Peacekeepers as predators: UN sex crimes

29 Jan 2007

It reads like a runaway bestseller of Hollywood fiction or, more realistically, a Nuremberg dossier: crimes against humanity.

“He shot pornographic videos in his home, in which he had converted his bedroom into a photo studio for videotaping his sexual abuse of young girls,” reported The London Times. “The bed was surrounded by large mirrors on three sides, with a remote control camera on the fourth side. When police raided his home, the man was allegedly about to rape a 12-year-old girl sent to him in a law enforcement sting operation.”
The man was a French United Nations logistics expert in the Congo.

Morocco, an ‘African’ country desperately pursuing membership in the European Union, contributed to the UN peacekeeping efforts. The Moroccan UN contingent made its presence felt as evidenced by the 82 Congolese women and girls they made pregnant on their tour of duty. Uruguayan UN personnel were no contest, managing a paltry 59 impregnations in the vast Congo.

Most of the sexual abuse and exploitation, said the report, which referred to the scandal as “the UN’s Abu Ghraib”, involved trading sex for money, food or jobs. “However, some victims say they were raped, but later given food or money to make the incident appear to have been consensual – ‘rape disguised as prostitution’.”

On January 3, 2007, the London Telegraph reported that it had learned of accounts from “dozens of victims claiming that some peacekeeping and civilian staff based in the (southern Sudan) town are regularly picking up young children in their UN vehicles and forcing them to have sex.”

The same report talked about a BBC investigation which found that children as young as 11 had been subjected to rape and prostitution by UN peacekeepers in Haiti and Liberia.

“I am afraid there is clear evidence that acts of gross misconduct have taken place,” conceded an outraged Kofi Annan. “This is a shameful thing for the United Nations to have to say.”

Like so many times before, it promised to investigate. A report by Jordanian representative, Prince Zeid Hussein, appointed by Annan to investigate the sex crimes, said the Congolese scandal came to light and to the attention of UN officials only after “an initial attempt by locals to blackmail the alleged perpetrator.” WorldnetDaily says that the UN has been criticized for ignoring evidence of wrongdoing in the past – including accusations of rape and murder by peacekeepers. Previous disclosures of peacekeeping abuses, it said, have only been made known by news organizations, such as was the case in Cambodia in the early 1990s and later in Somalia, Bosnia and Ethiopia.

“Why should the UN be continually allowed to investigate itself and those that it contracts?” wrote Colum Lynch of the Washington Post. “The UN has an abysmal track record on this issue and a long history of covering up such cases.”

Indeed, in 2004, The New York Post revealed that the UN tried to block publication of a book, Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth. The book “chronicles the experiences of a doctor, a human-rights official and a secretary in UN operations in Cambodia, Somalia, Haiti, Rwanda, Liberia and Bosnia.” The three UN field workers detailed sex, drugs and corruption inside multiple UN missions and also alleged that the UN knowingly hired freed criminals to serve as peacekeepers.

The UN means business. In 2003, the Associated Press reported that UN officials were identified as having used a ship chartered for ‘peacekeepers’ to traffic young girls from Thailand to East Timor as prostitutes.

But a year earlier, in 2002, “a massive pedophilia scandal involving sexual abuse against West African refugee children in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea was uncovered within the UN.” United Press International reported that Senior U.N. officials “knew of the widespread pedophilia and not only did they not take action against the perpetrators, they covered up the atrocities.” Years later, the pattern would repeat and reveal itself when one UN soldier accused of rape in the Congo was reportedly hidden in the barracks for a year by fellow UN soldiers, to shield him from imminent publicity and possible prosecution.

It appears the UN Secretariat itself, not to mention those below the level of commissioner, is undermining the work of its High Commissioners for Refugees.

Back in 2001, the UNHCR and Save The Children-UK engaged consultants to investigate allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation of refugees in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The resultant report painted a very alarming and terrifying account of widespread abuse.

It concluded: “Agency workers from the international and local NGOs as well as UN agencies were ranked as among the worst sex exploiters of children, often using the very humanitarian aid and services intended to benefit the refugee population as a tool of exploitation.”

This, and subsequent investigations by the UN’s own Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), came up with the same conclusions: women and children were being raped and sexually abused by UN civilian and military personnel.

The current ‘sex for food’ and Annan’s ‘oil for food for son’s job’ scandals aside, remember Boutros Boutros-Ghali? As Egyptian Foreign Minister, he is accused of facilitating sales of weapons worth more than $26 million to the Hutu regime that carried out a campaign of genocide against the Tutsi tribe in 1994. Boutros-Ghali was UN Secretary General when the UN turned its back on these 1994 killings.
However, for its part, the UN stresses the difficulties involved in conducting such investigations “given both the nature of the alleged abuse as well as the environment in which it occurred.”

In order for a refugee to make a report, says one of the findings, they would have to go through the same persons who themselves are perpetrators of sexual exploitation.

But, despite such difficulties, between January 2004 and the end of November 2006, the UN investigated allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse involving 319 peacekeeping personnel “in all missions” from East Timor, the Middle East and Africa to Kosovo and Haiti. But between January and October 2006, the UN Department of Peacekeeping said 63 percent of all misconduct allegations involving peacekeeping personnel were related to sexual exploitation and abuse, a third of them to prostitution. This, it said, resulted in the summary dismissal of 18 civilians and the repatriation of 17 international police and 144 military personnel.
But UN policies on sexual exploitation have sent mixed messages to the peacekeepers. While the UN code of conduct in Congo explicitly prohibited peacekeepers from soliciting prostitutes, UN troops were supplied with condoms when they arrived, sending “a confusing message”, the report said.
But observers note with interest the tragic double standards at play. The media had a field day when news of the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in the US surfaced. Today, tragic incidences of massive abuse of defenseless women and children outside the US get scant media attention. In 2002, a report by the UN characterized the sexual exploitation issue as “a betrayal of trust as well as a catastrophic failure of protection.”

“Peacekeepers or predators?” queried Joseph Laconte of the Heritage Foundation, after hearing that the UN was instituting yet another inquiry of itself. “It’s difficult to see how another U.N. probe, proclamation, or committee report could reverse that perception anytime soon.”

But the UN means business. The Office of the UNHCR won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1981 and the UN Peacekeeping forces won it in 1988. Surprisingly, Kofi Annan, who, of all things, was UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping before ascending to the top post, won the Peace prize in 2001.

“The issue with the UN is that peacekeeping operations unfortunately seem to be doing the same thing that other militaries do,” Gita Sahgal of Amnesty International told the Christian Science Monitor. “Even the guardians have to be guarded.” That’s not far off the mark.

*Tanonoka Joseph Whande is a Zimbabwean journalist.