UN tackles sex abuse by troops

Changes include a new code of conduct for peacekeepers and monitors within each mission.

Since accusations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in Congo arose a year ago, the United Nations has taken vigorous measures to address a problem that has dogged it for years.

Consider:

• Since Jan. 1, 2004, the UN has investigated 152 cases of alleged sexual violations - dismissing five UN staff and sending home 77 military personnel and national police from their missions, including six commanders.

• The UN Security Council held its first-ever meeting on May 31 to hold countries that contribute troops more accountable, urging them to end impunity and prosecute perpetrators at home. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan will now track the progress in these countries. France, for example, has imprisoned one of its peacekeepers for allegedly filming himself having sex with children in Congo, while countries like Morocco, Nepal, Pakistan, Tunisia, and South Africa have announced disciplinary action against some of their peacekeepers.

• The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations has created special units in each mission to monitor conduct and report incidents, and even printed pocket-sized reminders of the peacekeeper "code of conduct."

Jordanian UN Ambassador Prince Zeid al-Hussein, Mr. Annan's special adviser on sexual exploitation and abuse, in March produced a wide range of recommendations, since endorsed by various UN bodies. The General Assembly may convene a special session this summer to further discuss this issue.

"For a peacekeeper to exploit the vulnerabilities of a wounded population, already the victim of all that is tragic and cruel in war, is really no different than a physician who would violate the patient entrusted to their care or the lifeguard who drowns the very people in need of rescue," Mr. Hussein recently told the UN Security Council.

Among the recommendations: UN managers and military commanders should not only create an environment to deter exploitation, but be held responsible if it occurs. Another is for financial compensation to victims, especially if offspring result.

Additional steps include enabling the local population to come forward with charges, through hotlines or by approaching the special units directly.

To be sure, hurdles remain. Those include obstruction by closed military cultures that tend to circle the wagons when accused of wrong-doing, the clash between different political and religious cultures, and sensitivity about state sovereignty. While the UN has growing needs for their peacekeepers, the countries themselves are ultimately responsible for them.

"The UN system has to play a delicate balancing act - being outspoken and direct in its condemnation of the outrageous behavior of some of its peacekeepers, while carefully maneuvering around some of its member states' intense sensitivities to issues regarding their own national affairs," says Sarah Shteir, of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom's PeaceWomen Project, which monitors the issue.

Congo the final straw

The problem is, indeed, pervasive. Over the years, accusations have arisen in Cambodia, Mozambique, Somalia, Bosnia, Sierra Leone, East Timor, and Kosovo. Alleged offenses include sex-trafficking, prostitution rings, rapes, pedophilia, even abandoning "peacekeeper babies."

But the final straw was Congo, where, among other abuses, Moroccan and Uruguayan peacekeepers were accused of luring teenage girls into sex in exchange for bananas, cakes, and other food.

Meanwhile, the UN confirmed last month it was investigating credible charges of violations within its Liberian mission, and pursuing other investigations in Haiti and Ivory Coast.

While an overwhelming majority of peacekeepers conduct their duties without incident, the UN says, wherever the UN has planted its flag in recent years, violations of women seem to follow. One reason, say observers, is that UN troops are typically sent to conflict zones thousands of miles from home. They're generally well-paid, but surrounded by poverty. In a stressful environment, the outlet for some is alcohol, drugs, and sex.

Lawlessness in the countries where peacekeepers are operating may convince them "they, too, can get away with things they can't get away with back in their country," says former UN official Edward Luck, of Columbia University.

Another factor may be the fact their home countries neither prosecute gender-based violence nor respect the rights of women.

The UN cannot conduct background checks on military personnel a country sends. Nor does it track if they've previously been accused of crimes. In January, for example, the African nation of Chad was pressured to recall a UN policeman from the UN mission in Ivory Coast whom watchdogs had accused of being a notorious torturer for a former Chadian regime. UN troops often also enjoy immunity agreements with local authorities.

But with peacekeeping missions proliferating - there are some 67,000 UN peacekeepers currently deployed, up nearly 50 percent from a year ago - embarrassing allegations have mounted, say activists, spurring stronger action.

Protecting whistle-blowers

In October 2003, Annan implemented a "zero-tolerance" policy that banned UN staff from a range of activities, like paying for sex; sex with children younger than 18, regardless of local law; and sex with UN aid recipients.

"Based on inherently unequal power dynamics," Annan wrote, these relations "undermine the credibility and integrity" of UN efforts.

The key to solving the problem may be the UN's grass roots. That's why "whistle-blowers" must be protected, says Lisa Kurbiel, a peacekeeping official and member of the new UN taskforce on sexual exploitation and abuse.

"This doesn't happen in plain view, but at 2 in the morning, or in somebody's apartment," says Ms. Kurbiel. "We need staff to feel confident to report it, that the report will be taken seriously, and responded to with skilled expertise - with no repercussions. Or else there's a risk of abuses going unreported. We have to break that silence."

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