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Sex charges haunt UN forces

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

By Michael J. JordanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 26, 2004


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

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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:

"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.