May 31, 2015 § Leave a comment
In December 2013 when conflict broke out in the Central African Republic, France swooped in to “save the day” by sending soldiers to its former colony. Just over a month ago, a UN report was leaked detailing sexual abuse of children in the CAR by the very same French troops.
The report detailed the rape and sodomy of starving and homeless young boys by French peacekeeping troops who were supposed to be protecting them at a center for internally displaced people in the capital Bangui. The boys, some of whom were orphans, were sexually exploited in return for small amounts of food, water and money. In one case, a 9-year-old boy described being sexually abused with his friend by two French soldiers when they went to a checkpoint to look for something to eat. The soldiers forced him and his friend to carry out a sex act. The child was so distressed after the assault that he fled the camp in terror .
Harrowing stuff. But just as worrying were the various responses to the report from the UN, French authorities and the mainstream media.
The United Nations responded to sexual abuse by its peacekeepers by suspending the senior UN aid worker who chose to disclose the report to French prosecutors, after the UN’s failure to stop the abuse.
The response by the UN shouldn’t come as a surprise. When it comes to sexual abuse by its peacekeeping forces, the UN has previously been known to embark on witch hunts against whistle-blowers; politicize the issue despite its urgency; and display an appalling disregard for victims.
Ignore, deny, dissemble and cover up is the UN’s instinctive response to sexual violence in its ranks, as demonstrated by its past failure to act over pedophile rings operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and allegations of sexual misconduct by its troops in Burundi, Liberia and Haiti.
The pervasive culture of impunity that prevails at the UN should raise serious doubts as to its credibility in managing world affairs.
Many media outlets chose to portray this sexual exploitation of African children by peacekeeping forces as a “sex-for-food scandal”. This is nothing new. The media similarly covered as “sex for food” stories past incidents of peacekeeper child sexual abuse in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone (2002); the Democratic Republic of Congo (2004); Liberia (2006); and the Ivory Coast (2011).
Yet children cannot legally, let alone morally, consent to sex. When an adult has sex with a child, this is rape not “sex”. For the media to describe it as “sex for food” implies that the soldiers were merely compensating locals with food for transactional sex, rather than acknowledging what they were truly doing to vulnerable children.
The ultimate danger of such antiseptic reporting is that it will deny the victims the necessary attention, indignation and outrage that could generate public interest, mobilize activists and institutions and ultimately bring about positive change. The only beneficiaries of such downplayed media coverage are the UN and French authorities, whose ongoing policies get to proceed more easily without interference due to concern over their politically inconvenient victims.
The media must refrain from attempts at minimizing the gravity of sexual abuse crimes. When peacekeepers force African children to perform sex acts for food, or for any other reason, this should be covered by the media as a “child rape scandal”.
French Government Response
In response to the scandal, the French defense ministry issued a statement which read in part that:
“If the facts are proven, the strongest penalties will be imposed on those responsible for what would be an intolerable attack on soldiers’ values.”
The French government would have us believe that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes against children were merely bad apples, when in fact they were exhibiting the toxic values and ideals of militarism that are encouraged and rewarded in militarized cultures. To become a soldier you must unlearn consent and empathy. You need to dehumanize in order to kill – which is what ALL militaries everywhere train their soldiers to do.
The French soldiers showed no empathy towards the starving boys desperate for food. They instead exploited victims who could not consent to sex, dehumanizing them before and during the rape. The French soldiers were doing exactly what they were trained to do.
When the story of sexual abuse in the CAR first broke out, many around the world expressed their shock that peacekeepers would “take advantage of desperate people they were supposed to be protecting.” However, the fact that sexual abuse by peacekeepers has happened many times before, points to the existence of a pattern that begs to be looked into. It’s time to stop treating peacekeeper sexual abuse as anomalies or random, isolated occurrences, and begin to recognize the deeper issues at play. Until we begin to address the root causes of such incidents, this will happen again, and soon.