Abuse By U.N. Troops In D.R.C. May Go Unpunished, Report Says

Monday, July 12, 2004

The U.N. response to the sexual abuse of children by peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been mired in bureaucracy, with no charges having been brought against any of the accused, the London Independent reports today.

A total of 68 allegations against soldiers with the U.N. Organization Mission in the D.R.C. (MONUC) have been recorded so far this year, among them a child prostitution ring run out of MONUC airport in Bunia and the rape of minors by Nepalese MONUC soldiers in the Ndromo camp. A senior Tunisian MONUC officer has been accused of soliciting a minor for sexual relations, while there have been repeated accusations against Pakistani, Moroccan and Uruguayan U.N. troops.

On June 8, the MONUC office in Kinshasa sent a memo to U.N. headquarters in New York outlining 50 cases of sexual abuse against minors by MONUC troops in the northeastern D.R.C. town of Bunia. A second memo, one week later, detailed four other allegations and said attention should be paid to South African MONUC troops in Kindu, Moroccan MONUC troops in Kisangani and MONUC troops from Uruguay, Pakistan and Nepal.

The memos prompted the deployment of an independent team from the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) to Bunia in mid-June to begin investigations into the alleged widespread sexual abuse of children. The investigation is said to be continuing.

"It is particularly important to investigate these allegations thoroughly and make MONUC aware of its responsibilities," said Matteo Frontino, the head of UNICEF in Bunia. "It is increasingly important to make the local population aware that MONUC is not only a military force to be feared but is also providing humanitarian, political and social assistance."

Although the United Nations has said it has responded to the allegations and is taking steps to address the situation, the London Independent reports that abuses are continuing and that the behavior of MONUC troops was common knowledge among U.N. officials.

In August 2003, the MONUC child protection office in Kindu sent a memo to MONUC headquarters describing concerns about child abuse, yet no action was taken, the Independent reports. Allegations against Moroccan troops in Kisangani, including reports of child pornography, organized sex shows and the rape of babies, was launched by MONUC last year but later dropped because of a lack of evidence and support from the military contingent commanders.

Bringing charges against troops is complicated by the fact that they are posted for six-month terms and are unlikely to ever face a military investigation. Once the military takes over the inquiry, the United Nations has no legal authority to follow up the investigation and cannot ensure that a repatriated soldier will face prosecution.

Another concern is that while Kindu, Kisangani and Bukavu have all filed reports of the sexual abuse of minors, and incidents of abuse have also been reported in Goma, the United Nations has thus far restricted its investigation to Bunia, the Independent reports.

Anna, a 12-year-old girl in Goma, was reportedly raped by U.N. troops who tempted her with the promise of a biscuit. Such incidents are common, according to the head of the nongovernmental organization that runs the shelter for rape victims, where Anna now lives.

"We have had many cases of young girls coming here who have been raped by MONUC soldiers mainly Indian and South African," the woman, who declined to be named, said. "Often the soldiers encourage the girls to go near them by offering them sweets and biscuits. Then they rape them. Most girls and their families are too scared to speak out because the U.N. soldiers have guns. Many people see them as being like the local armies and are scared of them."

Further complicating the problem is that so many Congolese are desensitized by years of violence and abuse.

"Women and girls in the Congo have been subject to so much sexual violence that it has become an accepted social habit," said Kristina Peduto, the head of MONUC child protection in Bunia. "It is not viewed as rape anymore."

Peduto, like many people interviewed by the Independent, said the OIOS investigation was a positive step but it would be hard for the investigation to produce any real results.

"The OIOS needs to be given the power to prosecute and act as a substitute for national justice," she said. "Members of the U.N. have a strong responsibility to send troops committed to uphold the U.N. code of conduct, and strong mechanisms have to be enforced on all MONUC staff, military and civilian, to act as a deterrent against sexual abuses, especially with minors."

Yet little progress has been made, the Independent reports.

A U.N. cable last month detailed concerns regarding Pakistani troops, and 14 allegations of abuses have been made against the Pakistani contingent. Yet Colonel Ihasan, the military chief of the Pakistani Battalion, acknowledged to the Independent that there would be no independent military probe until the U.N. investigation was complete, which could be months away.

"I don't know why this issue has been blown up so much," he said. "Much of what we have seen are only allegations there is still very little evidence to prove anything, and without proof we can do nothing."

A senior member of MONUC's personnel, speaking on condition of anonymity, also agreed that the investigation will likely be ineffective. "This whole OIOS inquiry is a joke," the official said. "The U.N. has no authority to follow through any of the investigations currently made. At most, after a lengthy process, they can repatriate an individual, but they cannot see those cases followed through in the country of origin. There is total impunity for MONUC soldiers, and this is a deep cause for concern."

Julianne Kippenberg of the Africa division of Human Rights Watch also said the U.N. probe needed more teeth. "These are very serious allegations against MONUC soldiers and they need to be properly investigated and the results must be made public," she said. "An issue such as rape and sexual exploitation of minors is not just a matter that can be dealt with internally in the U.N. If there are credible allegations against peacekeepers then they should be suspended immediately while the investigation takes place, and once the investigation finds evidence of sexual abuse the peacekeepers should then be prosecuted" (Kate Holt, London Independent, July 12).