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UN: Fears peacekeepers' sex abuse widespread

Publish Date: 25 Feb 2005

Source: Reuters
By Saul Hudson

U.N. Fears Peacekeepers Commit Sex Abuse Worldwide

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.N. officials fear the sex-abuse scandal among peacekeepers in Africa is far more widespread and appears to be a problem in each of the global body's 16 missions around the world.

As the world body seeks to crack down on the abuse, it could bar countries from participating in missions if they fail to prosecute offenders, even though the U.N. is hard-pressed to find contributing nations, the officials said on Friday.

Rocked by widespread abuse of women and girls, including gang rape, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations also has found sexual exploitation cases in at least four other missions -- in Burundi, Liberia, Ivory Coast -- as well as more recently in Haiti, they added.

"We think this will look worse before it begins to look better," Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary general for peacekeeping operations, told reporters. "We expect that more information will come from every mission on allegations. We are prepared for that."

The undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno, said that up to now the U.N. had avoided identifying countries that were slow to court-martial their troops but that he had demanded action within weeks in some cases.

"They are aware of a very direct threat which is that if they don't get their act together, we are going to tell them to get out of their mission," Guehenno said, referring to all of the peacekeeping missions and not just the Congo.

There are nearly 11,000 military personnel in the Congo to help keep the peace after a civil war. The force is the largest among the more than 60,000 soldiers in U.N. peacekeeping operations around the world.

The United States, whose support is essential for peacekeeping missions, said it shared the U.N.'s fears and wanted the world body to make preventing further abuses a priority.

"We do share concerns that sexual abuse could be widespread, could exist in other places," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters, noting Washington believed the idea of naming countries that fail to act against offenders was worth considering.

"We have worked very carefully with the U.N. to try to get them to ... make sure that in fact prevention becomes a top priority for U.N. peacekeeping operations and troop contributors."

The U.N. officials, who discussed the abuses with U.S. officials this week, cited South Africa, Morocco and France as taking some action against alleged abusers in Congo but said a stronger message needed to be sent that such exploitation would not be tolerated. Allegations have also been made against soldiers from Uruguay, Tunisia and Nepal serving in the Congo.

The United Nations has jurisdiction over its own civilian staff but it only has the power to demand a specific country repatriate an accused soldier and punish him or her at home.

Guehenno said sexual abuse allegations against peacekeepers had periodically surfaced over decades but there was now less tolerance of the exploitation.

"The whole issue of the professionalism of peacekeeping is at stake," he said.

To address the problem, the U.N. is investigating peacekeepers' disciplinary records worldwide, has put specialists in conduct standards in some missions and told commanders they were accountable for any troops' abuse.

Guehenno said structural changes to provide a longer-term solution, such as additional training, heightening awareness of a code of conduct and issuing bans on sex with minors, had been inadequate.

He did not say if the U.N. would forbid peacekeepers from any sex with the local population -- a measure it has introduced in Congo. But U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said this was under consideration.

The United Nations has jurisdiction over its own civilian staff but it only has the power to demand a specific country repatriate an accused soldier and punish him or her at home.

Guehenno said sexual abuse allegations against peacekeepers had periodically surfaced over decades but there was now less tolerance of the exploitation.

"The whole issue of the professionalism of peacekeeping is at stake," he said.

To address the problem, the U.N. is investigating peacekeepers' disciplinary records worldwide, has put specialists in conduct standards in some missions and told commanders they were accountable for any troops' abuse.

Guehenno said structural changes to provide a longer-term solution, such as additional training, heightening awareness of a code of conduct and issuing bans on sex with minors, had been inadequate.

He did not say if the U.N. would forbid peacekeepers from any sex with the local population -- a measure it has introduced in Congo. But U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said this was under consideration.

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