U.N. officials are increasingly concerned about the number and seriousness of sexual misconduct charges against peacekeeping troops in Africa. A confidential report alleges that in at least one case, peacekeepers threatened retaliation against investigators looking into the sex abuse charges.
A U.N. spokesman Friday said two soldiers serving as peacekeepers in Burundi have been suspended from duty. The official gave no details, except to say the pair is accused of engaging in inappropriate sexual activity.
The announcement follows word that U.N. investigators probing charges of rape, pedophilia and prostitution by peacekeepers in neighboring Congo have been threatened with retaliatory attacks. A confidential draft report obtained by the Washington Post newspaper alleges that witnesses in the case were bribed to change incriminating testimony.
U.N. emergency relief coordinator Jan Egeland called reports of sexual abuse by peacekeepers "disturbing". He said, "What we have seen in the Congo and elsewhere should never have happened. If peacekeepers and aid workers abuse the civilian population, then we have really, really failed to protect and help, not to abuse those who are the most vulnerable."
U.N. officials confirmed that a senior employee in the Congo peacekeeping unit was recently suspended with pay for inappropriate sexual behavior. The employee, an Australian national, has since left the country.
Earlier, a French civilian was sent home from the Congo and jailed after being charged with pedophilia.
Secretary-General Kofi Annan publicly apologized last month after it was revealed that investigators are looking into charges of widespread sex abuse by peacekeepers in Congo.
The draft U.N. report documents 68 cases of alleged sexual misconduct involving peacekeepers from Pakistan, Nepal, Uruguay, Morocco, Tunisia and South Africa.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said a multi-track approach is being devised to enforce the organization's "zero tolerance" policy toward sexual exploitation.
"At the mission level they've reinforced with having what we call personal conduct officers to work with the peacekeeping troops, and as you know the secretary-general has called on Prince Zeid [al-Hussein], the Jordanian permanent representative here at the U.N., to address the issue of sexual exploitation and to work closely with the troop contributors and the police contributing countries," he said.
The Congo mission is the largest U.N. peacekeeping operation, with about 12,000 international military and civilian employees. It was established in 1999 to end the country's war and help prepare for elections.
The sex scandal comes at a time when the world body is under fire on several fronts, with some U.S. lawmakers calling for Secretary-General Kofi Annan to resign. Mr. Annan was in Brussels Friday, where a leading Belgian newspaper reported that European Parliament legislators were shocked by allegations of sexual violence against women by blue-helmeted U.N. soldiers.