Friday, February 11, 2005

U.N. Sex Crimes in Congo

NEW YORK, Feb. 10, 2005 — Widespread allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of Congolese women, boys and girls have been made against U.N. personnel who were sent to help and protect them — despite a so-called zero tolerance policy touted by the United Nations toward such behavior.

The range of sexual abuse includes reported rapes of young Congolese girls by U.N. troops; an Internet pedophile ring run from Congo by Didier Bourguet, a senior U.N. official from France; a colonel from South Africa accused of molesting his teenage male translators; and estimates of hundreds of underage girls having babies fathered by U.N. soldiers who have been able to simply leave their children and their crimes behind.

Ravaged by decades of civil war, and one of the poorest countries in the world, Congo has relied on the United Nations for both military protection and humanitarian aid.

"The U.N. is there for their protection, so when the protectors become violators, this is particularly egregious," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch who investigated the allegations on behalf of her organization. "This is particularly bad."

William Swing, a former U.S. ambassador to Congo who now heads the U.N. peacekeeping mission there, admitted the sexual crimes were a black mark on the United Nations.

"It pains us all," he said. "It's absolutely odious. And we're determined to wipe it out."

But Swing said the problem was just recently brought to his attention, and that only a small percentage of the 11,000 U.N. personnel in Congo were involved.

"A few people have managed to basically cause disgrace for the mission and for the U.N., and that's why we're determined to conquer it. I have sent a dozen home," Swing said. But human rights investigators have reported a far wider, even systemic problem, recording more than 150 allegations against U.N. employees in Congo.

And there is what human rights investigators have called "survival sex."

"We have heard cases where they have traded eggs for sex or bread for sex or a jar of peanut butter for sex," said Van Woudenberg. "These are not people who have very much. So they hang around the outskirts of these U.N. bases in order to try and get a handout, a little food. Maybe they can sell some bananas or some peanuts. And it has become not uncommon that peacekeepers invite these girls in — and of course the younger the better, because there's less chance that they will be infected by HIV/AIDS."

The United Nations has documented cases where this has happened to girls as young as 11, according to Van Woudenberg.

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Hat Tip: Gabriel Hanna