February 13, 2005

Sex Bans for PR

Sex, peacekeepers, and futile UN measures.

David Goldenberg

The UN has an accountability problem. As a bureaucracy that runs an army, it has always had trouble controlling its charges. Its peacekeeping missions consist of foreign soldiers who can only be punished by their home countries. Now an emerging sex scandal in Congo is giving the UN a huge PR problem. But the UN's feeble attempts to show the world it has things under control are once again proving the agency to be more about bluster and less about results.

Late last year, the first evidence that UN employees were routinely taking advantage of local Congolese girls came into print (see this London Times article). Photographs and homemade videos show girls as young as 12 having sex with soldiers and other UN workers in exchange for food. Groups of soldiers were accused of gang rapes. Overall, over 150 allegations of sexual assault have been filed against members of the UN mission in Congo.

The UNís response? Instead of making meaningful changes in the way it runs its peacekeeping missions—such as demanding that participating countries give it the right to punish misbehaving soldiers—the agency decided to ban all sex between its employees and the local population in Congo (here's an article from the Independent).

Never mind that all of the allegations filed were about acts already contrary to the UN charter, including sex with juveniles, rape and use of prostitutes. Or that there is no way to enforce this ban. Or that journalists, including Kate Holt of the Independent, have documented instances of sexual assault in several other countries where UN missions have taken place. The UN is drowning in negative publicity (oil-for-food, anyone?), and its executives are hoping that this superficially hard-line stance relieves the pressure.

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Article by David Goldenberg

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