GENEVA — The U.N. human rights office says it has turned up six more cases of alleged sexual abuse against children by European troops in Central African Republic, including a 7-year-old girl who said she had to perform sexual acts on soldiers in exchange for water and cookies.
A U.N. team recently interviewed five girls and a boy who claimed their abusers were part of French and European Union military operations in the troubled African country, the office of High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Raad al-Hussein said.
The sexual abuse allegedly took place in 2014 in or near a camp for displaced people near M’Poko airport in CAR’s capital, Bangui, but only came to light in recent weeks, the latest in a string of similar allegations.
France, Central African Republic’s former colonial ruler, deployed several thousand troops to the country in late 2013 as violence between Christians and Muslims sent thousands fleeing from their homes. An African Union mission that began in April 2014 was taken over by a U.N. peacekeeping force five months later, while the EU force ended an 11-month mission in March last year.
“These are extremely serious accusations and it is crucial that these cases are thoroughly and urgently investigated,” Zeid said in a statement. “We will continue to closely follow up on these cases, and any others which emerge, as the UN team on the ground continues its investigations.”
The U.N. can report the allegations but countries themselves are responsible for prosecuting their troops over such crimes.
The U.N. rights office said three of the girls said they believed their abusers were members of a Georgian contingent within a European Union force, and another girl was allegedly abused by a soldier from another European country that was not named because “additional corroboration is needed” in that case.
U.N. staffers interviewed a 7-year-old girl and 9-year-old boy who said they had been abused by troops in the French “Sangaris” operation. The girl said she had performed “oral sex on French soldiers in exchange for a bottle of water and a sachet of cookies,” the statement from Zeid’s office said.
A spokesman for Zeid’s office said the 7-year-old was the youngest alleged victim so far in any of the CAR cases. The two children said other children were abused in a similar fashion in repeated incidents involving several French soldiers, according to the statement.
The U.N. is under pressure to act more quickly after an independent panel last month described the world body’s “gross institutional failure” in handling similar allegations in CAR against French and other peacekeepers. The report said the months-long delay in addressing children’s accounts of abuse had led to even more reported assaults.
There was no immediate comment from French authorities.
The EU’s foreign affairs service said the European Union was informed of the allegations on Jan. 19 and immediately offered assistance to the U.N. investigators.
“The EU takes these allegations very seriously. The EU is committed to human rights, protection of victims of sexual abuse and to fighting against impunity,” said the statement.
Georgia’s Defense Ministry said it received the allegations “with great concern” and expressed its belief that “each and every one of us, at both national and international levels, must do everything possible to ensure that those individuals committing such crimes are held responsible.”
“It is our goal to investigate this matter in great detail and in case such grave crimes are proven, perpetrators of such crimes will be brought to justice,” it said.
The U.N. human rights office also said the recent interviews turned up “a number of cases involving U.N. peacekeepers,” but it gave no details. It said U.N. peacekeeping officials were discussing the new cases with the countries involved.
Rupert Colville, a spokesman for Zeid’s office, estimated that troops from “something like ten” foreign military contingents in CAR have now been embroiled in sexual misconduct allegations. He said it was difficult to estimate how many individual soldiers might have been involved.
“What is abundantly clear in the CAR is that it’s been rampant,” Colville told reporters at a U.N. briefing Friday in Geneva. “What this does show is this is a problem with armies, with the military forces, and for whatever reason not enough is being done to stop this happening — the message doesn’t seem to have got through.”
He said he was unaware of any convictions so far by judicial authorities in any of the cases that have been brought to light.
Raf Casert in Brussels and Cara Anna in New York contributed.