The Magazine

The U.N. Sex Scandal

From the January 3 / January 10, 2005 issue: Exploitation, abuse, and other humanitarian efforts.

Jan 3, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 16 • By JOSEPH LOCONTE
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LAST MONTH A CLASSIFIED UNITED Nations report prompted Secretary General Kofi Annan to admit that U.N. peacekeepers and staff have sexually abused or exploited war refugees in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The worst of the 150 or so allegations of misconduct--some of them captured on videotape--include pedophilia, rape, and prostitution. While a U.N. investigation into the scandal continues, the organization has just suspended two more peacekeepers in neighboring Burundi over similar charges. The revelations come three years after another U.N. report found "widespread" evidence of sexual abuse of West African refugees.

"The issue with the U.N. 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. Various U.N. reports and interviews with humanitarian groups suggest that international peacekeeping missions are creating a predatory sexual culture among vulnerable refugees--from relief workers who demand sexual favors in exchange for food to U.N. troops who rape women at gunpoint.

Allegations of sexual abuse or misconduct by U.N. staff stretch back at least a decade, to operations in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea. A 2001 report, released by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and Save the Children, found that sexual violence against refugees in West Africa was endemic (though some of its findings were denied by a subsequent U.N. team). A year later a coalition of religious organizations sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell urging the United States to send more human rights monitors into Congo. The U.N. then introduced a "code of conduct" to help prevent future abuses, including prohibitions against sexual activity between staff and children and the exchange of money or food for sex.

It now appears, however, that little has changed on the ground. The U.N. Mission in Congo (MONUC) employs about 10,800 peacekeepers from 50 countries, in addition to many civilian staff. Yet there is no independent oversight of U.N. operations in its refugee camps. For that matter, none of the international agencies in the country has U.N. authority to protect the civil rights of internal refugees. Almost a year after the MONUC office in Kindu sent a memo in August 2003 to its headquarters in Kinshasa, detailing suspicions of sexual exploitation, the London Independent discovered action still hadn't been taken.

"We recognize that sexual exploitation and abuse is a problem in some missions," said Jane Holl Lute, a U.N. assistant secretary general, at a recent press conference. "It's obvious that the measures we've had in place have not been adequate." Relief organizations and human rights groups agree, describing as "urgent" the need to protect young girls from U.N. militia and staff. As Patrick Barbier, of Doctors Without Borders, told one newspaper: "It is clear that the necessary steps to protect the displaced population from violence and sexual exploitation have not been followed."

Indeed, the international operation in Bunia, home to about 16,000 refugees, threatens to become another monument to U.N. paralysis and failure. Investigators describe a "significant, widespread and ongoing" pattern of abuse at the camp--an astonishing conclusion given that many women are afraid to report sexual violence against them. At least one senior official in charge of security in Bunia is implicated in the scandal, and U.N. peacekeepers allegedly have threatened investigators with retaliation. According to the Economist, a U.N. probe is even considering the possibility that MONUC has been infiltrated by "organized pedophiles who recruit their friends."

The U.N. abuses are especially grievous in Congo, where sexual violence against women and children has been a weapon of war employed by most of the armies involved in the six-year-old conflict. Called "Africa's world war," it has involved militias from Angola, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Uganda, Rwanda, and Congo. Despite a peace agreement reached in 2002, the fighting continues: According to the International Rescue Committee, more than 31,000 civilians are dying a month from violence, disease, and famine; tens of thousands remain in refugee camps, mostly women and children. In Bunia alone, a U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) program has treated 2,000 victims of sexual violence in recent months.

Kofi Annan has insisted on "zero tolerance" of sexual exploitation by peacekeepers, but U.N. rules apply only to U.N. employees; military personnel fall under the jurisdiction of their own governments. Only a few peacekeepers have been deported, and no U.N. staff have been charged with criminal activity.