SA soldiers in DR Congo suspended for sexual abuse

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The ugly spectre of sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by soldiers deployed on peacekeeping duties has again raised its head in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), with South African soldiers seemingly involved.

A statement issued by the United Nations (UN) mission in the central African country – MONUSCO – has it “immediate and robust action” was taken in the wake of “reports of serious misconduct by UN peacekeepers”. Initial measures include suspension from duty, detention and confinement to quarters. “A full fledged investigation” will be conducted.

The MONUSCO statement condemned the behaviour as “not being worthy of UN personnel”.

Speaking during a weekly UN briefing in New York on Wednesday, spokesman Stéphane Dujarric noted that while MONUSCO did not give details, “international media reported eight South African ‘blue helmets’ had been detained over allegations of sexual abuse”. One media outlet, the SABC (South African Broadcasting Corporation), said it “independently confirmed the eight are SA National Defence Force (SANDF) members serving as blue helmets in the east of the country (DRC)”.

The current make-up of the SANDF contingent doing duty in DRC is 10 SA Infantry (SAI) Battalion with the MONUSCO Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), an SA Army tactical intelligence unit, a SA Military Health Service (SAMHS) air medical evacuation team, an infantry quick reaction force (QRF) attached to the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB) and an SA Air Force (SAAF) composite helicopter unit (CHU).

In his briefing, Dujarric said MONUSCO “received reports that they (the now suspended soldiers) were fraternising after curfew hours, at an out-of-bounds bar known to be a place where transactional sex occurs”. Mission military police accompanied by conduct and discipline personnel “visited the premises to assess the reports”.

“After confirming their presence and attempting to detain the contingent members for breaching the UN’s standards of conduct and the Mission’s non-fraternisation policy, UN Mission personnel were physically assaulted and threatened by the contingent members,” Dujarric told journalists.

“There is also evidence indicating a serious failure in the exercise of command and control by senior military officials belonging to that same contingent.”

According to internal MONUSCO documents seen by Agence France Presse, the eight peacekeepers deployed in Beni were arrested on 1 October and an officer suspended a week later in connection with the alleged sexual exploitation and violence.

“Bars and brothels named Soweto, Bloemfontein and Cape Town,”have sprung up near the MONUSCO base at Mavivi, near Beni, according to one of the documents.

Reacting, Democratic Alliance (DA) shadow defence and military veterans minister Kobus Marais said the incident, if it did involve South African military personnel, was “a serious failure” on Minister Thandi Modise’s watch.

“She, the soldiers and their superiors are embarrassing South Africa. It’s another example where the political will is absent to ensure the SANDF is a disciplined force, 100% focussed on the execution of their tasks in DRC.”

He called for the suspended soldiers to be sent back to South Africa “immediately” and appear before a military court. “If there is no immediate and strong action, South Africa cannot expect to be taken seriously and treated with respect by the UN and its member states.”

African Defence Review Director Darren Olivier said at this point it’s time for senior officers and the minister of defence to be held directly responsible. South Africa has been warned, repeatedly, by the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations to get this under control or face consequences. “Clearly those warnings were not taken seriously.”

“A serving SANDF member told me the other day: ‘This defence force’s Achilles heel is consequence management.’ I think that sums it up well, and reflects the frustration of most of the force who feel they’re being tarnished by the ineffective action taken against stuff like this,” Olivier continued. “At the same time we need a full rethink of the conditions that South African soldiers serve under, especially abroad. Too often they’re an afterthought of senior leadership.”

MONUSCO said the reports about the peacekeepers’ behaviour followed a series of measures that had been proactively implemented across the Mission area to ensure compliance with UN values and standards of conduct.

The relevant authorities are being informed of the allegations, including a request to deploy a National Investigation Officer to investigate jointly with the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services.

“Even though MONUSCO claims to have apprehended and sanctioned them (those linked to the alleged misconduct), Congo will also open an investigation,” said Chantal Yelu Mulop, the Congolese presidency’s special adviser on the fight against violence against women.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres has repeatedly underlined that the UN has zero tolerance for sexual exploitation, stressing that preventing and eliminating it is a top priority.

In 2016, the UN appointed a Special Coordinator tasked with improving the response to sexual exploitation and abuse, followed by the appointment of a Victims Rights Advocate one year later.

With allegations of sexual offences involving South African military peacekeepers surfacing in 2015, a Ministerial Task Team (MTT) was established in 2019 to investigate cases of sexual exploitation and abuse within the Department of Defence.

The SANDF has been heavily criticised by the United Nations for allegations of rape during SANDF deployments in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The MTT report addressed this issue along with the issue that SANDF soldier’s offspring and their mothers may be being abandoned.

Nine cases of sexual abuse and exploitation were reported against South African peacekeepers in 2017 and four in 2018. This compares to seven SEA cases involving South Africans reported in 2015 and five in 2016. At least one South African peacekeeper was accused by the UN of SEA in 2019.

South African soldiers deployed continentally have been implicated in SEA incidents, ranging from rape to taking advantage of women or forming relationships, which are seen as abuse of powers.

The DRC’s President Felix Tshisekedi has since May been calling on Southern African Development Community countries, including South Africa, to deploy to support the Congolese army to counter M23 rebels in North Kivu province, which also calling for the accelerated departure of some 17 000 UN forces from December, with the government saying the United Nations has failed to bring peace to the DRC since being deployed over 20 years ago.

There was, at the time of publication, no official response from either the SANDF Directorate Corporate Communication (DCC) or the South African Department of Defence (DoD).