Fighting Words

April 27, 2016 8:00 AM ET

"When I cried, he slapped me hard and put his hand over my mouth." That is how a 12-year-old girl in the Central African Republic described an episode in which a man found her hiding in the bathroom of her home in the wee hours of August 2, 2015, dragged her outside, and raped her, hidden from view behind a truck.

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The man was allegedly wearing the blue helmet and vest of the United Nations peacekeeping forces, and a medical examination of the girl found evidence consistent with sexual assault, according to an Amnesty International report.

The New York Times and the Guardian later reported that the alleged rapist was one of 17 U.N. personnel facing accusations of sexual abuse since the mission began operations in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (CAR), in April 2014.

The allegations against the U.N. peacekeepers in the CAR came as the U.N. mission there was already tasked with investigating accusations that French peacekeepers had forced a group of young homeless boys to perform sex acts on them in exchange for money or food. In April 2015, the U.N.'s failure to address these allegations of rape and sexual violence against children in Bangui at the hands of French peacekeepers was highlighted in a document leaked to the Guardian titled "Sexual Abuse on Children by International Armed Forces." A senior U.N. staffer, Anders Kompass, was suspended for submitting the report to French authorities who visited Bangui. The suspension was later ruled unlawful and lifted.

The leaked document makes clear that the U.N. was not only aware of the ongoing abuses but made no attempt to protect the children, while striving to cover their own inaction. Guardian journalist Sandra Laville reported: "The U.N. has faced several scandals in the past relating to its failure to act over paedophile rings operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kosovo and Bosnia."

Prosecutions of wartime sexual violence are rare, but when they do occur, it is usually a direct result of documentation of the assaults. The historic lack of documentation and acknowledgement concerning gender-related and sexual crimes, as well as the significant impact that meaningful documentation can have in ensuring that the crimes are addressed, are highlighted in two published papers, "Prosecuting Wartime Rape and Other Gender-Related Crimes under International Law: Extraordinary Advances, Enduring Obstacles" by legal scholar Kelly Askin, and "Rape as a Crime of War: A Medical Perspective" by scholars Shana Swiss and Joan E. Giller.

A judge sits at a hearing in the International Criminal Court in The Hague in March 2014. In conflict zones, it is not unusual for police, local militias, national armies, or foreign peacekeepers to be implicated in sexual assaults. (AP/Phil Nijhuis)

Advocates of investigating and prosecuting such cases say journalists are integral to the process because they collect data, share testimony, shed light on reported incidents, and give voice to victims who might otherwise be silent, as happened in the case of the young boys and the French peacekeepers and that of the girl raped in Bangui.

In conflict zones, it is not unusual for police, local militias, national armies, or foreign peacekeepers to be implicated in rapes and sexual assaults. Journalists with the freedom to report the stories are often seen as the best hope that justice will be served, according to data collected by the Women Under Siege project, which investigates the use of rape and sexualized violence as a weapon of war. When the media's freedom to report such stories is undermined, or when censorship prohibits the sharing of information, it has the effect of perpetuating impunity in such crimes, potentially leading to further violence, and sometimes compounds trauma for victims who are once again silenced.

In response to publicity over the alleged involvement of peacekeepers in rape and sexualized violence against civilians, including children, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced on August 12, 2015, that the head of the U.N.'s CAR mission, Babacar Gaye, had resigned his post; news reports said he was fired. In addition to incidences of sexualized violence at the hands of peacekeepers in the CAR, including the rape of the girl and a similar episode in eastern CAR, the media reported on what many saw as an inadequate response to the abuses by the French peacekeepers.

"None of this gets the light of day until a journalist gets wind of it," Paula Donovan, cofounder and co-director of AIDS-Free World, said of the media's role in Gaye's firing. According to Donovan, who has worked with UNICEF and as senior adviser to the U.N. Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, "Using the media is actually the only way to get the facts on the record... When the public gets incensed, and they only do that when the press is involved, only then do member states respond."

