Sex charges haunt UN forces

In places like Congo and Kosovo, peacekeepers have been accused of abusing the people they're protecting.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

It's nighttime in this trendy neighborhood, and the three-story villa sits serenely behind an iron gate and tall bushes.

Half a block away, almost undetected, a man in a parked car keeps watch. As this reporter approaches, the man radios ahead.

Quickly emerging from the doorway is the middle-aged boss, dressed in a Miami Vice get-up, with stringy, combed-over hair and capped teeth. He and a young lieutenant hustle up to the gate, confronting the reporter:

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"Do you have visitor card or passport? UN and KFOR aren't allowed here. Are you UN or KFOR?"

The Masazh (Massage) Night Dancing Bar is said to be one of the 200 clubs in Kosovo notorious for prostitution and illegally trafficked foreign women. It was also alleged to be among the favorite spots for United Nations staff and Kosovo Protection Force (KFOR) peacekeepers looking for cheap thrills in recent years.

It's their presence, human rights activists say, that underscores a troubling pattern: While humanitarian interventions bring money, goodwill, and thousands of relief workers, they also tend to fuel the practice of sex abuse, as in other foreign military operations from Congo to Cambodia. It's a disturbing reminder, they say, of the darker side of peacekeeping and nation-building.

"The issues with the UN is that peacekeeping operations unfortunately seem to be doing the same thing that other militaries do," says Gita Sahgal, head of Amnesty International's gender unit. "Even the guardians have to be guarded."

In Kosovo, some of these women "are threatened, beaten, raped, and effectively imprisoned by their owners," Amnesty International reported in May. "With clients including international police and troops, the girls and women are often too afraid to escape, and the authorities are failing to help them. It is outrageous that the very same people who are there to protect these women and girls are using their position and exploiting them instead - and they are getting away with it."

But the problem goes beyond Kosovo and sex trafficking. Wherever the UN has established operations in recent years, various violations of women seem to follow:

• A prostitution ring in Bosnia involved peacekeepers, while Canadian troops there were accused of beatings, rape, and sexually abusing a handicapped girl.

• Local UN staff in West Africa reportedly withheld aid, such as bags of flour, from refugees in exchange for sexual favors.

• Jordanian peacekeepers in East Timor were accused of rape.

• Italian troops in Somalia and Bulgarian troops in Cambodia were accused of sexual abuses.

• In May, Moroccan and Uruguayan peacekeepers in Congo were accused of luring teenage girls into their camp with offers of food for sex. The girls then fed the banana and cake remuneration to their infants, whom media reported had been born as a result of multiple rapes by militiamen.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has defended the vast majority of UN personnel as decent and well-meaning. Indeed, those accused represent just a fraction of the 62,000-plus military personnel and civilian police currently serving in 16 UN peacekeeping missions around the globe.

But last October, he implemented a "zero tolerance" policy on the subject. And he's issued new rules that ban staff from a range of activities, like paying for sex; having sex with children younger than 18, regardless of local law; and having sex with UN aid recipients.

Those rules, however, apply to UN employees only, not to peacekeepers, who are under the jurisdiction of their own national government and military commanders.

In the face of another potential public-relations disaster stemming from fresh allegations of rape, pedophilia, and solicitation in Congo, UN officials have come out early and loud with a denunciation of the problems there. They have announced a spate of new investigations and reportedly made the complaint process easier in countries.

So-called "personnel conduct officers" have been sent to the missions in Congo, Burundi, Ivory Coast, and Haiti.

Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, warned that the UN may "generate new policies" to crack down on sex abuse. But right now, with its ability to punish so limited, the UN must focus on prevention. "It's obvious the measures that we have had in place have not been adequate to deal with the changing circumstances," Lute said.

Kosovo is a prime example. What was once a local prostitution trade grew wildly in 1999, following the NATO airstrikes that forced Serbian security forces from their predominantly Albanian province. With the arrival of some 50,000 "internationals" - foreign peacekeepers, UN administration, and nongovernmental activists - came countless women and girls trafficked from places like Moldova, Romania, Ukraine, and Bulgaria.

According to the UN's own report on trafficking this May, the vast majority of the foreign women in Kosovo - 12 percent of whom are reportedly just 14 to 17 years old - are lured by false promises of jobs, sold multiple times, and are typically controlled by "debt bondage," use of violence and fear, and even reprisals against family members back home.

Inside the Masazh Night dance club, the interior is a sea of red - blood-red carpets with red felt covering the walls. Of the six tables, only a few are occupied. To the side, a brass pole on a small stage reaches the ceiling, though no one dances just now. Huddled near the bar are a dozen scantily clad women. The boss hands out a drinks menu, with a "massage" upstairs listed at 100 euros ($120). He then reviews the daily special: "What do you like - black hair, blond hair?"

A young blonde from Ukraine named Elena approaches, uninvited. Elena says this is her third locale, after Syria and Cyprus. "There, if I didn't want to go with someone, no one forced me to," she says. "Here, they have a different system."

Amnesty International alleges that internationals continue to make up 20 percent of the clientele in Kosovo, a figure the UN disputes. Nevertheless, the UN in Kosovo and elsewhere have stepped up efforts to deal with the embarrassing frequency of scandal within its ranks.

Since 2002, raids by the UN's Trafficking and Prostitution Investigation Unit in Kosovo have netted 52 KFOR soldiers, three international police, and eight international civilians in the forbidden premises, says UN police spokesman Neeraj Singh.

For its part, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) today employs "gender advisers," plus staff members and training material dedicated to the issues of sexual violence that peacekeepers confront.

Many factors contribute to this phenomenon, say observers. Foreign troops and relief workers are typically transported thousands of miles from home into a zone of conflict.

These areas are generally poor, while UN staff and peacekeepers are laden with sought-after hard currency. In a pressure-packed environment, the stress relievers of choice are often alcohol, drugs, and opportunistic sex.

This darker side of nation-building is explored at length in a new book, "Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth." The book has scandalized the UN - Miramax reportedly may turn it into a TV show or movie.

"We draw a distinction between wild behavior that's consensual, and where officials have a duty of care they are abusing," says Amnesty's Sahgal.

Toothless enforcement?

Sexual violations, says Sahgal, arise from a pervasive air of impunity. Violence against women is generally not prosecuted in the peacekeepers' homeland, let alone in a chaotic war or post-conflict zone.

The UN also has no right to conduct background checks on the personnel a country contributes to a mission. And most significantly, foreign troops often enjoy immunity agreements.

Victim advocates complain it's rare for a commander to take accusations against underlings seriously, and even rarer to act against alleged perpetrators.

"If a few men were prosecuted ... I think they'd be much more on guard," says Sahgal. "Yet I don't see much evidence of that happening."

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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