INTERVIEW - United Nations must act to end sex abuse 'cover-ups': whistleblower

by Tom Esslemont | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 22 January 2016 16:30 GMT

In this file 2013 photo, helmets belonging to soldiers are seen as part of preparations for deployment to Mali, at the Nigerian Army peacekeeping centre in Jaji, near Kaduna. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

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Many have experienced reprisals, even dismissals, after witnessing sexual exploitation and abuse within the U.N.

By Tom Esslemont

LONDON, Jan 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United Nations is guilty of covering up dozens of cases of sexual abuse against women and children by its global workforce and needs to break an unspoken culture of silence, according to a senior U.N. human rights official and whistleblower.

Anders Kompass, director of field operations for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), was suspended briefly last April after raising the alarm over child sex abuse by French soldiers in Central African Republic and passing on confidential documents when no action was taken.

He was exonerated completely this month after two panel hearings but, in one of his first interviews since being cleared, said the U.N. urgently needed to address concerns that staff fear losing their jobs if they speak out about sex abuse.

Kompass, who is Swedish, said he had received more than 100 messages from colleagues in the first three days after his name was cleared, some saying they had been "similarly mistreated".

"I am receiving 30 or 40 messages per day from people in U.N. peace missions," said Kompass, whose exposure of the abuse involving boys as young as nine prompted a criminal investigation in France that is ongoing.

"Many refer to having experienced reprisals or even dismissals after witnessing sexual exploitation and abuse within the U.N.," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The revelations in Central African Republic, along with similar complaints from other countries, have put pressure on U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to reform the way the world body handles misconduct by peacekeepers and civilian staff.

U.N. peacekeeping officials said the organisation's leadership had been making "intensive efforts" to ensure greater accountability and transparency among its 120,000-strong workforce, including speeding up the process of investigation.

"U.N. Peacekeeping does not and will never accept a 'culture of tolerance' with regard to both misconduct and the reporting of misconduct," a New York-based spokesman said.

FEARS OVER SPEAKING OUT

But Kompass said the emails he received - dictated to the Thomson Reuters Foundation over the phone - showed this was a problem entrenched throughout the global organisation that last year had 94,000 troops and military peacekeepers on its books.

One U.N. worker wrote to him saying he "considered suicide" after feeling "completely neglected" by his superiors when he tried to expose sex abuse in the country he was working in.

Another U.N. civilian staffer said he was one of the few in his team not to engage in sexual practices with local women, although this is banned by U.N. protocol.

"This is sexual exploitation. It is prohibited," said Kompass, who remains in his post at OHCHR but is considering his options for the future.

Kompass said sex abuse was "basically tolerated" in countries like Central African Republic where U.N. workers were protected by a culture of impunity.

"In these societies where you don't have rule of law there's an ambiguous culture that sex abuse is just a form of collateral damage," said the veteran U.N. worker, who previously headed OHCHR offices in Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala.

A slew of allegations against peacekeepers and civilian staff at the U.N. mission in Central African Republic, known as MINUSCA, have come to light since Kompass first raised the alarm about cases dating back to 2013 and 2014.

The troops who allegedly committed the abuses he raised were not under United Nations command at the time.

But MINUSCA officials earlier this month said they were investigating four new allegations of sexual abuse by U.N. peacekeepers in the conflict-torn African nation.

An independent review panel cleared Kompass in December, instead criticising the U.N. and its agencies for the way it had handled the alleged abuse.

Earlier this month the U.N.'s internal justice body, the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), also cleared him, saying in an email to the Thomson Reuters Foundation that their findings "did not support any claim of wrongdoing".

The U.N. has acknowledged the problem of exploitation, with fraternisation between staff and local populations common.

Last June a U.N. report found peacekeepers often pay for sex with cash or gifts despite a ban on such relationships.

The study found 480 allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse between 2008 and 2013 with one-third involving children with missions in Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Haiti and South Sudan accounting for the largest numbers.

But the final responsibility for interrogating those accused rests with the 128 countries contributing police and troops to U.N. missions and this slows the process, officials say.

Kompass said he was speaking out in the hope that other people would come forward and not be treated as he was.

"We all have our responsibility to do the right thing. I hope there has been an understanding this is important for the credibility of the U.N.," he said.

(Reporting By Tom Esslemont, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)

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