At a December 9, 2015, hearing in Washington on the U.N.'s peacekeeping missions, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power testified that although improvements have been made in the reporting of and response to such allegations, "Too often we hear from NGOs or from journalists about sexual abuse and exploitation, rather... than from the U.N. itself." Power said the U.N. needs to improve its ability to investigate allegations of peacekeeper abuse to reduce the time "between an allegation and an actual follow-through."

On December 22, 2015, The New York Times reported that the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, said he had ordered subordinates to inform him immediately when allegations of such abuse first arise, even when doing so meant jumping the customary chain of command. Hussein said he did "not want to be in a situation where I read somewhere in the press, or I hear from another part of the U.N., that a human rights officer has begun to look into an allegation and I don't know about it."

The Central African Republic is not unique when it comes to failure by authorities to address sexual abuse. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where about 48 women are raped per hour, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in June 2011, the government has a long history of failing to meaningfully respond to sexualized violence against its population.

Karen Naimer, director of the Program on Sexual Violence in Conflict at Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), a New York-based nonprofit that uses science and medicine to document and call attention to mass atrocities and severe human rights violations, has pushed for prosecutions of crimes of sexual violence in East and Central Africa. She said she has seen firsthand the role that the media--both domestic and international--can play in turning the tide in cases of systemic rape.

In 2013, in the small eastern DRC town of Kavumu, PHR staff began hearing stories about dozens of children who had been abducted from their homes at night, sexually assaulted, then returned home. Though the perpetrators of the crimes have still not been identified, pressure to investigate came primarily from media platforms such as Reuters, Foreign Policy and the BBC. The international media can often report more freely on episodes of sexual violence in countries where press freedom is limited. But the local and national press can also profoundly influence local approaches to and understandings of these crimes.

"We have really struggled from the outset--we at Physicians for Human Rights, and other organizations on the ground--to push for meaningful investigations and prosecutions for these cases," Naimer said of the Kavumu abductions. She said the government in Kinshasa did little until international media reported the story, which hadn't been reported by local news outlets. She said many grassroots groups and local community members were trying to get attention to the problem from local officials and political leaders in Kinshasa with limited success, until journalist Lauren Wolfe, a columnist at Foreign Policy who is director of the Women Under Siege project and a former senior editor at the Committee to Protect Journalists, reported on the case. "By printing the story and the challenges to pursuing these cases in any meaningful way, and publishing it in Foreign Policy, it had a huge impact, and then of course the BBC picked it up and others have followed, and that really put a lot of pressure on the government, both in the capital and in the east, to respond," Naimer said. Both victims and officials were encouraged to come forward and ask questions about what was being done, she said.

Still, Naimer said local media can have a profound and often more immediate impact for survivors of sexual violence, given their proximity and ability to relate to the stories being told.

"One of the huge challenges is the stigma associated with sexualized violence, and journalists and the media have a huge role to play to roll back that stigma, to put the stigma on the perpetrators and to empower survivors, and give their experience more acknowledgement and respect," Naimer said. "Not only is there a role that journalists have to expose the problem, but they can also reshape the discourse."

Local journalists who do so face their own risks, Wolfe said. "The few journalists who've dared to report on sexualized violence in Congo in many cases have received threats," Wolfe said. "It's not a place where it's easy to talk about such things. Victims have a hard time speaking about it and even journalists are given the message that it's not something you should be reporting on."

Local journalists face censorship, self-censorship, and imprisonment in many countries, with Eritrea, Somalia, and Ethiopia among the worst offenders, according to CPJ research. In 2011, a group of journalists were criminally charged in Sudan for reporting on the rape and torture of a young activist, and in 2013, a journalist was arrested in Somalia after interviewing an alleged rape victim. In 2015, a Nigerian journalist was threatened after he reported on the alleged rape of boys at a school in the northern city of Kano. In such countries, the international media can be crucial.

