UNITED NATIONS, Nov. 26 -- Sexual exploitation of women and girls by U.N. peacekeepers and bureaucrats in the U.N. mission in Congo "appears to be significant, wide-spread and ongoing," according to a confidential U.N. report that documents cases of pedophilia, prostitution and rape.
The report by a U.N. peacekeeping official who recently visited Congo says that some U.N. personnel paid $1 to $3, or bartered food or the promise of a job, for sex. In some cases, U.N. officials allegedly raped women and girls and then offered them food or money to make it look as if they had engaged in prostitution.
Senior U.N. officials in New York said they have received 150 allegations of sexual abuse by U.N. personnel in Congo. The officials declined to provide names or nationalities of those charged with misconduct, saying they are under investigation. But U.N. officials familiar with the charges said that Tunisian and Uruguayan peacekeepers and a French civilian are among those accused of abuse.
"The situation appears to be one of 'zero-compliance with zero-tolerance' throughout the mission," according to the Nov. 8 report, which summarizes the findings of a U.N. mission to the region led by Prince Zeid Hussein, Jordan's U.N. ambassador. "It appears that the most frequent form of sexual exploitation occurring in [the U.N. mission in Congo] relates to instances of prostitution with minors and adult women, with occasional instances of rape."
The abuse in Congo mirrors previous scandals at U.N. missions in Cambodia and Bosnia, where U.N. police from the United States, Romania and many other countries were implicated in sexual crimes and misconduct. In contrast to those episodes, the United Nations has sought to confront the charges publicly and admitted that policies devised to combat those activities have failed.
"I am afraid there is clear evidence that acts of gross misconduct have taken place," U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan said at a Nov. 19 summit in Tanzania. "This is a shameful thing for the United Nations to have to say, and I am absolutely outraged by it."
In July, Annan appointed Zeid, who served as a political affairs officer in a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Bosnia from 1994 to 1996, to lead an internal U.N. effort to combat sexual exploitation. Zeid is trying to persuade countries that supply troops for peacekeeping missions to discourage soldiers from engaging in sexual misconduct and to discipline those who do. He is expected to produce a more substantive report of findings and recommendations.
The top U.N. peacekeeping official, Jean-Marie Guehenno of France, said that the United Nations is prepared to lift the immunity of U.N. civilians who engage in sex crimes so they can face prosecution. But senior U.N. officials say they have no authority over the prosecution of foreign troops and fear that if they publicly expose them, their embarrassed governments will withdraw badly needed peacekeepers from U.N. missions around the world.
So far, the United Nations has sent at least two Tunisian peacekeepers home, and a French civilian accused of sexually molesting children was surrendered to French authorities. If convicted in a French court, he could face a prison term of up to seven years. The report on Zeid's mission to Congo said the case came to the attention of U.N. officials after "an initial attempt by locals to blackmail the alleged perpetrator."
The U.N. mission in Congo, headed by former U.S. ambassador William Lacy Swing, employs more than 1,000 civilians and nearly 11,000 peacekeepers from 50 countries. It was created five years ago to help end a war that involved the militaries of seven African nations and to pave the way to elections in a country the size of Western Europe.
But the devastating impact of the war and the presence of large numbers of well-paid international peacekeepers in one of Africa's poorest regions have created opportunities for prostitution.
U.N. officials in Congo said that peacekeepers were "aggressively targeted by prostitutes" at their bases, according to the report. But the report's author suggested that the U.N. mission also demonstrated little commitment to stopping prostitution and other acts of misconduct.
The worst alleged violations occurred in the town of Bunia, where more than half of the U.N. mission is headquartered. The U.N. Office of Internal Oversight cited 68 allegations of sexual misconduct against U.N. military personnel and four against civilians in Bunia between May and September 2004.
A 13-year-old girl interviewed in Bunia by Zeid's team said that she was raped by a U.N. worker. "One day, in May 2004, my grandmother had to attend a funeral and I was left alone at home to look after my brothers and sisters," she told investigators. "That night, around 8 p.m., one of the [U.N. Congo mission's] soldiers came into the house. He raped me. My brothers and sisters were in the house at the time."
The United Nations has been aware of the abuses in Bunia and other towns in Congo for several months. In May, the U.N. mission in Congo created a task force to stem the abuse. But procedures implemented to halt the activities "had largely faded away" by the time Zeid's team arrived on Oct. 24, according to the report.
U.N. policies on sexual exploitation have sent mixed messages to the peacekeepers. While the U.N. code of conduct in Congo explicitly prohibits peacekeepers from soliciting prostitutes, U.N. troops were supplied with condoms when they arrived, the report said, sending "a confusing message."
U.N. officials investigating abuse, meanwhile, received anonymous death threats. "The general impression is that members of the mission do not feel protected and therefore are reticent about being seen as the whistleblowers," according to the report.