Where is the line between humanitarian aid and exploitation? Cases like the Zoe’s Ark scandal, the Silsby scandal, and others provide a troubling picture of war torn or disaster stricken areas creating situations ripe for abuse by NGO’s and other “charitable” groups that severely lack public or governmental accountability. These cases raise the question of transparency in aid work, and suggest that issues in this area have been ongoing in different regions for some time.

To get an idea of how relevant this issue currently is, Russia Today published an article yesterday revealing that more than 100 missing refugee children in Calais may have become victims of sex trafficking. Julian Assange has also questioned the legitimacy of Bono’s “One” foundation, calling it a “special ops match made in heaven.” Elizabeth Lee Beck, a Yale-educated litigator in the DNC Fraud Lawsuit, appeared in a bombshell interview with alternative media website Infowars, where she referenced issues that had come up in her research in regards to the death of Peter Smith, Beranton Whisenant and others. Given these developments, it is especially timely to take a closer look at scandals like Zoe’s Ark and ask why, after over a decade, the issues stemming from such cases have not been fully addressed.

The 2007 Zoe’s Ark scandal was one of the first of a string of NGO related cases of misconduct which resulted in accusations from the President of Chad that the NGO had been intending to sell the children to human trafficking and organ trafficking networks. Despite the members of the charity receiving convictions on charges of child trafficking, and receiving sentences of eight years hard labor, the accused were repatriated to France after the intercession of Nicholas Sarkozy. Sarkozy personally persuaded Idriss Deby to give the offenders Presidential pardons. The group later faced related charges in France.

Charity involvement in child and organ trafficking is a concerning issue; these concerns were repeated in 2010, this time in Haiti with the Laura Silsby child debacle. The accusations mirrored similar comments made by the Prime Minister of Haiti in an interview with CNN where he accused American NGOs of removing children for the express purpose of selling them to pedophilia and organ trafficking rings. Former French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs and founder of Médecins Sans Frontières Bernard Kouchner bridges these cases in some respects, and casts additional light on the concerning lack of transparency that NGO’s enjoy and the corruption that has consistently resulted in these chaotic conditions.

Photo Credit: BBC

Zoe’s Ark, also known as L’Arche de Zoe and Children Rescue, was registered as an NGO with the French government in 2004 in the wake of the Asian Tsunami. The charity’s leader, Eric Breteau, soon turned the group’s attention towards conflict in Darfur. The 2007 incident that resulted became infamous when it was revealed that members of the organization including its founder had intended to sell the children for thousands of Euros to French families.

The BBC reported that the children recovered from Zoe’s Ark were healthy, specifying that the children were not being treated for any serious illnesses or injuries. According to NBC News, Zoe’s Ark workers had presented the children as ill and injured by applying bandages to non-existant wounds. This suggested that Zoe’s Ark had intentionally faked injuries on the bodies of healthy children, possibly to hide their identity and origin.

Furor was heightened when it emerged that most of the children recovered from Zoe’s Ark  originated from areas not involved in the Darfur conflict. The vast majority of those children were between the ages of three and five years old, with several infants. Zoe’s Ark described their motivations as altruistic, despite admitting that they had planned to circumvent African and European adoption laws in order to remove the children. That the charity would take children with living relatives from a location that was not involved in the Darfur conflict, then intentionally create an appearance of injuries in order to further misconstrue the children’s origin, is deeply disturbing and raises concerns regarding the NGO’s intentions.

Outrage surrounding the scandal intensified when it was revealed that the 103 children recovered from the charity represented only a tiny fraction of the total number the charity planned to remove under such controversial circumstances. According to the Berkley Center for Peace, Religion and World Affairs, Zoe’s Ark had intended to remove as many as 10,000 children from the area during the single operation in Chad. The wealth that Zoe’s Ark would have gained from removing ten thousand such children is truly mind boggling to contemplate. French citizens were reported to have been prepared to pay thousands of Euros (up to $11,000) per child. 

Six Zoe’s Ark workers were charged with acting illegally as an adoption intermediary, facilitating illegal entry into France, and fraud in regard to hundreds of families who had expected to adopt children. Despite receiving Presidential pardons in Chad, members of the charity were eventually convicted on related charges in France. During these French proceedings, Zoe’s Ark leader Eric Breteau was described by a witness as a “powerful manipulator.”

Zoe’s Ark workers in Chad after their arrest.

In addition to legal charges, serious accusations were leveled at Zoe’s Ark by Chad’s President, Idriss Deby. He stated that some of the children would face a darker fate than being sold to French families in illegal adoptions. The BBC reported Deby’s statement: “Their aim is to kidnap the children from their parents, to steal the children from their parents and sell them to pedophile organizations in Europe, and even perhaps to kill them and sell their organs.”

