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UN Takes Steps to Combat Sexual Abuse in Africa Missions


United Nations peacekeeping missions in West and Central Africa have been under fire in recent years over recurring scandals involving sexual abuse by staff. The world body has now introduced a zero-tolerance policy for sexual exploitation, and special measures are being undertaken to reinforce it.

U.N. trainer Jessica Newby stands in front of a group of U.N. staff on the grounds of the peacekeeping mission's base in the western town of Daloa.

The United Nations is offering the training to military and civilian staff from about a half dozen countries, as part of a series of measures to prevent further cases of sexual misconduct involving members of peacekeeping missions.

Toward the end of the three-hour session, the peacekeepers, civilian police and mission employees break into small groups to go over a series of case studies.

In one example, a local staff member woos a 15-year-old local village girl with gifts from a U.N. food aid stock. The scenarios, Ms. Newby says, are often taken from actual cases uncovered during U.N. investigations.

The problem of sexual misconduct within peacekeeping missions, though not new, has drawn increased attention in recent years. Allegations against U.N. staff have been made in several missions around the world.

But attention has recently focused on West and Central Africa, where the United Nations has stepped in to try to end civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. Some of the worst abuses have surfaced in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"Occasionally these problems come up in a quite dramatic way," said Bertrand Coppens, who is in charge of reporting cases of sexual abuse for the mission in Ivory Coast. "Most recently, and that was really a wake-up call, was that we had the problems in our mission in the Congo, where, once again, it was made clear that we really had to do something about it."

Peacekeepers in Congo have been accused of abuses including trading food for sex and gang rape of local women.

U.N. headquarters in New York has now reacted with a much tougher attitude toward reports of sexual misconduct. Sexual relationships with local residents are now banned by the mission in Congo. And the United Nations has implemented what it calls a zero-tolerance policy for the rest of its peacekeeping operations.

Earlier this year, Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette toured the region's missions, promoting the plan, which calls for serious and immediate action against anyone found guilty of sexual misconduct.

U.N. civilian employees face possible demotion, removal from mission, or the termination of their employment with the United Nations. Criminal offenders face legal action, either locally or in their home countries.

For peacekeepers, who are on loan from the national armies of U.N. member states, discipline is left up to the troop-contributing countries. But several governments have already prosecuted their peacekeepers for crimes committed in Congo.

Training programs have been in place in Ivory Coast since July 2004, soon after the mission was established.

Mr. Coppens of the Ivory Coast mission, which is made up of nearly seven-thousand military and civilian staff, says only five cases have been reported here.

"I hope it is reality. But I think it is probably a bit too good to be true to reflect concretely the total reality in the field, as compared to what is going on in other missions," he added. "Again, I think there is no reason to think that this mission would be any worse, but neither that it would be any better."

However, Mr. Coppens says he is encouraged that the United Nations' new stance also calls for the establishment of sexual abuse task forces in all of the world body's missions. He says the reinforcement of staff charged specifically with investigating allegations should help reduce the number of abuse cases.

"We hope that we will be able to be more pro-active in the sense that, when we do, then, only hear about a rumor, that we will be able to investigate to what extent, whether there is something behind that rumor or not," said Mr. Coppens.

Mr. Coppens says the new task force is due to arrive in Ivory Coast soon.

In Daloa, as the day's training session ends, the head of a recently deployed Uruguayan police unit, Jorge Khazzaka, says the program is making headway.

"I think it's very important for us," he said. "The message from the special representative was so clear. It must be clear for us, what means exploitation. And we must combat [it]. And for combating this kind of abuse, we must be updated."

The United Nations has led a total of 60 peacekeeping missions since its creation in 1948. There are currently 16 operations under way around the world, with staff totaling more than 80,000.

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