Africa, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS-SIERRA LEONE: Zero Tolerance for UN Troops Involved In Sexual Abuse

Lansana Fofana

FREETOWN, Apr 5 2005 (IPS) - The United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone may be preparing for the final pullout of its peacekeeping force by the end of the year, but it seems, the mission wants to leave behind a clean record, in so far as sexual exploitation and abuse is concerned.

‘’The mission has embarked on massive sensitisation of the peacekeepers in the area of sexual abuse,” says Ansumana Konneh, an official of the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone’s (UNAMSIL’s) civil affairs department.

‘’The civil affairs department promotes harmonious relations between the peacekeepers and locals but also insists on punitive measures for those peacekeepers who may violate the zero tolerance policy of the UN regarding sexual exploitation and abuse,” he says.

The mission organises workshops that bring together peacekeepers and their civilian hosts and deals with issues like HIV/AIDS, post-conflict reconciliation and gender violence.

Two weeks ago, the UN deputy Secretary General Louise Frechette flew into Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown to re-echo the UN’s tough stance on sexual exploitation and abuse. While in Sierra Leone, she held talks with the military and civilian heads of the mission and sent out a strong message. ‘’There is no room for sexual abuse within the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone,” she said. ‘’Mechanisms have been put in place to prevent the incident of sexual abuse within the mission.”

Mission officials say a special training is organised on zero tolerance of sexual abuse for both military and civilian personnel before they join the mission. They also speak of ‘’an increased investigation capacity” for matters relating to sexual abuse. However, these measures, though well in place may be coming a little too late.

The UN mission will complete the pullout of its troops by the end of this year. Yet there have been plenty of cases of sexual exploitation and abuse in the four years that the peacekeepers have been staying in Sierra Leone. At the peak of its deployment in 2001, UNAMSIL had 17,500 troops, then the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world. Its troops were drawn from Nigeria, Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, Guinea, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.

Then facing a hostile rebel outfit, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a guerrilla army that gained notoriety for hacking off the limbs of women and babies, the UN force is generally thought to have scored tremendous success in bringing to an end Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war. But that is just the rosy part of it.

The UN peacekeepers in Sierra Leone over the years have had a poor image in terms of sexual exploitation and abuse. Freetown’s magnificent beaches were turned into venues for sexual exploitation by peacekeepers. Girls, sometimes as young as 14, could be seen in the company of peacekeepers soliciting sexual favours in exchange for money.

Margaret Bendu, 19, a commercial sex worker at the Lumley beach west of Freetown, had been a regular client to peacekeepers at her beach hang-out. ‘’I’d met Bangladeshis, Kenyans and Nigerians (peacekeepers). Before now they used to be my major clients and it was purely sex for money,” she says.

Her friend, Marian, has a three-year-old child for a Kenyan peacekeeper who had left the mission and returned home. She is unemployed and does not even know how to contact her ex-peacekeeping suitor. She told IPS: ‘’When I met him (the Kenyan) he was pleasant and very generous. He assured me of his support for our baby even if he left UNAMSIL. But now, with no contacts and my present predicament, I feel very hurt.”

These are no isolated cases. Dozens of children have been fathered by UN peacekeepers, many of whom have completed their assignments and left. ‘’It all boils down to sexual exploitation,” laments rights activist Charles Mambu of the coalition of civil society organisations in Freetown.

‘’The UN’s zero tolerance policy for its peacekeepers is a welcome move. Some of these peacekeepers are irresponsible in their conduct, leaving us with the burden of unwanted babies and an increase in HIV/AIDS,” Mambu adds.

Impoverished by years of a murderous civil conflict, Sierra Leonean girls and women are an easy target for sexual exploitation and abuse. Many lost their husbands, parents and property and were thus forced into prostitution. Others are simply lured by money and gifts.

Maada Kamara, of the state-run National AIDS Secretariat, told IPS they were doing all they could to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS. ‘’We target not only the civilian population, but also foreign peacekeepers. Our campaign is nationwide and I think measures put in place by UNAMSIL would complement our work. I believe zero tolerance is the answer,” Kamara explains.

Unlike other countries in the sub-region Sierra Leone does not have an alarming rate of HIV/AIDS infection. It is officially put at under three percent of the active sexual population. But it is feared that by the time the peacekeepers finally depart, the figures might surge upwards.

The history of foreign peacekeepers and sexual exploitation in Sierra Leone did not start with the UN mission. Its predecessor ECOMOG, the military arm of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which was led by Nigeria, was even notorious for such misconduct. The hundreds of children left behind by ECOMOG peacekeepers have come to be referred to as ‘’ECOMOG babies”.

Some of the Nigerian ECOMOG troops, when leaving Sierra Leone took with them women and girls they had made relationship with. Mary Josiah told IPS her ECOMOG boyfriend called Isaju, took her to Lagos, Nigeria, in 2000 and abandoned her afterwards. ‘’It was a painful experience for me in Lagos. When we went to Lagos, I discovered he had a wife and three children. He could not accommodate me and I got forced into prostitution,” Josiah discloses.

The civil war in Sierra Leone was officially declared over in January 2002 by the country’s President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, after eleven years of killing, maiming and destruction.

And with the country coming to terms with its brutal past, and present economic predicament, the tough stance taken by the UN peacekeeping mission on sexual exploitation and abuse, may help eradicate a social menace that would have turned into a national disaster when eventually the peacekeepers leave.

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