Deby’s allegations echoed sentiments expressed by Haiti’s Prime Minister, Jean-Max Bellerive in the wake of the Silby scandal. Less than a month after Laura Silsby and her associates were arrested in Haiti on charges of child trafficking, Bellerive told CNN that organ trafficking of children and adults was taking place in the country due to demand for “all types of organs.” His statement specified groups participating in this activity included NGO’s taking children to the United States, a possible allusion to the Silsby case, in the same breath that he described organ and child trafficking.

The intervention of then-French president Nicholas Sarkozy on the behalf of  Zoe’s Ark only served to increase speculation surrounding the event. Die Spiegel reported that Sarkozy flew Spanish flight attendants and three French journalists back from Chad in his official jet on the same day Sarkozy met with Chad’s President. According to Time, those flown back to France by Sarkozy had been under investigation in Chad at the time of their repatriation. Sarkozy’s intervention fueled controversy in Chad; The Guardian reported claims that the Zoe’s Ark charity had enjoyed the backing of Cécilia Sarkozy.

Sarkozy’s intervention in the Zoe’s Ark debacle was echoed by Bill Clinton’s intercession in the Laura Silsby scandal. As extensively reported by William Craddick of Disobedient Media, Silsby was caught in 2010 in the midst of an attempt to remove children – many of whom were revealed to have had living relatives-  from Haiti under the guise of  ‘charitable’ efforts with The New Life Children’s Refuge. Clinton was acting as the U.N.’s special envoy to Haiti at the time and his intervention in the Silsby incident was one of his first official acts after arriving in the country.

The Laura Silsby Scandal in Haiti in 2010 echoed the earlier Zoe’s Ark affair in Chad. Photo Credit: Reuters/ Kena Betancur

Questions raised by the Zoe’s Ark and Silsby scandals regarding human and organ trafficking were fueled by connections in both incidents to Bernard Kouchner. In the Zoe’s Ark incident, French Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Human Rights, Rama Yade, oversaw aspects of the case and served at the time under KouchnerThe Guardian reported that Kouchner also personally contacted Idriss Deby during the Zoe’s Ark debacle to express “solidarity with the children.”

Kouchner also showed great interest in serving in Haiti in a U.N. role. Shortly after the Silsby scandal, a 2011 email exchange between Hillary Clinton, Melanne Verveer and Cheryl Mills published by Wikileaks stated that Kouchner was “considering” a position as UN Special Representative to Haiti. The exchange reads, in part:

The email specified that Kouchner would agree to the position only if he worked with Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton and Paul Farmer. Farmer served under Bill Clinton during his tenure as U.N. special envoy to Haiti.

Kouchner’s interest in serving as special envoy to Haiti in close partnership with the Clintons is also significant due to the Clinton’s deep involvement with humanitarian efforts in Haiti, which have been marred by a number of corruption accusations.

The role Kouchner considered in Haiti would have mirrored previous humanitarian service in Kosovo, where he was head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) during the conflict. During this time Kouchner acted as the personal representative of then Secretary General of the U.N., Kofi Annan. His term in Kosovo coincided with numerous scandals related to human and organ trafficking, which some press reports indicated had tarnished his reputation personally. Kouchner is not only a prominent political figure with close ties to the Clintons and their associates; he has personally co-founded NGO’s and charitable organizations including Doctors Without Borders, again illustrating the blurred boundaries that are associated with humanitarian aid.

After his talk, Bernard Kouchner (right), founder of Doctors Without Borders, confers with Paul Farmer, Maude and Lillian Presley Professor of Social Medicine at the Medical School. (Staff photo by Jon Chase) Via The Harvard Gazette

Kouchner was also known for his testimony offered in defense of  Michael Sounalet, who was eventually convicted on charges of pedophilia. Media reports described Kouchner’s “vigorous” defense testimony provided on Sounalet’s behalf against pedophilia charges in Romania. Despite Kouchner’s testimony, the 67-year-old humanitarian aid worker was eventually convicted on charges of sexual perversions and corruption of minors.

Kouchner’s defense of Sounalet provides another concerning the murky boundaries between aid groups and allegations of  abuse. Sounalet served as a humanitarian worker with Doctors Without Borders, the group which Kouchner had co-founded. French Media outlet Liberation reported that Kouchner had called Sounalet’s work a “model for international bodies.” This raises serious questions as to delineation between NGO’s, those who participate in such groups who are accused of abuses, and the intercession for the accused by prominent political figures who often have close ties to the NGO’s in question.

