The UN will withdraw Gabon’s 450-strong peacekeeping contingent from the Central African Republic over sexual abuse allegations, Gabon’s defence ministry said on Wednesday, in a scourge that has tarnished the reputations of Blue Helmets around the world for years.
“In recent weeks, exceptionally serious acts that go against military ethics and the honour of the armed forces, committed by certain elements in the Gabonese battalions… have been reported,” the ministry said in a statement sent to AFP.
“Following many cases of alleged sexual exploitation and abuse that are being processed, the United Nations today decided to withdraw the Gabonese contingent from MINUSCA”, the UN mission in the CAR, and “an investigation has been opened by Gabon,” the statement read.
One of the world’s poorest countries, CAR has been chronically unstable since it gained independence from France in 1960.
It is currently suffering from the aftermath of a brutal civil conflict that erupted in 2013 after a coup against then president Francois Bozize.
MINUSCA was deployed by the UN in April 2014 to try to end the conflict pitting the Seleka coalition of armed groups that overthrew Bozize against militias supporting him.
The conflict has dramatically reduced in intensity but MINUSCA has 15,000 personnel in the country, of whom 14,000 are in uniform.
Their main mission is to protect civilians.
822 claims of sex crimes
Allegations of sexual crimes involving peacekeepers have been recurrent, and while some contingents have been withdrawn in the past, no investigations have resulted in convictions to date, at least publicly.
If the “alleged facts… are proven, the perpetrators will be brought before the military courts and judged with extreme rigour”, Gabon’s defence ministry said.
“Gabon has always demanded irreproachable and exemplary behaviour from its army, both on its territory and abroad.”
The UN has struggled for years over allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeepers around the world.
Since 2010, it has posted 822 such allegations on its website.
By nationality, the peacekeepers with the most allegations against them since 2015 have been Cameroon, with 44 cases, South Africa (37), the Democratic Republic of Congo (32), Gabon (31) and the Republic of the Congo (26).
In March 2018, Gabon said it planned to withdraw its contingent because the conflict was abating.
However, three months later, at the behest of CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadera, his Gabonese counterpart Ali Bongo Ondimba said the Gabon contingent would stay on.
Already by late 2016, Libreville announced investigations into 15 of its troops suspected of committing sexual assaults.