Analysis: U.N. decries Liberia sex abuse

By LAUREN MACK  |  May 11, 2006 at 3:26 PM
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UNITED NATIONS, May 10 (UPI) -- Amid investigations into alleged sexual exploitation and abuse of Liberian girls by U.N. peacekeepers, the United Nations has reaffirmed its zero tolerance policy.

"We take this very seriously," said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton at U.N. World Headquarters in New York Wednesday. "The U.N. policy on sexual exploitation is as it should be -- zero tolerance -- but it's not enough to just state the policy."

A Save the Children U.K. report released Monday detailed how young girls have been trading sex with U.N. peacekeepers in Liberia for money and food. The paper prompted a renewed pledge by the United Nations and its mission in Liberia to enforce its zero tolerance policy.

Eight alleged cases of sexual abuse by U.N. personnel in Liberia have been reported since the beginning of 2006 to the Office of Internal Oversight Services, an independent body which looks into all cases of serious misconduct of U.N. workers, including all complaints involving sexual exploitation and abuse. The investigations are ongoing, but one case has been substantiated and the staff member involved was immediately suspended.

"The United Nations in Liberia is committed to prevent, identify and sanction the abhorrent practice of sexual abuse and exploitation in full compliance with the secretary-general's bulletin 'special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and sexual abuse' and its policy of zero tolerance," said the U.N. Mission in Liberia in a statement issued Sunday, a day before the Save the Children U.K. paper was released.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan instituted the zero tolerance policy following allegations in 2004 against U.N. peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo who allegedly had sex with girls, some of them abandoned orphans, in exchange for payments ranging from two eggs to $5.

Men of power and wealth, including local businessmen, humanitarian workers and U.N. peacekeepers, are preying on young girls, offering them small amounts of money, basic food like bulgur wheat, beans and cornmeal, or small trinkets like cell phones and watches in exchange for sex, said the Save the Children U.K. 20-page discussion paper, "From Camp to Community: Liberia study on exploitation of children."

"National and international NGO and U.N. employees are seen to be men of status, as they are paid relatively well compared with most other employees and often have access to a vehicle. In addition they may be distributing food or material goods, which they can use to entice girls," said the report, conducted in temporary camps for those displaced after Liberia's civil war.

UNMIL has 17,000 uniformed and civilian workers deployed to help the West African country recover from a civil war that ended in 2003 after 14 years of brutal armed conflict that killed 200,000 and displaced a third of the population.

"In the camps, people are generally dependent on NGOs and the food items. When these supplies are insufficient... means of making money have to be found," the report said.

"This cannot continue. It must be tackled. Men who use positions of power to take advantage of vulnerable children must be reported and fired," said Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of Save the Children U.K. in a statement released Tuesday. "More must be done to support children and their families to make a living without turning to this kind of desperation."

Save the Children U.K.'s paper recommended that Annan, along with the head of U.N. peacekeeping operations and others, develop a U.N. plan of action within the next six months to analyze the role of peacekeepers in exploitation and abuse of children in post-conflict areas. The paper called on troop-contributing countries to hold their forces accountable if they are found to be exploiting children.

The United Nations said its mission in Liberia is working to eradicate sexual abuse.

"We were informed by the mission in Liberia that the mission does maintain a serious 'zero tolerance' policy on sexual abuse. It is committed to preventing this horrible practice," said Stephane Dujarric, Annan's spokesman, Monday. "It has enacted a number of measures in order to stop these practices, and there are a number of investigations currently going on in Liberia."

The mission has established a Conduct and Discipline Unit to respond to allegations of abuse, created an in-country network to coordinate prevention efforts and developed a standardized training module on polices, procedures and guidelines for all U.N. workers.

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