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Congo Sex Scandal Prompts Efforts for Reform in U.N.

Peacekeeping missions may be restructured after more than 150 reported cases of abuse.

December 18, 2004|Maggie Farley | Times Staff Writer

Since news of the Bunia cases erupted in the spring, U.N. headquarters has struggled over how to handle them. Some officials argue that now is the worst time to go public, with the U.N. dealing with the Iraqi "oil-for-food" scandal, and calls for Annan's resignation. Some conservative pundits have started calling the Congo incidents the "sex-for-food" scandal.

Some of the employees who have pushed to deal seriously and publicly with the issue are afraid they will be blamed for the bad publicity it brings to the organization, and that their drive for reform will falter.

But others have treated the issue like a hot potato.

In Bukavu, the U.N. gender advisor said that dealing with sexual abuse was the human rights officer's job. The human rights officer said she dealt with rape only if it was a war crime.

"If a peacekeeper rapes a girl, that is not a human rights issue," she said. "But if a Congolese soldier rapes a girl, that is a human rights issue."

Local women said they are too intimidated by the peacekeepers at the U.N. camp's gate to lodge complaints.

U.N. officials who have the difficult task of recruiting troops worry that the "naming and shaming" of the countries and soldiers involved in sexual abuse cases will make it even harder.

But a task force led by the Jordanian ambassador to the U.N., Prince Zeid Raad Hussein, is proposing radical changes anyway. Zeid, a former peacekeeper who dealt with sexual abuse cases involving Jordanian soldiers in East Timor, is meeting with officials of every country involved in peacekeeping.

An internal U.N. report lists some preliminary ideas, including ways to mete out swift and visible justice in the countries where the missions are based so that witnesses can testify and communities can see action being taken.

The report proposes taking blood samples from all arriving U.N. civilians and soldiers for forensic testing to address abuse and paternity allegations.

It also suggests including female specialists on sex crimes investigations, and providing counseling and financial support for the victims.

"This is a terrible blot on the U.N.'s credibility, but it is an opportunity for us to make real changes," said Guehenno, the peacekeeping chief, who was the first senior U.N. official to speak openly about the problems in Congo.

"The secretary-general is convinced we must be straightforward and upfront about it. If there were no action, it would be a bigger problem -- and a bigger story."

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