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RIGHTS: U.N. Vows to Halt Child Abuse in Its Own Ranks

Mirela Xanthaki

UNITED NATIONS, May 29 2008 (IPS) - As the United Nations celebrated the 60th anniversary of its peacekeeping mission Thursday, a British-based charity has released a report charging that U.N. peacekeepers and humanitarian workers have sexually abused children in countries Haiti, Cote d'Ivoire and Sudan.

"Even one incident is an incident too many," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in a statement. "The abuse of children by those sent to help is a significant and painful issue and one that the U.N. peacekeeping has and will continue to address."

According to the Save the Children UK report, titled "No One to Turn To: The under-reporting of child sexual exploitation and abuse by aid workers and peacekeepers", children as young as six are trading sex with aid workers and peacekeepers in exchange for food, money, soap and in a few cases luxury items like mobile phones.

The abuse can take many forms, ranging from rape, child prostitution, pornography, sexual assault, verbal assault and trafficking of children for sex, it says.

The abuse goes largely unreported because victims and even local authorities fear the consequences should they speak out, which could include risking access to much-needed aid. The report says that children who trade sex for food or other forms of support are also unwilling to jeopardise this survival tactic.

The report also highlights a slow response by the U.N. Out of 856 allegations of sexual misconduct towards adults and children between 2004 and 2006 regarding the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), United Nations Volunteers, World Food Programme and the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, only 324 were resolved in the same year.

The remaining 532 allegations – 62 percent – were not resolved within a year. Bringing perpetrators to justice was also difficult in countries where it was not illegal to have sex with those the United Nations considered "minors".

Jane Holl Lute, assistant-secretary-general for field support, said at a press conference this week that the United Nations is considering establishing a watchdog group, as suggested by Save the Children. It remains to be seen whether the watchdog would be embedded within the U.N. system or would be independent.

"I have no objections, and I know the leadership of peacekeeping has no objection, to others watching and holding us to account for what we say," Lute said.

Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guehenno characterised the report as "useful". He added that difficulties include the fact that troops are constantly rotating and there is great cultural diversity, which requires more training and better reporting.

In his statement, Ban said that the U.N. would "implement fully our policy of zero tolerance of sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. personnel."

Measures will include creating Conduct and Discipline Units in all U.N. missions to strengthen training regimes for all categories of U.N. personnel.

"People [are required] to be trained to certain standards and to understand their personal responsibilities. We've been training leaders at all levels. We've been engaging with troop-contributing countries so the message of leadership is brought home to them," Lute said.

In response to queries about punishing troops responsible for the sexual abuse of minors, Lute said the United Nations was working on strengthening dialogue with member states. "It takes a while for this to be fully incorporated into people's sensibilities and their behaviour," she said. "We can't let up. We need to be vigilant."

The problem has been widely known since 2002 and Save the Children says it recognises that efforts have been made to address it.

Sixty years ago, the U.N. Security Council established the first peacekeeping operation, the United Nations Truce Supervision Organisation (UNTSO), based in the Middle East. May 29 was proclaimed the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers, to pay tribute to the men and women who have lost their lives fighting for peace.

On Friday, the Dag Hammarskjold award will be given to the military, police and civilian personnel who served in U.N. peacekeeping missions and lost their lives in 2007. There have been more than 2,400 peacekeeper deaths over the past six decades, and in the past year alone, 87 were killed.

There are almost 110,000 personnel serving in 20 peacekeeping operations on four continents. Men and women peacekeepers are deployed from 120 different countries around the world, with Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Nepal being the top contributors.

The "Blue Helmets", as the U.N. peacekeeping forces are called, are engaged in various activities like training police, disarming ex-combatants, building bridges and schools also facilitating the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

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