The Global Initiative recently published an article (When the Peacekeepers are Part of the Problem) that examines the 2018 iteration of the UNODC’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons. Acts of exploitation and abuse that have been reportedly carried out by UN peacekeepers in conflict zones, including areas where human trafficking is an existing humanitarian problem, are not addressed in the UNODC report. This article looks at the Central African Republic, one setting where such transgressions by members of the UN have been allegedly committed.

Human trafficking has emerged as one of this millennium’s major humanitarian crimes. Since the rebranding of some of the worst forms of human exploitation as ‘trafficking’ in the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, and the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (2000), trafficking has earned a reputation as a hidden crime perpetrated by shadowy criminal networks. The stereotypes of women abducted, drugged and forced to work in brothels, or orphaned children made to work for no pay in sweatshops, have steadily captured the world’s attention.

But the international community is only just starting to realize how narrow our original conceptions of trafficking are. The exploitative trafficker–hoodwinked victim narrative and ‘hidden’ crime rhetoric frequently fail to capture the magnitude and reality of human trafficking.

One emerging issue is the level of human trafficking that happens in contexts of humanitarian crisis and conflict settings. High-profile cases, such as the Islamic State’s capture and enslavement of Yazidi women and girls, and the mass kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014, have galvanized the UN into action. The UN Security Council has issued two Resolutions, 2331 (2016) and 2388 (2017), tasking the international community to work together to address trafficking in conflict, especially, as it relates to activities of terrorist groups.

Yet, although human trafficking in conflict has now become a priority, the resolutions have not translated into sufficient action. Nowhere is it more evident of how short we are falling than in the Central African Republic (CAR), ranked third on a list of the world’s most neglected human-displacement crises.

The CAR is a nation steeped in violence. After four years of conflict, human trafficking has become a mainstay of the war economy. Women are forced into early and servile marriages; children are forcibly recruited into armed groups; and thousands of people are forced to work in hazardous conditions in the country’s diamond mines. Here, there is nothing hidden about human trafficking, and it defies all stereotypes: it is an omnipresent force affecting large segments of the population, and it is on public display. When human trafficking ceases to be carried out in the shadows, and instead is allowed to become a commonplace activity, we must ask ourselves how genuinely dedicated the international community is to defeating it.

The factors driving the crisis in the CAR increase vulnerability to trafficking: a corrupt, non-functioning government, deepening sectarian divides that border on ethnic cleansing and foreign intervention for control of the country’s valuable mineral resources. The two opposing factions that have formed from CAR’s divided ethnic groups – the majority Christian Anti-Balaka, and the Muslim Séléka – are responsible for gross atrocities, including torture, gang rape and mass mutilations. Trafficking is used as a tactic to terrorize and intimidate the population, and as a means to financially and socially support the war economy.

With the conflict creating crippling poverty, women and girls are highly vulnerable to trafficking, and readily exploited by the vying militia groups. In a country where early and forced marriages were already rife – 29% of girls are married by the age of 15 and a staggering 68% by the time they are 18 – militia groups have seized upon the opportunity to abduct and forcibly marry girls to fighters. By law, in the CAR a girl can legally marry at any age if she is pregnant – a loophole that has ‘legitimized’ civilians’ and militias’ mistreatment of girls. Here, in the absence of international outrage, trafficking is normalized: it is there for all to see and it is largely ignored. This strongly contrasts with the case of Boko Haram and the Chibok schoolgirls: what was met with an international outcry in Nigeria largely goes unnoticed in the CAR.

Boys face a different, but equally exploitative form of human trafficking as child soldiers. Recruited from remote and pillaged villages or refugee camps, boys are valuable commodities sought by militias. Often coerced with the promise of money, or abducted and proselytized, boys from as young as eight are trained to kill. Often armed only with knives, they are either sent to the front line or used as shields, indicative of how cheap young lives have become.  

The deployment of forced labour in CAR’s diamond mines finances the war effort on both sides. The miners, mostly men and boys, are exploited either by being forced to work for the militias, robbed by them or by being compelled to pay protection taxes. A significant portion of the mining zones are under militia control; the Anti-Balaka occupy the Boden-Guen-Carnot axis in the west, while the Séléka occupy the east. The labourers experience hazardous and gruelling work conditions, little to no pay and high risk of injury or death. International commitments to clean up diamond supply chains, through initiatives such as the Kimberley Process, allowing trade only from compliant zones, have had the effect of redirecting sales into smuggling and the black market. This type of human trafficking is more discreet and masked as cheap labour, largely ignored and almost never reprimanded.

The local and international response to trafficking in persons in the country is negligible: there have been no reported cases of trafficking in CAR, and trafficking in persons is not explicitly mentioned in UN mandates, or in the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in CAR (MINUSCA), which is tasked with protecting civilians there.

But perhaps the most concerning aspect is the fact that the international community is delegating the protection of CAR civilians to an entity some of whose members have been accused of committing crimes against the very people they are mandated to protect. As our earlier report emphasizes, there is evidence of criminal misconduct having been committed by UN personnel in conflict zones, with over 100 cases of abuse reported against UN members since 2014. One case, reported by MINUSCA, involved the alleged rape and subsequent pregnancy of a 14-year-old child in the CAR by a former member of MINUSCA’s military battalion.

UN peacekeepers have a duty to protect vulnerable communities in their transition to peace, and there are arguably none more vulnerable than the CAR. The UN professes a zero-tolerance policy on abuse and sexual exploitation, yet the victims of abuse by its personnel may be more numerous than reported. The CAR serves as a clear example that, while many pledges to stop human trafficking have been made, the situation on the ground remains dire and efforts to combat it insufficient.

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Lea Gianasso

Lea Gianasso is an undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh. She worked as a research intern at the Global Initiative, focusing on trafficking in persons in the Central African Republic.

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