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Panel slams UN for 'gross institutional failure' to act on CAR child sex allegations

An independent panel has rebuked the UN for 'gross institutional failure' to act on allegations that French and African troops sexually abused children at a camp near Bangui in the Central African Republic (CAR).

An independent panel has released a hard-hitting report on the United Nations' response to child sexual abuse claims in the CAR. The panel found that senior officials' failure to appropriately respond to the allegations

led to even more sexual assaults.

"The end result was a gross institutional failure to respond to the allegations in a meaningful way," the report concluded. The document was drafted by a three-member panel led by Canadian judge Marie Deschamps. "The manner in which UN agencies responded to the allegations was seriously flawed," it said.

Allegations surfaced last year that French troops and peacekeepers had forced children as young as nine years old to perform sexual acts in exchange for food at a camp near Bangui from December 2013 to June 2014. One boy who reported an attack on his friends over a year ago "now reported that he himself had been orally and anally raped," the report noted.

The panel found that UN

staff hesitated or failed to pass the abuse claims to more senior officials,

sometimes due to political concerns with France. "Information about the allegations was passed from desk to desk, inbox to inbox, across multiple UN offices, with no one willing to take responsibility to address the serious human rights violations," according to the report. "No steps whatsoever were taken to find the children, relocate them out of the M'Poko camp or assess their security needs until May 2015."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accepted the panel's findings, saying: "The report depicts a United Nations that failed to respond meaningfully when faced with information about reprehensible crimes against vulnerable children."

"I express my profound regret that these children were betrayed by the very people sent to protect them," Ban said in a statement.

Officials under fire

The report looked at the behavior of several senior UN officials

and was especially harsh on the leader of the Human Rights and Justice Section (HRJS) of the UN mission, known as MINUSCA.

"HRJS obscured the allegations by only reporting them in the context of broad, thematic reports that also included violations by other international troops," the panel report said.

The UN's agency for children, UNICEF, also came under fire for providing inadequate trauma support to the alleged victims, offering only a two-hour counseling session run through a local NGO.

The panel did, however, exonerate Anders Kompass, the UN official from Geneva who leaked the initial report to French authorities last year. The panel found that Kompass "did not act outside of his authority."

A French soldier patrols a street in Bagui in the Central African Republic

At least 13 French soldiers were accused of sexually absuing children

Human rights responsibility

The UN was quick to point out that the French peacekeepers who have been accused were not part of the UN peacekeeping force that later arrived in the CAR. But noted: "for victims of sexual violence, it is immaterial whether the perpetrator was wearing a blue helmet or not."

At least 13 French soldiers, two from Equatorial Guinea and three Chadian troops were implicated in the alleged abuse.

France intervened in CAR over two years ago to quell violence between Christian militias and largely Muslim Seleka rebels who had taken power. It began withdrawing some of its 2,000 troops this year, handing the mission over to UN peacekeepers. Allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by peacekeepers have since continued.

The report recommended that all cases of sexual violence be immediately reported and that a professional team of investigators should be established to deal solely with cases involving sexual violence at the hands of peacekeepers.

rs/jm (AP, AFP, Reuters)

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