When Peacekeepers Prey on Children

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Brendan Bannon / Save the Children / Reuters

"Elizabeth," 12, says she was raped by 10 peacekeepers in the Ivory Coast in June 2007. This photograph was released by Save the Children, in connection with a report saying that there were significant levels of abuse in emergencies, much of it unreported.

The charitable organization Save the Children UK effectively blew the whistle on itself and other aid organizations on Tuesday by publishing findings that a number of aid workers and United Nations peacekeepers engage in sexual abuse of some of the world's most vulnerable children. Hundreds of cases of sexual misconduct with children ranging in age from six to 17 were reported in disaster and war-torn regions around the world. And according to the report, a far greater number of cases go unreported.

Gathering 2007 field data from southern Sudan, Ivory Coast and Haiti, Save the Children found that the majority of victims were "orphans, children separated from their parents and families, and children in families dependent on humanitarian assistance." Those children without familial support were most likely to not report abuse because of powerlessness and a fear of stigmatization in their community. The study included instances of verbal sexual abuse, coerced sex, child pornography and young children trading sexual favors for food, money, soap, and even mobile phones.

Those actions constitute a frightening new layer of hardship for those living in already devastated regions, many of whom are dependent on foreign aid for survival. The study implicated staff at every level of aid and peacekeeping organizations, from guards to senior managers, and "a mix of local, national and international personnel, including staff described as 'black,' 'white,' "foreign' and 'local' people." The overwhelming majority of offenders were men, and most victims girls. Peacekeeping troops were reported as abusers more often than aid workers, but this could be due to the far greater number of troops and higher rates of reporting by the U.N. "It's incipient and insidious across the sector," said Dominic Nutt, a spokesman for Save the Children.

Sexual misconduct accusations were leveled against employees of 23 international aid organizations, including Save the Children, the United Nations and the World Food Programme. The U.N. alone reported 371 cases of sexual abuse in 2006, sparking increased internal protocols, including field discipline teams, increased training and telephone reporting hotlines.

One of the most disturbing findings of the Save the Children study is that many abusers are never held to account for their actions. Of the 856 sexual misconduct allegations against U.N. personnel and peacekeepers between 2004 and 2006, less than 40% were resolved within the year the abuse was reported. In many cases, the suspected abusers were either fired from the organization or repatriated back to their country of origin. "In general the U.N. as a whole has a zero tolerance policy on this," says Michael Klaus, spokesman for UNICEF in Geneva. "If these cases are proven, those responsible are immediately fired and sanctioned."

Yet the U.N.'s control over its peacekeepers is less clear. Without its own military force, the U.N. depends on troop contributors from 119 countries, which as of January 2008 deployed more than 80,000 blue-helmeted troops in international peacekeeping operations. The U.N. lacks the authority to prosecute any sexual offenders within those ranks. It can pass accused perpetrators over to local authorities, but in many cases, they decline to prosecute against an international actor for fear of retribution or losing aid. The U.N. can also repatriate a soldier to his home country, which can apply its own military justice procedure.

With the inefficacy of those options in mind, Save the Children has recommended the creation of a new global watchdog organization to monitor and evaluate agency efforts to tackle abuse. The group also recommends the U.N. create local systems within their individual operations to allow locals to log complaints. "We want it to be a lot easier for children to come forward in any country, in places where there's a legal system," said Nutt.

Such measures could help to combat underreporting of sexual abuse, but may not address the heart of the issue: accountability. If the U.N. is unable to properly punish offenders, and local authorities in at-risk areas are unwilling to do so, abusers remain free. That impunity is an additional blow for children victimized not only by poverty and hardship, but in some cases by the very people sent to protect them.