African Union forces accused of sexual abuse. Will anyone be held accountable?

Human Rights Watch issued a report today documenting cases of rape and sexual exploitation by African Union soldiers in Somalia. The AU says it is investigating the charges and called the report inaccurate.

Tobin Jones/AP/AMISOM
In this photo taken Aug. 31, 2014 and provided by the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), civilians who had left the town of Bulomarer when it was held by al-Shabab militants, return following the town's capture by African Union (AU) and Somali government soldiers. A new report by Human Rights Watch documents 10 cases of rape and sexual assault and 14 cases of sexual exploitation in 2013 and 2014 by AMISOM.

African Union peacekeepers in Somalia are accused of raping and sexually abusing women who come to their bases seeking medical attention or food aid, Human Rights Watch said in a report published Monday.

The 71-page report documents 10 cases of rape and sexual assault and 14 cases of sexual exploitation in 2013 and 2014 by the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). The peacekeeping troops are made up of soldiers from six African countries and are funded in part by the United Nations, United States, and the European Union.

The New York-based nongovernmental organization documented cases targeting girls as young as 12 years old, and notes that local middlemen used a variety of tactics to pressure women into sexual activity on AMISOM bases, including promising medical attention, water, food, or other humanitarian aid.

In late 2013, 15-year-old Qamar R. went to the Burundian X-Control base to get medicine for her sick mother. An interpreter told her to follow two Burundian soldiers who would give her the medicine. She followed them to a remote area similar in structure to a military bunker behind a thick fence, and one of the soldiers proceeded to rape her, while the second one walked around. She told Human Rights Watch: “First he ripped off my hijab and then he attacked me.” As she was leaving, the second Burundian soldier waved her to come over to him and gave her US $10.

Other women who were raped also said that the soldiers gave them food or money after the attack in an apparent attempt to frame the assault as transactional sex and to discourage the women from complaining to authorities.

The African Union said it takes the allegations seriously and is investigating the charges. But it also rejected the report's conclusions as inaccurate and imbalanced. A statement published on its website says that 21 women were interviewed for the report, yet the conclusions were generalized nationwide. Furthermore, the organization counters that it has well-established protocols in place to "prevent, mitigate and discipline personnel that may have committed sexual exploitation and abuse in AMISOM."

The report, entitled, “The Power These Men Have Over Us,” highlights the role of violence against women in conflict zones, which the United Nations estimates affects “millions of people, primarily women and girls” worldwide.

AMISOM, made up of roughly 22,000 soldiers, has been working in Somalia since 2007, when it was deployed to fight Islamist militant group Al Shabab. Tens of thousands of Somalis have been displaced, both by years of conflict and famine. As of 2013, there was an estimated 1.1 people displaced inside of Somali, largely living in camps like those run by the AU.

“Some African Union soldiers have misused their positions of power to exploit Somalia’s most vulnerable women and girls,” said Liesl Gerntholtz, women’s rights director at Human Rights Watch (HRW). “Somalia has many intractable problems, but the Somali and AU leadership could end sexual exploitation and abuse by pressing troop-sending countries to hold abusers responsible.”

Sexual exploitation by soldiers in conflict is common, according to the UN’s campaign to end violence against women. UN peacekeeping troops came under fire in recent years for a number of sexual abuse cases, including the gang rape of a young Haitian boy by UN peacekeepers from Uruguay, which was recorded on camera.

A 2010 diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks revealed UN peacekeepers in Côte d’Ivoire were taking part in behavior similar to that alleged of the AU troops in Somalia: coercing girls to have sex in exchange for food aid and small sums of money. There have been reports of similar behavior in the Congo, Liberia, and Kosovo, as well, according to a 2006 BBC report.

“We've had a problem probably since the inception of peacekeeping — problems of this kind of exploitation of vulnerable populations," former-Assistant Secretary General for peacekeeping operations, Jane Holl Lute, told the BBC. "My operating presumption is that this is either a problem or a potential problem in every single one of our missions."

HRW is calling on troop-sending nations to hold their soldiers accountable. 

Countries providing troops to AMISOM are primarily responsible for the conduct of their forces in Somalia and have exclusive jurisdiction over their personnel for any criminal offenses.  These countries have, to varying degrees, established procedures to deal with misconduct including deploying legal advisors and military investigators and, in Uganda’s case, temporarily sending a court martial to Somalia to try cases.
Yet troop-contributing countries have not provided the necessary resources to investigate allegations or made the investigation and prosecution of sexual exploitation and abuse a priority, Human Rights Watch said. Only one rape case, in which the victim was a child, is before Uganda’s military court in Kampala.

Researchers for HRW say cases of sexual abuse at the hands of AMISOM peacekeepers are underreported due to the shame and stigma many victims feel after the assaults. There is also a fear of reprisals not only from soldiers, but family members, or even members of the Al Shabab militant group. Though all of the cases documented in this report occurred in Mogadishu, HRW said it’s likely similar cases have taken place at camps across the country.

“The AU military and political leadership needs to do more to prevent, identify, and punish sexual abuse by their troops,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “As another food crisis looms in Mogadishu’s displacement camps, women and girls are once again desperate for food and medicine. They should not have to sell their bodies for their families to survive.”

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