UNITED NATIONS -- The United Nations is facing new allegations of sexual misconduct by U.N. personnel in Burundi, Haiti, Liberia and elsewhere, which is complicating the organization's efforts to contain a sexual abuse scandal that has tarnished its Nobel Prize-winning peacekeepers in Congo.
The allegations indicate that a series of measures the United Nations has taken in recent years have failed to eliminate a culture of sexual permissiveness that has plagued its far-flung peacekeeping operations over the last 12 years. But senior U.N. officials say they have signaled their seriousness by imposing new reforms and forcing senior U.N. military commanders and officials to step down if they do not curb such practices.
A U.N. peacekeeper stands guard at the Tche refugee camp in Congo, the country at the center of the scandal.
(David Lewis -- Reuters)
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"The blue helmet has become black and blue through self-inflicted wounds," Jane Holl Lute, a senior U.N. peacekeeping official who heads a U.N. task force on sexual exploitation, told a congressional committee investigating allegations that U.N. personnel participated in rape, prostitution and pedophilia in Congo. "We will not sit still until the luster of that blue helmet is restored."
The reports of sexual abuse have come from U.N. officials, internal U.N. documents, and local and international human rights organizations that have tracked the issue. Some U.N. officials and outside observers say there have been cases of abuse in almost every U.N. mission, including operations in Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone and Kosovo.
"This is a problem in every mission around the world," said Sarah Martin, an expert on the subject at Refugees International who recently conducted investigations into misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti and Liberia. "If you don't have a strict code of discipline, accountability and transparency in the process, then you're going to continue to have a problem."
Peacekeepers in several Liberian communities routinely engage in sex with girls, according to an internal U.N. letter obtained by The Washington Post. In the town of Gbarnga, peacekeepers were seen patronizing a club called Little Lagos, "where girls as young as 12 years of age are engaged in prostitution, forced into sex acts and sometimes photographed by U.N. peacekeepers in exchange for $10 or food or other commodities," according to the letter, which a representative of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) wrote Feb. 8 to the mission's second-ranking official.
The letter also stated that community leaders in the town of Robertsport have accused Namibian peacekeepers there of "using administrative building premises and the surrounding bush to undertake sex acts with girls between the age of 12-17."
The letter said the U.N. peacekeeping mission had failed to address some misconduct reports. In response, the U.N. special representative in Liberia, Jacques Klein, ordered an investigation, according to an internal U.N. memo dated Feb. 18. U.N. Deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette, meanwhile, traveled this month to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast to urge the missions' leadership to crack down on sexual misconduct.
The United Nations also opened an investigation earlier this month into allegations of sexual abuse of minors by U.N. troops in the Central African country of Burundi. "Over the past few weeks I have learned to my deep regret that, despite firm instructions to the contrary, some staff members continue to indulge in unacceptable and potentially illegal behavior," Carolyn McKaskie, the senior U.N. representative, wrote in a March 10 internal memo to members of the U.N. mission.
Lute said the U.N. peacekeeping department has ordered an internal review of its policies for combating sexual exploitation among the nearly 80,000 peacekeepers in all 17 U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world. They are also pressing countries that contribute peacekeepers to prosecute those accused of crimes in special courts-martial in the countries where they are accused.
"We have violated our duty for care, and we need to fix that problem," Lute said in a recent interview. "We're shining a light here, and it's not a pretty picture. But when you're in the swamp, the only way out of the swamp is through the swamp."
Pamela Shifman, a UNICEF expert on sexual exploitation of children, said abuses are pervasive among U.N. peacekeepers deployed in countries that have been afflicted by grinding poverty and years of conflict. But, she said, "It is not inevitable. That's a really important message -- that we can address impunity. We can address accountability."
Martin, of Refugees International, said the degree of military discipline varies from mission to mission. In Liberia, she said, uniformed U.N. peacekeepers and U.N. civilians openly frequent brothels in marked U.N. vehicles. She also noted that some contingents, including the Namibians, are encamped in local villages, placing them in direct contact with locals.
In Haiti, she said, soldiers from Chile, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Peru "lived in walled compounds with gates, and they are not able to go out at night; they are under strict curfew."
Still, two Pakistani police were removed from Haiti last month after a local woman accused them of raping her at a banana farm outside Gonaives, U.N. officials said. A U.N. investigation dismissed the rape charge but expelled the Pakistanis for hiring a prostitute.
In September a Brazilian peacekeeper was accused of raping a minor in Port-au-Prince, Martin said. The United Nations concluded there was insufficient evidence to prosecute the peacekeeper, she said.
Sexual abuse scandals have shadowed the United Nations since the early 1990s, when U.N. peacekeepers in Cambodia were charged with sexually abusing girls. At the time, the U.N.'s top official in Cambodia, Yasushi Akashi, played down the gravity of the allegations, saying, "Boys will be boys."
Human rights investigators and journalists documented widespread abuses in 2001 in Kosovo and Bosnia, where U.N. police operated brothels and trafficked women from Eastern Europe to engage in prostitution.
A U.N. spokesman in Kosovo, Neeraj Singh, said a series of reforms had curtailed such abuses. But Singh confirmed that a Pakistani staff member in the office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, Rashid Doon Khan, was arrested in Kosovo on Jan. 28 by an international prosecutor in Kosovo pending a pretrial investigation that "relates to sexual and narcotics-related charges involving minors."
Singh declined to provide further details. An attorney for Khan, Tome Gashi, declined to comment on the charges.