UNITED NATIONS — The U.N. chief on Wednesday ordered an external investigation into how it handled allegations of child sexual abuse by French soldiers in Central African Republic, saying the world body hopes to ensure it "does not fail the victims of sexual abuse, especially when committed by those who are meant to protect them."
A year after the U.N. first heard accounts by children as young as 9 of French soldiers giving them food or water in exchange for sodomy or oral sex, no arrests have been made. Confidential statements by the U.N.'s top human rights officials show they were distracted by budget cuts and other issues and didn't follow up on the allegations with the French for more than half a year.
"There are systems that failed here," the spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, told reporters Wednesday.
A U.N. statement said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is "deeply disturbed" by the allegations and by reports of how various parts of the vast U.N. system responded.
The head of the independent review will be announced in the coming days. It will address both the specific allegations and wider issues related to how the U.N. responds to such sensitive claims. Dujarric said a summary of the findings will be made public.
French authorities last month opened a formal judicial inquiry into the allegations.
U.N. investigators heard stories of sexual abuse from several boys in May and June 2014 in Central African Republic, where French soldiers were protecting a sprawling displaced persons camp in the conflict-torn capital, Bangui.
It's not clear where the accused soldiers, who were supporting a U.N. peacekeeping force, are now. The U.N. seems unable to say when the abuses stopped, or how long it continued to investigate.
On Saturday, the high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, said his office was sending a team to Central African Republic to look into what a statement called "possible further measures to address human rights violations," including sexual violence.
The case has exposed a glaring weakness in a world body that considers human rights one of its three main pillars: It has no specific guidelines on how to handle allegations of child sexual abuse, and no requirement for immediate, mandatory reporting.
U.N. staffers heard children's allegations of abuse in May and June 2014. A Geneva-based human rights staffer shared the report with French authorities in July. That staffer is now the subject of an internal U.N. investigation into why he handed over the report without redacting the names, which has been called a breach of protocol.
The children's allegations didn't make their way to top officials at U.N. headquarters in New York until this spring.
AIDS-Free World, the non-governmental organization behind the release of confidential U.N documents on the case, welcomed the probe in a statement Wednesday but said "it must be understood that top members of the secretary-general's own staff will have to be subject to investigation."