Sex abuse by peacekeepers still a problem, says report

A Save the Children report says that efforts to prevent the abuse of children in Haiti, Ivory Coast, and South Sudan are falling short.

Half a year before 12-year-old Elizabeth was raped by 10 United Nations peacekeepers, a gathering of the world's humanitarian agencies hammered out promises to end sexual abuse of children by aid staff.

Much more would be done, promised delegates at the Dec. 2006 conference in New York. Investigations would be faster, punishments harsher, codes of conduct strengthened.

But the findings of an investigation released Tuesday by Save The Children suggest that these commitments are still, largely, words on paper.

Of the 341 children in Haiti, South Sudan, and Ivory Coast who spoke to the British agency during its 12 month investigation, more than half reported cases of being coerced into sex, often in return for the very food or protection aid staff or peacekeepers were there to provide.

A third knew of cases of children who had been raped.

Elizabeth (not her real name) knew nothing of the commitments to stop this exploitation as she walked to her mother's fields with her brother early one June morning last year close to Man, 375 miles northwest of Ivory Coast's commercial capital, Abidjan.

The men with the blue helmets who called to her from behind the sandbags of their camp's guard position, however, should have known.

The United Nations, to whom they were contracted as peacekeepers, has said repeatedly that it drills into its staff and representatives a code of conduct which explicitly forbids sexual interaction with people under 18.

"They called my little brother over and gave him biscuits," she told The Monitor last week in a village close to Man, as she nervously fiddled with the material of her yellow cotton skirt, her eyes downcast.

"I refused to go, but one man came to me and held me .... I could not flee. They were big men. Afterwards, I ran to my village. I was crying all night ...."

The girl who used to be, according to her aunt, "active and playful" is now withdrawn and fearful. She has dropped out of school, too afraid to leave the security of her parents' village.

She freezes at the sight of the white four-wheel-drive vehicles used by the UN and aid agencies who operate in this once war-torn corner of her country.

Despite the findings of its report and cases such as Elizabeth's, Save The Children commended the UN and other agencies on efforts already made to end abuse of children.

The UN's own watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, has established field offices in many of the countries where abuse has been reported.

Each mission has a conduct and discipline office, which coordinates a raft of trained staffers in the field who are publicly the first focal point for allegations of abuse.

Peacekeepers and staff preparing for new missions are inducted into the UN's policies and punishments for child abuse.

"A lot has been done, a lot is underway. But the fact is that more needs to be done," says Nick Birnback, public affairs chief at the UN department for peackeeping operations in New York. "We agree that this an important and an underreported problem, and we're doing everything we can on our side to train and monitor our civilian staff."

But according to Heather Kerr, country director of Save The Children in Ivory Coast, the horror of such attacks is followed by a second abuse, that of silence and impunity towards the perpetrators.

The majority of the children interviewed for Tuesday's report, titled "No-one To Turn To," said that they would not report a case of abuse themselves and had never heard of others doing so.

Few here trust local authorities or the aid agencies or peacekeeping missions to sensitively investigate allegations and punish perpetrators.

"It's not just the initial attack, it's the fear of reporting it, the fear of reprisals, the fear of stigma from being identified as someone who has been raped," says Ms. Kerr.

The UN received 371 allegations of sexual exploitation or abuse against children and adults by UN staff in 2006, but figures show that less than half of complaints are resolved within 12 months.

"In recent years, some important commitments have been made by the UN, the wider international community, and by humanitarian and aid agencies to act on this problem," says Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of Save The Children in Britain. "But welcome as these are, in most cases statements of principle and good intent have yet to be converted into really decisive and concerted international action."

Her organization is calling for a global watchdog agency to be set up to monitor international agencies' efforts to tackle abuse.

The watchdog, which should be in place by the end of this year, the report says, would both monitor and evaluate agencies, confirming that they have appropriate child-protection policies and whether they were being implemented.

In Elizabeth's case, her family reported the rape the next day to the UN peacekeeping office. But no investigation was conducted.

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