Child sexual abuse remains a persistent problem among U.N. peacekeepers despite a four-year effort to halt the exploitation, U.N. officials acknowledged yesterday after yet another report of heartbreaking abuse was released.
The report by the venerable British aid group Save the Children UK detailed physical and verbal abuse, trafficking and prostitution by U.N. blue helmets, as well as by aid organizations.
Children barely into their teens told the authors about procuring young girls for groups of soldiers in Haiti; the orphan girl who strangers sold to a nongovernmental organization worker in Sudan for $1; and allowing men to touch them in exchange for mobile phones or tennis shoes.
The researchers said they found a majority of the assaults go unreported to local or U.N. authorities, either out of the victim's shame or feelings of hopelessness.
"This is a very serious issue, and I think that report is very valuable and [raises] good points the United Nations should continue to address," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said.
"Sexual exploitation of minors by any aid workers or peacekeepers is a very serious issue. I have always made it clear that my policy is zero tolerance."
The study focused on peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Congo, southern Sudan and Ivory Coast - missions that have already been found with a high incidence of irregular and abusive behavior among military contingents and civilians.
"Our research suggests that significant levels of abuse of boys and girls continue in emergencies, with much of it going unreported," the authors wrote. "The victims include orphans, children separated from their parents and families, and children in families dependent on humanitarian assistance."
Senior officials and diplomats throughout the U.N. system yesterday seemed to take the report seriously, with peacekeeping officials refuting nothing and acknowledging that they need to do better to weed out bad soldiers.
One problem is that no one can determine how widespread the exploitation is.
The United Nations reported 60 allegations against peacekeepers in 2005, and five in 2006. For the same period, U.N. agencies said they received seven, then just one allegation of child sexual exploitation.
The numbers are likely to be low, the authors say, because of the widespread reluctance to report attacks to the authorities, and the occasional refusal of U.N. personnel to investigate.
Among the specific instances mentioned in the survey include trading sex for food or money, child prostitution, sexual slavery, indecent touching or talking, production of child pornography and rape.
"This report does us a service," said Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, who has been grappling with these allegations for six years.
Since the peacekeeping department commissioned a detailed report on child exploitation in 2004, officials have cautioned that more abuses would come to light as investigations gathered traction.
One of the largest obstacles is that the United Nations relies on troop-contributing countries to screen, try or punish their own soldiers. The peacekeeping department in New York has installed a conduct and discipline unit in each foreign mission and embarked on a nearly continuous course of sensitivity training for civilians and military posted to these operations in six-month deployments.