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Sex and the UN: when peacemakers become predators

Nadia is 13, a prostitute in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Her clients are UN soldiers. If she's lucky, they'll give her $1. Kate Holt in Goma and Sarah Hughes investigate a scandal of exploitation, abuse and rape

The UN has a problem of accountability and of abuse; of an organisation sent to police the world which remains unable to police itself, and of a climate of systematic abuse which ranges from alleged high-level fumblings to the rape of girls and boys, some of them as young as six, by members of the DRC peacekeeping force, known as Monuc, its French acronym, and civilian UN officials.

The UN has a problem of accountability and of abuse; of an organisation sent to police the world which remains unable to police itself, and of a climate of systematic abuse which ranges from alleged high-level fumblings to the rape of girls and boys, some of them as young as six, by members of the DRC peacekeeping force, known as Monuc, its French acronym, and civilian UN officials.

This climate has reached its apogee with the recent allegations in the Democratic Republic of Congo where 150 cases have been brought against Monuc soldiers and UN civilians ranging from the abduction and rape of minors to the finding of more than 250 images of child pornography involving Congolese children on the laptop of a French UN civilian working in Goma.

Last Friday the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) published its report into the allegations of abuse in Bunia and found that at least seven cases of under-age sexual abuse, all but one of them committed by UN peacekeepers, were fully substantiated. The report added that while many of the girls could not identify the individual peacekeepers responsible, their reports of regular sexual contact were "detailed and convincing". It went on to say that the abuses were continuing.

The UN head of peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno, said that he was outraged by the report's findings, adding that the level of abuse had destroyed local people's trust in the UN mission. "The rules of the UN are crystal clear," he said. "Any sex with under-18s is against the UN rule and this is just something that needs to be punished."

Yet, for all Mr Guehenno's strong words and insistence on firm action, the signs are that the OIOS report barely scratches the surface of the levels of abuse within the DRC. "There is obviously a very serious problem of abuse in the DRC by Monuc, civilian and military staff," said Juliane Kippenberg of the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "If one looks at the current levels of abuse being uncovered in the area it is clear that not nearly enough has been done by the Security Council and member states to prevent it."

Indeed, so high are these levels that, in the corridors of the UN headquarters in New York, where morale is now low and paranoia rife, the talk is no longer of the UN's role as a force for good but rather of the chain of abuse that stretches from the very heart of the UN bureaucratic machine to a ramshackle slum in the poverty-stricken and war-devastated district of Goma, in the east of DRC.

Nadia is 13 years old. She sits on the mud floor of a damp wooden hut in Goma, her eyes cast down and her voice hesitant. "I came from Gisenyi in Rwanda to work in Goma," she says. "My mother died from malaria when I was eight and my father was killed during the war here. When I first came here I worked as a servant to a lady but she didn't pay me so I started to work for a Congolese man who paid me more money to go with him. I have two sisters and a brother and I needed to send money to my uncle for them so I decided to become a prostitute. I have been sleeping with UN men for three months now."

Nadia's days and nights are spent standing outside the Oxygen Bar in Goma. She says that her best customers come from the UN.

"Sometimes the UN men will take me with them in their cars to a hotel for an hour or two - if that happens I can have a shower which is good because we don't have them where I live," she explains.

To the rest of the world, the forces of Monuc have served as shorthand for the good intentions of the international community. Yet girls such as Nadia tell another, more brutal, story: a tale of forces sent to maintain peace who instead abuse their power and act not as peacekeepers but as predators.

"The UN men always tell me not to say anything about who I go with," Nadia says, her voice barely audible. "They tell me that they will hurt me if I tell anyone." She stops and then shrugs, looking momentarily as young as any other girl of 13. "They are not always bad," she concludes. "They give me good money. Sometimes one dollar, sometimes five - it depends."

The first signs that all was not right with the UN mission to the DRC came with an investigation by The Independent in February 2004 which led to the UN investigating the charges.

