The UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has admitted to shortcomings in its humanitarian support to children who allege that they were raped and sexually abused by French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic (CAR).
A statement by UNICEF Netherlands is the first public acknowledgment of the agency’s failure to provide support to some of the victims of alleged abuse by peacekeepers in the African nation.
UNICEF was given the task of overseeing the support for children who said they had been abused by peacekeepers.
However, an investigation in March last year by Swedish Television’s Uppdrag Granskning for the show Mission Investigate revealed that some of the children supposedly in the UN’s care were homeless, out of school and forced to make a living on the streets.
UNICEF’s representative in the CAR told the program that the children were in the agency’s assistance program for minors and were being supported, adding that he was not aware that some were on the streets.
However, earlier this month — ahead of a Dutch screening of the program — UNICEF Netherlands admitted to the Dutch television program Zembla that it had failed in its duty to help some of the alleged victims.
However, it said that since the program aired, it had taken steps to locate the children featured in the program and provide them with support.
Marieke van Santen of Zembla said she found the Swedish film “astonishing,” because the children who were interviewed were known to UNICEF, but were not being cared for.
“It is quite shocking to realize that not only once, but twice UN agencies have failed to help these victims,” Van Santen said.
Several boys who testified to having been sexually assaulted by French soldiers were living rough, Mission Investigate reporter Karin Mattisson said, while a girl, who became pregnant at the age of 14 by a Congolese peacekeeper and later found out she was HIV-positive, was out of school looking after her baby.
“I hope they live up to this statement,” she said. “When we investigated the UN and UNICEF, it was a long journey into their culture of silence.”
Some of the children Mattisson spoke to had given evidence to officials investigating reports of abuse by the French Sangaris peacekeeping force, which was not part of the UN peacekeeping mission, but under UN Security Council control.
However, since then, other cases of alleged sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers have emerged.
The agency first came under fire for its failure to care for the child victims of alleged abuse in CAR in 2015.
An independent panel found the UN’s failure to respond to allegations that peacekeepers sexually abused children in the country amounted to “gross institutional failure.”
It also said UNICEF and human rights staff in CAR had failed to ensure the children received medical attention and aid, and “failed to take steps to protect other victims.”
UNICEF responded by saying it “deeply regretted” the failings.
Before airing the film in the Netherlands, Zembla said it wanted to know if the agency had instigated any changes.
The UNICEF Netherlands statement issued to Zembla said it has since March “tightened up” sexual abuse reporting and intensified efforts to provide support to victims of sexual exploitation, including medical, psychosocial support and help with food and education.
It stressed the “difficult circumstances” of working in CAR, a country of extreme poverty and excessive violence, which has been involved in a long civil war.
A statement by UNICEF headquarters said it had followed up with the cases exposed by the Swedish documentary and provided assistance “where appropriate.”
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