updated 1/7/2005 7:48:19 PM ET 2005-01-08T00:48:19

United Nations peacekeepers in Congo sexually exploited women and girls, some as young as 13, a U.N. watchdog office said Friday in a new confirmation that efforts to curb abuses by U.N. troops are not working.

Peacekeepers regularly had sex with Congolese women and girls, usually in exchange for food or small sums of money, investigators from the world body’s Office of Internal Oversight Services found.

“We have had and continue to have a serious problem of sexual exploitation and abuse,” William Lacy Swing, the United Nations’ special representative to Congo, said at a news conference.

“We are shocked by it, we are outraged, we are sickened by it. Peacekeepers who have been sworn to assist those in need, particularly those who have been victims of sexual violence, instead have caused grievous harm.”

Charges of sex abuse and other crimes have been lodged against U.N. peacekeeping missions around the world for decades. Officials have found it difficult to crack down because the United Nations doesn’t want to offend the relatively small number of countries that are willing to provide peacekeepers.

Rules aren’t working
In recent years, U.N. officials have tried to address the problem by increasing training for troops and putting more emphasis on codes of conduct that ban sex with females younger than 18, but they admit the rules are not working.

“Rules and regulations should be tightened,” said Jean-Marie Guehenno, U.N. undersecretary-general for peacekeeping operations.

The abusive behavior in Congo continued even as the investigation was going on in Bunia between May and September, the report said. It also said some military officers tried to block the investigators’ work.

The misconduct was “serious and ongoing” and investigators found it “disturbing” that there was no program in place to deter misconduct or protect civilians from abuses, the report added.

The U.N. mission in Congo will rise to 16,000 by the end of February.

The investigators looked into 72 allegations against military and civilian U.N. personnel, which resulted in 20 case reports, all but one involving peacekeepers.

Substantiated reports
“In six cases, the allegations against the peacekeeper were fully substantiated, and underage girls were involved in all of them,” the report said. It said none of the peacekeepers admitted to the allegations.

In some cases, evidence was convincing, but could not be fully substantiated, and in others allegations could not be corroborated, the report said. The victims had problems identifying the soldiers.

The watchdog office recommended that the home countries of the peacekeepers involved should take appropriate action. Peacekeepers fall under the jurisdiction of military authorities in their own countries, which is another factor limiting U.N. control of abuses.

Guehenno said the judicial handling of accused peacekeepers is “one of the areas where we need to do better.” He suggested courts martial should take place in countries where crimes are committed.

Guehenno declined to identify the countries whose soldiers were involved in the investigation but said misconduct by peacekeepers undermines the credibility of the United Nations.

“When we betray the trust they place on us it is unconscionable,” he said. “It is a big stain on us. We have to go at it in great determination.”

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