by Saul Hudson
Washington - United Nations officials fear the sex-abuse scandal among peacekeepers in Africa is far more widespread and appears to be a problem in each of the global body's 16 missions around the world.
As the world body seeks to crack down on the abuse, it could bar countries from missions if they fail to prosecute offenders, even though the UN is hard-pressed to find contributing nations, the officials said on Friday.
Rocked by widespread abuse of women and girls, including gang rape, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the United Nations also has found sexual exploitation cases in at least four other missions - in Burundi, Liberia, Ivory Coast - as well as more recently in Haiti, they added.
"We think this will look worse before it begins to look better," Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary general for peacekeeping operations, told reporters. "We expect that more information will come from every mission on allegations. We are prepared for that."
The undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, Jean-Marie Guehenno, said that up to now the UN had avoided identifying countries that were slow to court-martial their troops but that he had demanded action within weeks in some cases.
"They are aware of a very direct threat which is that if they don't get their act together we are going to tell them to get out of their mission," Guehenno said, referring to all of the peacekeeping mission and not just the Congo.
There are nearly 11 000 military personnel in the DRC to help keep the peace after a civil war. The force is the largest among the more than 60 000 soldiers in UN peacekeeping operations around the world.
The UN officials cited South Africa, Morocco and France as taking some action against alleged abusers in the DRC but said a stronger message needed to be sent that such exploitation would not be tolerated. Allegations have also been made against soldiers from Uruguay, Tunisia and Nepal serving in the Congo.
"The whole issue of the professionalism of peacekeeping is at stake," Guehenno said. "When you deploy with power, with money in a broken society, this is a very high-risk thing. That risk (of sexual exploitation) exists in all missions."
To address the problem, the UN is investigating peacekeepers' disciplinary records worldwide, has put specialists in conduct standards in some missions and told commanders they were accountable for any troops' abuse.
Guehenno said structural changes to provide a longer-term solution, such as additional training, heightening awareness of a code of conduct and issuing bans on sex with minors, had been inadequate.
He did not say if the UN would forbid peacekeepers from all sex with the local population - a measure it has introduced in Congo. But UN spokesperson Fred Eckhard said this was under consideration.
The United Nations is also negotiating with member nations a deal for annual reports to be published on what has gone on among troops from contributing nations, he said.
The United Nations has jurisdiction over its own civilian staff but military personnel are contributed by individual nations. Consequently, the world body has only the power to demand a specific country repatriate an accused soldier and punish him or her at home.
Charges of abuses among peacekeepers are not new. Canada and Italy, for example, disclosed more than a decade ago their soldiers had tortured Somalis.