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U.N. 'outraged' by sex abuse

From CNN's Jonathan Wald

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Democratic Republic of Congo
United Nations
Sex Crimes
Conflicts (general)

UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- U.N. peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo exchanged eggs, bread and a few dollars for sex with girls they were meant to protect, according to the U.N. watchdog agency.

Soldiers regularly had have sex with girls as young as 13 in rundown shelters, in brush near the military camps and on the ground behind buildings, usually just after dark, says a report released Friday by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight.

Many of the girls were raped and had lost their families in a recent civil war, the report said. Forced to support themselves, they were desperate for food and money.

"A lot of the girls were traumatized by war as well as abuse," said Barbara Dixon of OIOS, who worked on the report.

"What they knew was, if they wanted to eat, this was a way to do it."

One 14-year-old girl would receive $1 or $2 or two eggs each time she had sex with a particular U.N. peacekeeper, while another collected $3 and a packet of milk after she had sex with a soldier.

Boys between the ages of 8 and 18 acted as pimps for the peacekeepers by bringing them girls, often in exchange for paltry amounts of food or money.

The problem of sexual exploitation and abuse was "serious and ongoing" and the lack of a protection and deterrence program was "equally disturbing," the report concluded.

"We are shocked by it, we're outraged, we're sickened by it," said William Lacy Swing, Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative to Congo.

"Peacekeepers who have been sworn to assist those in need, particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence, instead have caused grievous harm. It's inexcusable behavior, we're determined to stamp it out," he said.

An investigation into some of the accusations was short-lived -- either because of a lack of evidence or because some peacekeepers left Congo before the probe began.

From 72 allegations of abuse by military and civilian personnel, the OIOS was able to compile 20 case reports. Of those, one civilian case and six military cases were substantiated.

A French civilian staff member took pornographic photos of young girls performing sex acts and is facing prosecution in France after the United Nations sent him home.

The troops accused in the six military cases were either repatriated or referred to their governments. One country has convicted and sentenced two of the soldiers, Swing said.

The United Nations can punish its civilian staff, but military personnel fall under the jurisdiction of their own countries. All the organization can do is ask a country to repatriate suspects and punish them at home.

The OIOS report's authors said they had planned to name the countries whose troops were guilty of sexual abuse, but the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations prevented them.

Jean-Marie Guehenno, U.N. undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations, said he would not "name and shame" the nationalities, because it could jeopardize cooperation from countries that contribute troops to peacekeeping missions.

"When I see people being tainted by the actions of those who've committed abuse, it demoralizes the mission, it destroys the trust that the Congolese have in the U.N'.s peacekeeping mission in Congo and in the effort of the United Nations. It is a big stain on us," Guehenno said.

Sources familiar with the investigation said allegations have been made against soldiers from South Africa, Uruguay, Morocco, Pakistan, Tunisia and Nepal.

Both Swing and the OIOS report criticized the lack of cooperation from the troop contingents.

"The feeling of impunity is such that not only have the policies not been enforced, but the command structures have not always given investigators their full cooperation," Swing said.

The U.N. watchdog said sexual activities continued even while the investigation was ongoing, as "evidenced by the presence of freshly used condoms near military camps.

"It was clear that the investigation did not act as a deterrent for some of the troops, perhaps because they had not been made aware of the severe penalties for engaging in such conduct, nor had they seen any evidence of a negative impact on individual peacekeepers for such behavior."

U.N. peacekeeping officials say countries contributing troops must strengthen the punishment of offenders and send rigorous commanders.

For their part, the United Nations is deploying eight-person "Code of Conduct" units to ensure that peacekeeping troops understand the severity of sex crimes. Code of Conduct units will be sent immediately to Congo, as well as to other sensitive peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Burundi and Ivory Coast.

The OIOS investigation was conducted between May and September 2004 and focused on sex crimes committed near a refugee camp in the northeast town of Bunia.

But U.N. officials acknowledge the problem is more widespread. Guehenno and Swing said a special investigative team, headed by an assistant to the secretary-general, has been sent to Congo to determine the extent of the sexual exploitation.

The U.N. mission in Congo is its largest peacekeeping operation in the world. Nearly 11,000 soldiers are stationed in the country and Swing said there will be 16,000 personnel, representing over 100 nationalities, by the end of February. The United Nations has about 64,000 serving in peacekeeping missions worldwide.

A five-year civil war laid waste to the country, and although it was declared over in 2003, hostilities persist. About 3.8 million people have died in the conflict, the most deadly since World War II, according to the International Rescue Committee. Congo has a population of almost 55 million.

According to U.N. humanitarian chief Jan Egeland, about 1,000 people die each day in Congo, largely from disease and malnutrition.

The head of Congo's independent electoral commission said Friday that elections, scheduled for June, may have to be delayed until October because of continued violence and an inadequate infrastructure.

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