Nigerian peacekeeping troops arrive by UN helicopter at Robertsfield airport near the Liberian capital Monrovia
(File photo - Aug. 4, 2003)
U.N. officials have opened an investigation into charges of sexual misconduct by peacekeepers in Liberia -- the largest mission peacekeepers with 15,000 troops on the ground. The investigation comes as the world body struggles with a new zero-tolerance for sexual-misconduct policy to overcome claims of widespread abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Tracy sits on the edge of her stool in a dimly lit bar in Monrovia's crumbling city center. She says she only comes here on the weekend, to meet foreign men, U.N. peacekeepers and staff.

The rest of the week she goes to high school.

Tracy grew up in Monrovia during Liberia's recently ended 14-year long civil war. She has two scars in her left shoulder from bullet wounds she received during street battles. Now, she says, Monrovia is ruined. Her father is dead. She has to pay for her school fees and those of her sister. Unemployment in Liberia stands at 85-percent. For survival, she says, she became a prostitute.

Tracy's phone rings, and she puts down the bottle of Coke she has been sipping. It is a friend of hers, she says, a U.N. employee. He wants her to come over. And he wants her to bring a friend.

In late 2004, officials from the U.N. childrens' fund informed the U.N. Mission in Liberia, known by its acronym UNMIL, of what it suspected was the sexual exploitation of young girls by peacekeepers. UNMIL opened a preliminary inquiry into the allegations and last week announced an official investigation was under way.

It is only the latest investigation into sexual misconduct allegations against U.N. peacekeepers in the region. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the United Nations is looking into around 150 such cases. The U.N. mission in Ivory Coast said it is also investigating charges of abuse.

Such an overwhelming wave of allegations has led the world body to implement a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct. U.N. personnel involved in prostitution, exploitative relationships or sexual abuse face being sent home and immediate dismissal. Criminal actions are to be prosecuted.

UNMIL Spokesman Paul Risley says Liberia's dire economic situation is such that almost any relationship between outsiders and locals could be construed as coercive, a fact that has prompted at least one contributing country to confine its peacekeepers to barracks when not on duty.

Mr. Risley says he hopes the allegations will not change how Liberians view the United Nations.

"It would be a true tragedy if the incredibly good work of the United Nations in bringing peace to Liberia were in any way blemished or marred by the misconduct and the sexual exploitation of a very small number of those same peacekeepers. And that is really the challenge before the U.N. now."

Joseph runs the hotel above the bar Tracy frequents. He says he sees U.N. peacekeepers with local prostitutes regularly. But, he says, he is not ready to condemn Liberia's U.N. mission.

"For those of us that have lived here all throughout this crisis, I do not think some of us would say that it is wrong for them to be here. Actually, its good for them to come to our aid, because at some point things were really, really bad. And right now life is changing. Things are picking up. So, it is good that they came here. And for that actually we should give them praise," he said.

As Tracy gets ready to leave, she tells the story of a girl she knows.

Her friend, she says, met an American working in Monrovia. They fell in love, moved to America, and now have two children. It happens, she says, it could happen to her.