman and stopped paying the school fees. No NGO has helped with the fees. The international community doesn’t work very well for the population, but I have no power to complain.” – 19 year old alleged victim of Burundian peacekeeper.

“At first I thought we would register and receive support but it didn’t come…... I never had a councillor who I met on a one on one basis. I would like to have one to provide advice so we don’t make the same mistakes again.” – 22 year old alleged victim of a Gabonese peacekeeper.

“The support I receive is not enough. In order to forget this I need money to run a small business and become independent from my family. Selling coffee and palm oil and salt and soap in the market. If I had more money it would help me forget and it would mean I would not have to consider trading sex for money.”– 23 year old alleged victim of a Gabonese peacekeeper.

“This is nothing. What are we going to do with a jerry can? I was expecting many things to look after my baby and myself. I had to stop going to school when I had the baby. Many NGOs spoke to us and said they would support us but we got nothing.” – 20 year old who said she had a baby with a Gabonese peacekeeper.

‘This was done in disarray’

“No proper work plan was prepared,” said one investigator interviewed for the draft report. Another recalled: “We made things up as we went along.”

Arriving in April 2016, some 31 OIOS staff – 21 professional grade investigators – rotated in and out of Dekoa, spending 137 days in Central African Republic and interviewing 435 people, including complainants and witnesses, the review said.

UNICEF conducted a first set of interviews before informing their UN colleagues at MINUSCA. Respondents in the draft report said the interviews were filled with such inaccuracies that they “would have had serious implications for any subsequent legal proceedings”.

“It was quite apparent that (the) victim’s initial complaints had not been recorded by UNICEF when they were first approached with the complaints,” one said.

“In the initial planning, I would interrogate the information provided by UNICEF more thoroughly as it was inaccurate,” another respondent said.

The draft report also noted that it took UNICEF weeks to inform OIOS of the allegations. 

UNICEF spokesperson Najwa Mekki said the agency’s reporting procedures require that such allegations are relayed to the highest UN official in a given country within 24 hours. She did not clarify why it took so long in the case of Dekoa.

“In the years since the sexual abuse scandal by peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, we have taken firm measures to strengthen our reporting and response,” Mekki said. “We now have better procedures for reporting cases of abuse, a stronger victim assistance programme, and more solid guidance to staff.”

‘Rotten’ DNA samples

The collection and storage of DNA samples were also cited as problematic.

Although the majority of samples were collected from March through May 2016 – long after the alleged abuse and rapes occurred – they were stored in Bangui for “many, many months”, and it wasn’t until April of 2017 that the OIOS Nairobi office received them, the draft report reads. 

By the time they arrived in the lab, “most were already rotten. It is therefore hardly surprising that positive results could not (be) obtained”, it adds.

In March 2017, OIOS also dispatched investigators to Burundi to collect DNA specimens from soldiers. UN peacekeepers are not required to give DNA samples, although one of the report’s recommendations calls for troops to give voluntary samples. It is not known how many Burundian and Gabonese supplied samples. 

DNA analysis done by Burundian authorities also “failed to extract a DNA profile from the samples collected from the babies”, the draft report reads.

At the time of TNH’s reporting last year, Swanson, the UN’s top investigator, said DNA testing on some 20 women and their children showed “with a high degree of confidence, that the soldiers identified were not the fathers of the children they were alleged to be”.

OIOS investigators interviewed for the report also complained of weak security measures and poor living conditions that left some dependent on emergency food rations and one respondent using their bedroom as an office and meeting space.

READ MORE: Security and logistics failings

Investigators quoted in the draft report said it was a miracle nothing happened to them given the lack of security precautions taken. 

“There was absolutely no security during the day. I was told that during the day we were protected by troops patrolling the area and making their regular rounds – that is, every time a patrol drove down the road in front of the compound.” 

While some investigators said MINUSCA offered help, others criticised the mission, with one claiming it did “not provide any support without argument, emphasised by the lack of food and water for OIOS investigators”.

“Living conditions in Dekoa were a joke,” the respondent said. Another said: “I noticed an extremely relaxed attitude towards safety in the Dekoa compound.”

Some also complained that secure transport was an issue. 

“I was concerned by the need for OIOS investigators entirely unfamiliar with the country to drive across a dangerous environment without an escort,” one person said. “I was expected to drive on my own (with only interpreters for company) for the convenience of the team, the rest of whom chose to go by helicopter.”

Eight investigators contracted malaria during the deployment – three with life-threatening forms of the parasite – but OIOS superiors lacked compassion and empathy, one of the investigators who fell ill said.

