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Congress Probes UN Peacekeepers' Misconduct in Congo

Misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers was the subject of a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday as lawmakers follow up on a report by a U.N. monitoring agency.

In January, the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services said peacekeepers serving in Congo engaged in sexual relations with women and girls, some as young as 13.

Describing what it called a continuing and serious problem of sexual exploitation and abuse, the office said the behavior caused grievous harm to those the United Nations tries to protect.

U.N. officials have examined numerous allegations against military and civilian personnel involved in the U.N. Mission in Congo, which now has about 16,000 peacekeepers there at a cost of $1 billion annually.

Of the allegations examined in the January report, eight cases were substantiated, but even this number angered members of Congress concerned about United Nations efficiency and credibility, and about human rights.

Congressman Donald Payne calls the findings shameful and intolerable:

"This kind of behavior is deplorable and morally reprehensible for the very people who are supposed to protect civilians, particularly women and children, the most vulnerable among us, to actually abuse their responsibilities and become the actual perpetrators of crimes against humanity itself," he said.

Jane Holl Lute, U.N. assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping operations, condemns misbehavior by U.N. peacekeepers:

"The blue [U.N.] helmet has become black and blue, through self-inflicted wounds of some of our number,” said said. “And we will not sit still until the luster of that blue helmet is restored."

Although such misconduct is not unique to the U.N. operation in Congo, Assistant Secretary General Lute says it is unacceptable and will, in her words, “be stamped out.”

Since last November, she says eight civilians have been referred for further disciplinary action, three civilian police cases are ongoing, and 34 other cases have resulted in the expulsion of 63 military personnel. The goal, she adds, is to achieve full zero tolerance toward eliminating sexual misconduct.

Also appearing at the hearing was Kim Holmes, U.S. assistant secretary of state for international organization affairs.

"The United States does not take these matters lightly,” he noted. “We strongly support the policy of zero tolerance for sexual abuse by peacekeepers and we are pressing the United Nations to make sure this policy is implemented, and we expect full accountability for the abuses that have come to light thus far."

Congressman Chris Smith is a key advocate of strong steps to fight sexual and child exploitation and human trafficking:

"The United Nations forces conducting operations under U.N. command and control are tasked with upholding international humanitarian law, and have a particular duty to protect women and children from sexual assault or exploitation,” said Mr. Smith. “Peackeepers have a responsibility to protect the most vulnerable members of Congolese society. When the peacekeepers become the exploiters something is dreadfully wrong."

Congressman Smith suggests it may be time to begin naming countries whose personnel are involved in misconduct as a way to exert pressure on member states to deal more forcefully with the problem. U.N. officials and others do not favor this, saying it would publicly embarrass countries providing the bulk of peacekeeping forces.

And a representative of Human Rights Watch said the focus on sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers should not be so intense that it overshadows rape and sexual exploitation of women by members of armed militia in Congo.

Among proposals reported to be circulating in New York is a recommendation that U.N. peacekeepers suspected of sexual misconduct face military court martial in the country where allegations originate.

Others are calling for creation of an independent investigative body to deal with abuses.

Tuesday's hearing took place against the background of continuing reaction to the killing of nine Bangladeshi U.N. peacekeepers in Eastern Congo, an event even critics of the United Nations say underscores the great risks peacekeepers face.