Sounalet’s history prior to the pedophilia accusations in Romania was also alarming. Le Parisen reported that Sounalet spent 35 years of a life sentence in French prison after being convicted on charges of armed robbery. French press also reported that while incarcerated, Sounalet made contact with a Columbian drug trafficking cartel. Despite this history, Sounalet had participated in “humanitarian efforts” in locations including Rwanda, where he “looked for survivors of the families of two hundred orphans,” organized the placement of those children, and photographed them. Sounalet was reported to have also expressed admiration for Jean-Louis Machuron, who served as the first President of Doctors Without Borders until 1996. Kouchner’s defense of a convicted pedophile who had worked for the NGO he founded raised serious concerns regarding why such a person was allowed to work for an aid group in the first place, much less defended by its co-founder.

Machuron was not only President of the NGO Kouchner co-founded which hired an employee convicted of sex crimes against minors. Machuron had worked with Bernard Kouchner as a consultant at the French Ministry of Health, leading several missions for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, notably in Albania and in Kosovo in the late nineties, where he worked with the French military and international corps. This took place at the time that Kouchner served as the personal representative of U.N. Secretary General Kofi Anan as head of UN efforts Kosovo.

Hashim Thaci, Bernard Kouchner, Agim Ceku, and others

CNN reported in 1999 that a UN human rights official stated that human rights abuses had occurred “in the presence of UNMIK,” which Kouchner headed when he served as head of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) during the conflict. The CNN report was based on statements made by Dick Marty, who called for further investigation into claims that the KLA under Hashim Thaci’s leadership had participated in organ trafficking.

The Guardian wrote in 2010 that: “Kosovo’s prime minister is the head of a “mafia-like” Albanian group responsible for smuggling weapons, drugs and human organs through eastern Europe.” These strongly worded claims were made in a Council of Europe report that relied in part on information from the FBI and other intelligence sources. NBC stated that Kosovo had responded to the publication of the report with threats of legal action.

The Guardian also discussed an internal UN document that described UN forces in Kosovo committing illegal acts and recruiting from the KLA, which as we have seen, was reported to have been a “mafia-like” group with connections to organized crime. They wrote: “The U.N.’s own damning verdict on its newly created civil defense force is fresh evidence of the failure of Special Representative Bernard Kouchner.” Once again, such admonishments of UN forces even by the UN’s evaluation, sends a clear message that current levels of oversight in humanitarian efforts are severely lacking.

The KPC under Kouchner was a UN-backed, UN-funded civil defense corp. It was manned by many high ranking members of Thaci’s KLA. This was exemplified by General Agim Ceku, formerly a senior commander in the KLA who then served as the leader of the KPC. Ceku was personally accused in a internal U.N. document of supervising a “forced prostitution racket” among other abuses.  The Guardian wrote that the KPC had received a “£30 million aid budget for Kosovo” from the UN. Such blurred boundaries were implied again when Serbian media reported that Kouchner reacted angrily to accusations  from police officials claiming that Kouchner “must have had knowledge” of documented organ trafficking.

Even with UN-backing, the KPC was accused of participation in serious human rights abuses. The Guardian reported that the KPC had participated in mafia-like activities including murder, torture, and sex trafficking networks. Once again, the line between humanitarian intermediary and perpetrator of exploitation seems to have become particularly clouded. Disobedient Media previously reported on human trafficking scandals stemming from the conflict in Kosovo; particularly those perpetrated by UN peacekeepers and paramilitary groups hired by the UN such as Dyncorp.

The BBC related that Amnesty International had also published a report which described U.N. peacekeepers fueling demand for sex trafficking, as well as sometimes participating in sex trafficking networks in the Kosovo area. That groups like Amnesty International, UN internal documents, and Dick Marty via the Council of Europe would all raise such serious concerns is alarming. It paints a very clear picture, in light of the later Zoe’s Ark and Silsby scandals, of aid work and exploitation too often going hand-in-hand, with abuses taking place under the unfortunate protection provided by severe lack of accountability and sometimes diplomatic immunity associated with the UN.

In these extensively documented allegations illustrate a serious lack of government oversight which has created an environment where perpetrators of human rights abuses and aid efforts have become almost impossible to distinguish during disaster relief and during serious conflict where conditions are often already chaotic and largely unregulated. The cases raise the important issue of the often blurred boundaries between abusers and aid workers. In the case of Zoe’s Ark, the potential removal of 10,000 healthy children with relatives from areas not affected by the Darfur conflict begs the deeply disturbing question: if this is what was caught, what abuses are occurring that we do not catch?

Writer and Associate Editor at Disobedient Media.