Veteran journalist Mae Azango received the message to which Wolfe alluded when she set out to report on sensitive gender-related topics in her West African country, Liberia. Azango, a recipient of a CPJ International Press Freedom Award in 2012, received threats and was eventually forced into hiding with her nine-year-old daughter for her reporting on the widespread practice of female genital mutilation in the country.

Discussing her ordeal in 2012, Azango described the unique challenges of being a female journalist attempting to tackle a taboo story. Yet she continued reporting on a topic that had concerned her for years--the struggles of Liberian women and girls. The power of Azango's voice--as a woman, as a mother, and as a local reporting on her own country--became clear when Liberian officials took an unprecedented step of ordering the suspension of female genital mutilation throughout the country.

"I am a passionate person and I can transform my passion into something that will help others," Azango said.

"Unfortunately, local journalists have to be the martyrs and the heroes in this," Donovan said. International journalists are often better positioned to bring about responses from multilateral bodies because, she said, "The U.N. is not afraid of local press. They are afraid that international media will pick up a local story." In Donovan's view, "Good journalists don't simply unearth scandals or expose hypocrisy. Sad to say, the media have become the conscience of the U.N., the missing half of the checks-and-balances equation."

A U.N. spokeswoman acknowledged that journalists are important to ensuring transparency and accountability when it comes to unearthing abuses, but disagreed that the organization does not adequately respond except when cases are highly publicized.

"The media has a critical role to play in reporting sexual exploitation and abuse," said Ismini Palla, the acting deputy chief of public affairs for the U.N. Departments of Peacekeeping Operations and Field Support. "Media reporting in a responsible and fair manner has always been supported by U.N. Peacekeeping, and it is in line with the core principles of the organization." Palla noted that the U.N. provides regular and comprehensive updates to the media regarding cases of sexualized abuse, and said it is not true that the organization only investigates when the media is involved. "Sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. personnel is unacceptable," she said. "Every case is investigated and we are committed to zero complacency and zero impunity."

According to Palla, "U.N. Peacekeeping has been transparent about the issue through regular public reports, special press briefings as well as online data available on the Department of Field Support's Conduct and Discipline website which are being updated on a monthly basis. The Secretary-General publishes an annual report on special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse as well as supplementary data with the status updates of every allegation."

Palla said the U.N. is also reviewing proposals, including for response teams, complaint systems, punitive measures, and the establishment of a trust fund for victims' assistance. "Consultations are also ongoing with the General Assembly to begin providing country specific information on credible allegations that are being investigated," she said.

Yet even when such stories are reported, censorship is sometimes used to silence the voices of survivors of sexualized violence. In September 2015, the government of the DRC initially banned the screening or circulation of a documentary film, "The Man Who Mends Women: The Wrath of Hippocrates," which tells the story of Bukavu's Panzi Hospital and gynecologist Denis Mukwege, who treats rape victims in the war-torn eastern region of the country. The film was banned on the grounds that it reflected poorly on the country's military and that testimony was mistaken or false, according to a press statement from the minister of information, Lambert Mende. Naimer said that when a documentary is dismissed by a government because it reveals an uncomfortable truth, "It sends a very chilling message to the people." Censorship, though not always effective "can be very re-traumatizing," she said.

"Many women in the Congo wanted to tell their stories--they wanted to be heard," Naimer said.

On Oct. 19, 2015, after more than a month of international coverage by outlets including the Guardian, Al Jazeera, Reuters and Foreign Policy, the government of the DRC allowed the film to be broadcast on national television.

In Wolfe's view, the international media has a special responsibility to see that the stories of victims of sexual violence are heard. Local media may not always be able to tell those stories, she said, adding, "But if you show up and there are people who want their stories heard, and you can tell them, I think you have a responsibility to."

Kerry Paterson is the research associate for CPJ's Africa program. She was an associate editor of the Journal for International Law and International Relations, and has worked with Médecins Sans Frontières, the Women's Media Center's Women Under Siege Project, and Massachusetts General Hospital's Division of Global Health and Human Rights.

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