The United Nations claims it is investigating about 150 allegations of sexual abuse by U.N. civilian staff and soldiers in the Congo, some of them recorded on videotape.
The charges include accusations of pedophilia, rape and prostitution, said Jane Holl Lute, an assistant secretary-general in the peacekeeping department.
Lute, an American, said there was photographic and video evidence for some of the allegations and most of the charges came to light since the spring.
In May the United Nations reported some 30 cases of abuse among peacekeepers in the northeastern town of Bunia, where half of the more than 10,000 soldiers are stationed.
The U.N. internal oversight office is expected to release a report soon on the abuse in Bunia. In addition, the peacekeeping department is sending at least two other teams to Congo to deal with various aspects of the problem, Lute said.
But the United Nations is not known for its forthrightness and candor in such internal investigations. The agency has been criticized for ignoring evidence or wrongdoing in the past – including accusations of rape and murder by “peacekeepers.”
In fact, previous revelations of peacekeeping abuses have only been revealed by news organizations. Such was the case in Cambodia in the early 1990s and later in Somalia, Bosnia and Ethiopia.
“I am afraid there is clear evidence that acts of gross misconduct have taken place,” said Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “This is a shameful thing for the United Nations to have to say, and I am absolutely outraged by it.”
Annan said the allegations concerned a small number of U.N. personnel and promised to hold those involved accountable.
“I have long made it clear that my attitude to sexual exploitation and abuse is one of zero tolerance, without exception, and I am determined to implement this policy in the most transparent manner,” Annan said.
Annan was criticized last week by United Nations workers who recorded a no-confidence vote against top leadership of the global body in what was seen as a direct swipe at his tenure. The Oil-for-Food scandal has given the U.N. such a black eye that there is talk among U.N. insiders that Annan may not serve out his second term ending in 2006.
But the new charges of rape and pedophilia by U.N. troops and workers in Congo may prove even more sensational. It’s hardly the first scandal involving U.N. workers and troops in Africa.
Former United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s tenure was marked by scandalous charges that he played a leading role in supplying weapons to the Hutu regime that carried out a campaign of genocide against the Tutsi tribe in 1994.
As minister of foreign affairs in Egypt, Boutros-Ghali facilitated an arms deal in 1990, which was to result in $26 million of mortar bombs, rocket launchers, grenades and ammunition being flown from Cairo to Rwanda. The arms were used by Hutus in attacks which led to up to a million deaths. The role of Boutros-Ghali, who was in charge at the U.N. when it turned its back on the killings in 1994, was revealed in a book by Linda Melvern. In “A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide,” Boutros-Ghali admits his role in approving an initial $5.8 million arms deal in 1990, which led to Egypt supplying arms to Rwanda until 1992. He says he approved it because it was his job as foreign minister to sell weapons for Egypt.
Back in 1997, there were reports Belgian U.N. troops roasted a Somali boy. A military court reportedly sentenced two paratroopers to a month in jail and a fine of 200 pounds for the offense.
Another Belgian soldier reportedly forced a young Somali to eat pork, drink salt water and then eat his own vomit. Another sergeant was accused of murdering a Somali whom he was photographed urinating upon. Another child, accused of stealing food from the paratroopers’ base, died after being locked in a storage container for 48 hours. Fifteen other members of the same regiment were investigated in 1995 for “acts of sadism and torture” against Somali civilians.
The pattern of abuse was not confined to Belgian troops. Belgium was actually the third country in the peacekeeping group to charge troops with serious crimes against Somali citizens — including rape, torture and murder. In 1995, a group of Canadian paratroopers were investigated for torturing a Somali to death and killing three others.
Gruesome photos were published in a Milan magazine of Italian soldiers torturing a Somali youth and abusing and raping a Somali girl. Paratroopers claim they were specifically trained in methods of torture to aid interrogation. According to one witness, Italian soldiers tied a young Somali girl to the front of an armored personnel carrier and raped her while officers looked on.
Few other news agencies – especially in the United States – have devoted any coverage to these atrocities. The Village Voice was one notable exception.
The South China Morning Post published an AFP report about an Italian battalion commander who sexually abused and strangled a 13-year-old Somali boy. There are also allegations that, in 1993, Italian soldiers beat seven suspected Somali thieves, killing one; that they beat to death a 14-year-old boy who sold a false medal and beat a couple in a car.