US diplomat James Wasserstrom says case of Anders Kompass, who exposed allegations of sex abuse by French forces, shows UN turns on whistleblowers
The United Nations is guilty of “reckless disregard for serious allegations of wrongdoing” in its treatment of a whistleblower who disclosed details of alleged child abuse by French peacekeepers in Africa, according to a former staff member.
James Wasserstrom, a veteran US diplomat who was sacked and arrested by UN police when he exposed suspicions of corruption by senior officials in Kosovo, said the case of Anders Kompass revealed how the organisation turned on the whistleblower rather than dealing with the wrongdoing he had revealed.
Kompass, director of field operations at the office of the high commissioner for human rights in Geneva, has been suspended for passing to prosecutors in Paris an unredacted internal UN report detailing allegations of the sexual exploitation of boys in the Central African Republic by French peacekeepers.
When the Guardian revealed details of the allegations this week, the French authorities admitted publicly for the first time that they had begun an investigation after receiving the report last July. It details accounts from children as young as eight and nine of serious sexual abuse at a centre for internally displaced people in the capital Bangui.
At the time, the French troops stationed there were part of their country’s peacekeeping mission run independently of the new UN operation Minusca. The UN had commissioned the report following claims on the grounds of sexual misconduct. It was completed in June last year but not passed on until Kompass leaked it directly to the French.
On Thursday, the French president, François Hollande, vowed to pursue the allegations vigorously. “If some soldiers have behaved badly, I will show no mercy,” he said. French judicial authorities said more than a dozen soldiers were under investigation.
Wasserstrom won a landmark case against the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, that was later overturned by the organisation’s appeals tribunal. He said the Kompass case seemed to offer further evidence of the organisation’s “reckless disregard for very serious allegations of wrongdoing in order to go after the whistleblower”.
He said: “Over and over and over again, the UN goes into denial, into dismissal and into coverup, and then tries to retaliate against the whistleblower. “The fact that the French authorities have decided to take these allegations seriously underlines this.” Wasserstrom was one of nine signatories to a letter from former whistleblowers to the UN secretary general published earlier this month. While working for the UN mission in Kosovo in 2009, he was sacked and detained by UN police after revealing suspicions about corruption within senior ranks of the UN mission.
The UN dispute tribunal – a body set up in 2009 to improve the system of internal justice – condemned the organisation for an “unauthorised and unwarranted” investigation into Wasserstrom, ruled that the its ethics office had failed to protect him and that its mechanism for dealing with whistleblowers was “fundamentally flawed”. But the findings were overturned when the secretary general applied to the appeals tribunal.
“Without proper whistleblower protection, wrongdoing at the United Nations, be it sexual exploitation, abuse of power, fraud or corruption, will not be reported and will continue to go unchecked. There will be no accountability. This can only damage the UN’s moral standing and ultimately its legitimacy,” the letter said. This week, the UN in New York stood by its actions. In a statement, it said the leak of internal documents did not constitute whistleblowing but was a “a serious breach of protocol”.
“Any issue of sex abuse is a serious issue,” the statement said. “At the same time, there are concerns we have about the protection of witnesses and victims.” Kompass, a Swedish citizen, faces dismissal after more than 30 years working in the humanitarian field. His government said on Thursday it was “worrisome” if Kompass had been suspended for sharing information about sexual abuse of children on an international mission.
Anders Ronquist, legal chief of Sweden’s foreign ministry, said: “The UN must have zero tolerance toward sexual abuse of children and ensure that suspicions of such abuse are investigated.”
The treatment of Kompass was carried out with the knowledge of the high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, according to communications seen by the Guardian. He was the author of the Zeid report on preventing sexual exploitation by peacekeepers commissioned a decade ago after a scandal involving UN troops in Congo. In France, the claims against more than a dozen soldiers who were part of the peacekeeping mission in CAR continue to cause shockwaves.
The report contains interviews with six children who disclose sexual abuse predominantly at the hands of French peacekeepers. Some children indicated that several of their friends were also being sexually exploited. The interviews were carried out by an official from the OHCHR justice section and a member of Unicef between May and June last year. The children, who are aged between eight/nine and 15, disclosed abuse dating back to December 2013. Entitled “Sexual abuse on children by international armed forces”, it is stamped confidential on every page.
The allegations include claims that Chadian soldiers, who are part of the peacekeeping mission, were also involved in abuse. The children all talk of being abused in return for food rations handed out by the soldiers. One interview details how two nine-year-old children were sexually exploited together by two French soldiers. One of the children tells the interviewers: “One was short and smoking a lot, the other was thin and not smoking. They asked us what we wanted. We answered that we were hungry. The short man told us to first put his bangala [penis] out of his pants.
“The bangala of the thin one was for my friend,” the child said. “Their bangala were straight in front of us, at the level of our mouths.” The child goes on to describe how he and his friend were told to carry out a sex act on both soldiers before being given three packs of military food rations and some money. Another nine-year-old child described how he went to ask for food from the French military at the IDP camp at M’Poko airport.
He says the soldier told him to carry out a sex act on him first. The report states: “He [the child] had friends who had done it already, he knew what he had to do. Once done, the military gave a military food portion and some food. X said the military had forbidden him to tell anything about him to anybody and that if he would do so he would beat him.” A French judicial source revealed that a number of French soldiers accused of the abuse had been identified from the descriptions provided by the children.
In Bangui on Thursday, the mother of one child told Associated Press her son was just nine when he was assaulted by French soldiers. Her family had fled to the airport on the first day of the sectarian clashes in December 2013 and she and her son are still living there. “The children were vulnerable because they were hungry and their parents had nothing to give them, so the children were forced to ask the soldiers for food,” she said.
“They took advantage of the children forcing them to perform oral sex and also sodomising them,” she said. “The moaning of children in the area often started around 10 pm or 11 pm.” Another resident said other abused children ranged in age from 10-13.
“In exchange for cookies, the soldiers demanded oral sex,” she said, recounting what the children told her. “Afterwards, they were given bottles of water. They even sodomised the children.”
Figures obtained by the Government Accountability Project (GAP), which supports whistleblowers, reveal that the UN ethics office had received 447 approaches until July 2014 from those alleging they have faced retaliation for exposing wrongdoing.
They completed reviews into between 113 and 135 of these cases, identifying prima facie cases of retaliation in 14, and ultimately establishing there had been retaliation in just four cases.