Gabon’s defence ministry has said the United Nations will withdraw the country’s 450-strong peacekeeping contingent from the Central African Republic (CAR) over sexual abuse allegations.
“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 the AFP news agency on Wednesday.
“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.
In a statement, MINUSCA said it remained firmly committed to fighting sexual exploitation and abuse by its personnel and to fully implementing the United Nations’ zero tolerance policy with respect to sexual exploitation and abuse.
Al Jazeera’s Nicolas Haque, who has extensively covered the allegations of sexual abuse against the Blue Helmets that has tarnished their reputation globally, said the lawyer representing the victims described the news as “a small victory – but it’s not enough”.
“What she wants to see is prosecution of those involved in cases of sexual abuse happening in the CAR itself,” he added.
“As for the UN conventions, the soldiers involved in the allegations of sexual abuse are not prosecuted in the country where the crimes are committed but rather in their home country. That’s why we saw Gabonese prosecutors in [the CAR’s capital] Bangui for the last two years, investigating soldiers of that nation under the supervision of the UN.”
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 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.
Allegations of sexual crimes involving peacekeepers have been recurrent, and while some contingents have been withdrawn in the past, no investigations have resulted in convictions to date, at least publicly.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,” it added.
In early 2017, judges in France decided not to bring charges against French soldiers accused of having sexually abused minors while on a peacekeeping mission in the CAR. Following an investigation, the prosecutor dropped the case saying there was not enough evidence to charge the soldiers allegedly involved.
The UN has struggled for years with 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 the 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 the CAR’s President Faustin-Archange Touadera, his Gabonese counterpart Ali Bongo Ondimba said the contingent would stay on.