UNITED NATIONS — An initial investigation into widespread sexual exploitation and abuse of Congolese women and girls by U.N. peacekeepers and officials has resulted in punishment for only a few U.N. personnel, according to an internal U.N. report released Friday.
Many of the allegations are difficult to prove and the U.N. is powerless to discipline perpetrators, so the abuse continues despite sensitivity training for troops and multiple investigations, the report says.
"In our view, the problem was and continues to be widespread," said Barbara Dixon of the U.N.'s internal oversight office, one of the authors of the report. "We ran into fairly substantial resistance from contingent commanders."
U.N. investigators looked into 72 allegations of sexual abuse in the eastern Congolese town of Bunia, where a camp for people displaced by the area's persistent fighting had sprung up next to a peacekeepers' base. Soldiers lured girls as young as 12 into sexual contact, typically in exchange for a dollar or a small amount of food. The problem, which had been going on for more than a year, finally gained the U.N. mission's attention last spring.
The watchdog team conducted its inquiry in Bunia between May and September 2004, and several other investigations have been launched since to examine charges made later.
In one case, a soldier gave a 14-year-old girl a dollar or two eggs in return for sex. She was able to identify the soldier because he had a broken arm. She had sex with another soldier for $3 and milk and was able to pick him out of the investigators' lineup, despite his denial.
"A lot of the girls were traumatized, by war as well as abuse," Dixon said. "What they knew was if they wanted to eat, this was a way to do it."
Although many of the allegations were detailed, 44 cases lacked names and identifying information, making it difficult to pin down the perpetrators, the report says. Investigators were able to substantiate abuses of underage girls in six cases involving soldiers from Malawi, Morocco, Tunisia and Nepal, plus one involving a French civilian.
The U.N. repatriated four of the soldiers and rotated a fifth to another post while the investigation was being completed. One allegation was dismissed. Separately, the South African government is taking action against two of its soldiers.
The civilian, a Frenchman who had pornographic pictures and videos of his underage victims, is in jail in Paris awaiting trial.
"We are shocked by it, we are outraged, we are sickened by it," said William Lacy Swing, the U.N.'s special envoy to Congo. "Peacekeepers who have been sworn to assist those in need, particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence, instead have caused grievous harm. It is inexcusable behavior, and we are determined to stamp it out."
The U.N. has no power to prosecute peacekeepers or civilians on its staff, and can only waive the immunity of those accused and send them home to face justice in their own national systems. Historically, there has been little action by the home countries, or follow-up by the U.N., two areas that the chief of peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno said he would like to improve. He is exploring the idea of court-martialing accused soldiers in the country where the crime is committed, a practice that could serve both as a deterrent to soldiers and a reassurance to the population that crimes will be dealt with.
Guehenno said he also supported the idea of banning all sexual contact between peacekeepers and locals, but was not convinced it could be enforced and felt it would only drive the problem further underground.