Still No One to Turn to: Child Sexual Abuse by Aid Workers and UN Peacekeepers

Aid workers, peacekeepers, and other local and foreign staff associated with the official international community commit significant levels of sexual violence and abuse against children, with much of the abuse going unreported, said Save the Children UK, in a 2008 report (located below) based on fieldwork visits to towns, villages, and rural areas in Southern Sudan, the Ivory Coast, and Haiti entitled: No One To Turn To.

The forms of abuse include: rape; sexual slavery, where a child is forced to have sex with an adult by someone else who receives payment; child trafficking linked with commercial sexual exploitation; where a child is transported for the purposes of child prostitution or sexual slavery; child prostitution, where an adult pays money to have sex with a child; "trading sex," where a child is forced to have sex for food and other non-monetary items or services; child pornography, where a child is filmed or photographed performing sexual acts; indecent sexual assault, where an adult touches a child in a sexual manner or makes physical sexual display towards them; and verbal sexual abuse, where an adult says sexually indecent words to a child. According to Save the Children UK, children as young as six are forced to have sex with aid workers and U.N. peacekeepers in exchange for food, money, and soap.

According to the report, a 15-year-old Haitian girl said to interviewers: "My friends and I were walking by the National Palace one evening when we encountered a couple of humanitarian men. The men called us over and showed us their penises. They offered us 100 Haitian gourdes (US$2.80) and some chocolate if we suck them. I said no, but some of the girls did it and got the money."

When No One to Turn To was issued in 2008, there was an outcry in the media and Times Online wrote about a 12-year-old child in the Ivory Coast, "Elizabeth," who was pulled from the road by ten U.N. peacekeepers and gang-raped.

The report called for the establishment of an international watchdog to investigate the sexual abuse of children by aid workers and peacekeepers. The charity recommended that effective local complaints mechanisms be set up to enable people to report abuses against them and that tackling the root causes of the abuse become a greater priority for governments, donors, and others in the international community.

Two years later, however, in the wake of the Haitian and Chilean disasters, little, if anything, has been done to end the sexual abuse of children by aid workers and UN peacekeepers. I contacted Save the Children, UK, about what it has done to address the problem, but no one bothered to return my call. I also contacted the UN peacekeepers in New York. The response that I received from the UN's Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), couched in bureaucratic language, sounded as if many meetings have been held, but no action has been taken.

According to DPKO's response, there is a Task Force on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse. The Task Force, however, does not specifically focus on child sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and there is still no mechanism for making complaints and having them investigated. DPKO's response to me stated that a working group of the Task Force is currently finalizing a guidance document on setting up community-based complaints mechanisms and conducting a review to assess the extent to which organizations and country teams have addressed sexual exploitation and abuse. DPKO did not provide an explanation why two years after No One to Turn To was issued a complaint procedure not only is not in place, but is still a work-in-progress. DPKO's review, further, is not specifically about child sexual abuse by aid workers or UN peacekeepers and no justification has been provided why this review was not conducted and completed in 2008.

The UN has a mandate to protect people of all ages who are under its care from violence, sexual violence, and abuse but it is understandable that eradicating those human rights violations is difficult. Preventing sexual violence and abuse of children by UN peacekeepers and aid workers, however, is possible. The UN and aid organizations should take action to implement procedures such as establishing a watchdog to investigate, punish, and remove anyone who commits such acts, and ensuring that each country where UN peacekeepers and aid workers are present has effective and confidential complaint procedures. Until these measures are in place, vulnerable children around the world will continue to be raped, prostituted, trafficked into slavery, and sexually abused by the very people sent to protect and help them.