The review also stated that security measures undertaken to ensure the safety and protection of the OIOS investigators in Dekoa were “insufficient and largely inadequate; this clearly put investigators at risk”.

In May 2016, MINUSCA conducted a security assessment and issued 18 recommendations including the need for 24/7 guards and a 2.5-metre-high perimeter wall. A month later, just one of the 18 recommendations had been implemented, according to respondents in the draft report. 

MINUSCA did not respond to requests for comment by the time of publication.

Burundian and Gabonese peacekeepers being investigated for SEA claims were also responsible for security patrols in the area and around the compound where UN investigators were staying.

“It is very lucky that nothing happened,” one respondent said in the draft report. 

In his October emails to TNH, Swanson said the conditions in Dekoa were challenging, as was the scale of the operation.

“I utterly reject the suggestion that I knowingly sent investigators into harm’s way; security considerations were addressed, regular risk assessments carried out, briefings given and patrols organised,” he said. “It is true that some investigators were discomfited by their surroundings, others weren’t and it reflected in their feedback. The truth is that the UN is expected to work in dangerous and uncomfortable locations.”

‘I am not going to wash our dirty linen in public’

When initially contacted for this story, Swanson called the investigation “entirely professional”.

“The investigation was conducted in an entirely professional manner with proper regard to the rights of the victims and due process rights of the subjects of the investigation,” he told TNH in a 27 October email. 

IN THEIR WORDS: Ben Swanson, OIOS
  • Nothing in the draft was “approved or agreed, properly considered or evidenced”.
  • The draft “could not be released in the state it was in”.
  • MINUSCA “responded to our needs magnificently once they got started”.
  • Some investigators were “discomforted by their surroundings, others weren’t and it reflected in their feedback”.
  • “The investigation was part of a response to a crisis that was threatening to engulf the UN.”
  • Investigating sexual exploitation and abuse is difficult and challenging “even when you are dealing with 1 or 2 victims; when you are dealing with 163 victims, over a period of 4 months, in an austere and difficult location, it becomes even more so; throw in malaria, diarrhoea and dehydration (and) you can only imagine.”
  • “We had around 30 staff, probably 60-65% of our total investigators, involved from our global workforce ... we had four investigators on the ground for 16 weeks at a cost of getting them there and keeping them fed and watered at an average of around $7k per week 64 x 7k works out at $448,000, so the figure of $481,000 as a cost to our travel budget is probably quite accurate if you factor in other travel.”

Last year, Swanson confirmed to TNH that a review had been done to show what worked – and what didn’t – in the Dekoa operation. 

At that time, he also noted “shortfalls” in the “quality of interviewing by national investigators [from the countries the peacekeepers came from] and some of our own interviewers”, as well as problems with DNA evidence on “two to three swabs”. But he added: “I am not going to wash our dirty linen in public.”

Although far-reaching and overwhelmingly critical, the review wasn’t all bad. 

Swanson, himself, was credited with making “prompt” decisions, working to improve living conditions for investigators in Dekoa and for “constant involvement before, during and after the completion of the investigations”. 

OIOS investigators, too, were praised for their motivation, dedication, professionalism and the ability to work with one another.

READ MORE: What did the OIOS draft report conclude?

Among the recommendations were:

  • Greater accountability by troop-contributing countries. The UN policy of “only carrots and no sticks” hasn’t worked, the report said. 
  • Better training and compliance for UNICEF and others to adhere to SEA policies, guidance, and material and operating standards.
  • If initial information is lacking ahead of a potential investigation, follow-ups should be done “promptly and properly”.
  • Work plans are instituted before investigations and deployments.
  • Proper security and safety measures are taken before OIOS deployments.
  • Vulnerable victims are only interviewed by trained investigators.
  • A voluntary database for DNA is created for all deployed peacekeeping personnel.

The author of the draft report urged OIOS leaders to share it with UNICEF and other UN partners. It is not clear whether that was done, but similar recommendations have been made in the past by other UN leaders like Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein, the UN’s former human rights chief.

Internal reviews of joint investigations are not uncommon at OIOS. A review was conducted after Sri Lankan peacekeepers were implicated in a child sex ring in Haiti in 2007. More than 100 Sri Lankan soldiers were sent home, but none were ever jailed. 

Internal reviews of operations, however, are less common, according to Peter Gallo, a former OIOS investigator.

“I don’t know of a single incident that has been dissected like this,” said Gallo. “This seems to have been fairly unusual to take a holistic and inward look at what went well and what went wrong.”

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