By 8 June 2004, a UN coded cable was sent from William Lacy Swing, the head of the UN mission to the Congo to Mr Guehenno, the UN under-secretary general for peacekeeping in New York. The confidential document outlined 50 allegations of abuse involving Pakistani, Moroccan and Tunisian troops - 42 of which involved minors. The acts detailed included the rape of a minor in a Monuc armoured personnel carrier near the Bunia refugee camp and the existence of a "prostitution network of minors at Monuc airport, reportedly operated by various Monuc contingents and personnel". A week later another coded cable was sent with a further four allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by Monuc personnel, bringing the total in Bunia alone to 54. That total eventually rose to 72.

In response to the allegations the UN internal watchdog sent an independent investigation team to DRC. But this investigation was fatally flawed. No witness protection was offered to girls coming forward and according to a confidential UN report leaked in July, witnesses had been bribed to change their testimony and threatened with retaliatory attacks should they continue to pursue their claims. Furthermore, 150 allegations were made throughout the DRC yet the UN team was instructed to investigate claims only in Bunia.

Today, almost six months later, this OIOS report has only just been made public. No soldier has so far been charged and only seven of the original 72 allegations have been verified amid allegations of witness intimidation and the creation of a climate of fear not only among the child victims but also among those who work for the UN in both the DRC and New York.

"Prosecution of peacekeepers and civilian UN staff is currently very difficult because of immunity provisions and insufficient laws in troop-sending countries," says Ms Kippenberg. "The UN should take a more proactive role in ensuring that UN personnel can be prosecuted." Yet this was not the first time that the UN had been asked to investigate abuses by those working for it. In 2002, a report was submitted to Monuc HQ in Kinshasa detailing sexual abuses by Moroccan peacekeepers in the eastern DRC town of Goma. No further action was taken.

In the same year Kathy Bolkovac, an American police officer who had worked for the UN in Bosnia, gave an interview where she spoke out about similar abuses in the UN mission there. The women there were willing to give testimony in an internal affairs investigation. When she tried to push for further investigations into these allegations, Ms Bolkovac was accused of suffering from "psychological burnout" and lost her job with the UN.

Human Rights Watch voiced similar concerns in 1993 over the UN mission to Cambodia, and in 2002 a report into UN abuses in west Africa accused the UN of preferring to play down allegations of the sexual abuse of minors.

Yet in each case no further action was taken and no prosecutions brought, highlighting the issue of the lack of accountability. "The UN are trying to hide, rather than investigate - the problem in Bosnia and Kosovo is still huge," says Helga Konrad, the special representative in combating human trafficking for the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. "The UN and troop-contributing countries are playing ping-pong with their responsibilities of prosecution and investigation. The sending countries don't take responsibility for their troops' actions; they just pass it back to the UN. There is an urgent need for a much clearer definition of where this responsibility lies."

For those who work for the UN, the protection of its reputation is paramount. As the pressure mounts on the beleaguered secretary general, there is much talk of "zero tolerance" and of cracking down not just on the troops who abuse but on those who command them. Amid all this pressure it is perhaps unsurprising that an atmosphere of secrecy prevails, with few people prepared to go on the record for fear of jeopardising their chances of continuing to work within the organisation.

Ms Konrad believes that these internal problems within the UN run so deep that they are affecting its ability to perform as a force within international peacekeeping. "The misconduct of senior-level employees of peacekeeping missions and UN institutions is seriously undermining global peace-keeping operations," she says.

"The countries who contribute troops and the UN as an institution have got to share the responsibility of prosecution of individuals involved in sexual exploitation and abuse."

The UN mission in the Congo, however, appears to be in denial of the full extent of the problem, although it claims to be taking the issue seriously. William Swing, the special representative of the secretary general for Monuc, reiterated the need to move forward, and said: "Any kind of behaviour that violates the UN charter and code of conduct has to be dealt with as soon as possible. We are making progress, and the important thing is that, now we are aware of the problem, to develop a follow-up mechanism."