There needs to be more scrutiny of the way French judicial institutions responded to violations of human rights by soldiers who were under the direct and sole command of the French army. By MARIANNE TESSA.
On 15 January 2018, the judges of the High Court of Paris (Tribunal de Grande Instance) dismissed a case of child rape by French peacekeeping soldiers due to a lack of sufficient evidence, following recommendations from the Paris Public Prosecutor. In April 2015, British newspaper The Guardian revealed the existence of a United Nations document including testimonies of six children aged between nine and 13, reporting that they were repeatedly raped between December 2013 and June 2014 by French soldiers of “Opération Sangaris”, a peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic (CAR).
Since then there has been introspection about the numerous and severe malpractices that enabled several UN officials in effect to ignore this report, conceal it from French authorities, and fail to undertake the necessary investigations to protect other children from undergoing a similar fate.
In July 2014, Anders Kompass was the first UN official to take action by handing over the report to the French Ministry of Defence. Kompass has since resigned and was subsequently treated as a hostile whistle-blower, rather than a principled staff member.
There needs to be more scrutiny of the way French judicial institutions responded to these violations of human rights by soldiers who were under the direct and sole command of the French army. Three children’s rights associations, including Innocence en danger, Enfance et partage and ECPAT, who acted as civil parties to the case, are strongly questioning whether the investigation was sufficiently impartial and independent.
The first investigation was indeed opened as soon as the report was received from Anders Kompass, but it was assigned to specific “military” investigators. Subsequently, five soldiers were identified from the children’s testimonies. None was indicted. Only one alleged perpetrator was placed in police custody after eight child pornography videos were found on his cellphone. He was subsequently released because the number of videos was deemed too low to characterise him as having a predisposition to paedophilia. In addition, phone-tapping evidence showed soldiers were co-ordinating their testimonies to the investigators, and expressing their own feeling that investigators were sympathetic to them. Finally, the lawyers of the child welfare association pointed out that there was an absence of a psychologist during the interviews with the children. When inconsistencies in their testimonies were noted, the lawyers asked for a psychiatric assessment of their trauma and for new interviews, but these requests were dismissed by the judge.
These malpractices cast doubt on whether the prosecutor investigated incriminating and exonerating circumstances in a fair and impartial manner. The judges could not rule on the merits of the case, and the possibility for victims to seek redress when violations of human rights are perpetrated by peacekeepers who are not under UN command seems uncertain. It is the responsibility of the national jurisdiction of the country leading such a mission to prosecute soldiers for their crimes. While this may be suitable for disciplinary infringements, this case showed that national military-led investigations are very unlikely to administer justice, especially in a country with a strong militaristic culture, where the sentiments of soldiers are trusted and protected.
It is time now for the different political and military hierarchies involved in peacekeeping operations on the continent, including nation-states, the African Union, and African Regional Economic Communities (RECs), to reach an agreement for violations of human rights to be judged by international jurisdictions, even when committed by soldiers under national military command. Notably, it is desirable that the prosecution of such crimes becomes a priority for the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Beyond legal issues, this case illustrates the dangers of peacekeeping interventions allowed by UN Security Council resolutions but carried out solely by one power’s troops under its own command. With Mali, Ivory Coast, Chad, and CAR, France has made it a habit to lead missions in African countries that once were colonies, but did not engage in a deconstruction of the colonialist and representations framing its military’s attitudes to these countries and their populations. French politicians loudly condemned all sexual abuses reported by Central African children, but did not raise the fundamental question of why and how the violations could transpire in the first place. The fact that this crisis has not triggered any deeper introspection about the mindset of the French military when intervening in Africa is particularly worrying. The rape of children not only reveals a feeling of omnipotence and impunity, but also exposes the prevalence of a predatory attitude towards the very population they have the duty to protect. Feminist scholars have well established the link between participation in military activities and construction of problematic warrior masculinities, experiencing violence as erotic and desirable.
To redress these injustices which have replicated themselves in other peacekeeping contexts, it is necessary to pursue two inter-related objectives. First, it is necessary to avoid situations in which countries intervene alone in their former colonies, knowing that racialist and predatory conceptions will be especially strong among their soldiers. This does not only require to temper interventionist tendencies but requires that the rest of the international community takes responsibility when the UN calls for peacekeeping operations. Too often, former colonial powers have an interest in sending their contingents to war-affected areas. For several months, French soldiers represented a third of all peacekeepers in CAR. Second, and most important, peacekeeping actors need to determine a way of addressing racialist and colonialist systems of thought that still permeate the minds of western peacekeeping soldiers. This will be achieved both by rethinking the initial training of soldiers and by providing them throughout their careers with occasions to question their positionalities as male warriors, and when appropriate, as western peacekeepers. These joint efforts are urgently needed in order to restore civilians’ trust in peacekeeping personnel which has been so critically damaged by the perpetration of such crimes against innocent children. DM
Marianne Tessa is a Volunteer Intern at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, based in Cape Town, South Africa.
Photo: A picture made available by the French Army Communications Audiovisual office (ECPAD) on 28 December 2013 shows French soldiers of the MISCA unit patrolling the streets of Paoua, Central African Republic on 27 December 2013. EPA/EMA / ECPAD / HANDOUT HANDOUT EDITORIAL USE ONLY
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