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Abuse Allegations Against French Soldiers Raise Troubling Questions


Soldiers sent to protect civilians are suspected instead of abusing them. The soldiers are French. They're being investigated on suspicion of sexual abuse. They were on peacekeeping duty at the time in the Central African Republic, and they're not the only ones facing scrutiny. The United Nations faces questions for briefly suspending the U.N. official who exposed the allegations of abuse. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: At the end of 2013, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, toured a massive and chaotic camp just outside the airport in Bangui, the capital of Central African Republic.


SAMANTHA POWER: Why did the airport seem the right place to come?

MARTINE KUTUNGAI: (Foreign language spoken).

KELEMEN: A woman named Martine Kutungai responded by saying she felt safer there because French troops were protecting people from rival militias. We now know that several months later, U.N. investigators were at that same camp interviewing children who said that some French peacekeepers were demanding sexual favors in return for food.

BEATRICE EDWARDS: And they're so little they had no idea what they were doing.

KELEMEN: That's Beatrice Edwards, the executive director of the Government Accountability Project. She's advocating on behalf of the U.N. human rights official who alerted French authorities last July.

EDWARDS: He saw a report of ongoing pedophilia that, having seen it myself, is appalling. And he took immediate steps to put a stop to it, and then he worried about what to do bureaucratically.

KELEMEN: The U.N. briefly suspended Anders Kompass, accusing him of breaching protocol because he gave the French an un-redacted summary of the interviews. His boss, the U.N.'s top human rights official, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, says the names of children should have been left out.


ZEID RA'AD AL HUSSEIN: Victims, witnesses and investigators are vulnerable to reprisals, to stigma, to violence, and these rules exist not to protect bureaucrats but to protect vulnerable victims.

KELEMEN: However, Edwards calls this argument a red herring.

EDWARDS: He didn't go to the press. he went to the police. Now, if you go to the police to report a crime, you don't redact the names of witnesses or the investigation has to start from nowhere.

KELEMEN: She also believes the U.N. should've acted much more quickly, pointing out that the interviews took place for nearly two months while the alleged abuse was going on. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Samantha Power, wants an investigation into the way the U.N. handles cases like this.


POWER: At the slightest hint that peacekeepers could be carrying out abuses, that needs to be reported up the chain and investigated extremely swiftly.

KELEMEN: And she says the countries that contribute troops need to hold perpetrators to account. The U.N. says none of the troops in this case from France, Equatorial Ginny and Chad were under U.N. command, and Zeid says the French should have known what their soldiers were up to.


HUSSEIN: It's only the military that can do the investigation, right? The U.N. is not a sovereign body. The U.N. can collect the basic data, the testimony. It can do a report, but the U.N. cannot do the official investigation. That has to be done by the state concerned.

KELEMEN: A decade ago, Zeid wrote a report on sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping operations and helped the U.N. develop a zero-tolerance policy, but critics say there's still not enough pressure on countries that contribute peacekeeping troops to punish those responsible for abuse. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.