ABC News' chief investigative correspondent Brian Ross traveled to Africa to investigate allegations of sexual abuse against U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Widespread allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of Congolese women, boys, and girls surround the very same U.N. personnel sent to help and protect them -- and all this despite a so-called zero tolerance policy touted by the United Nations toward such behavior.
Ross spoke with families of alleged victims, adolescents who said they provided sex to U.N. workers, and U.N. officials who said they are disciplining any staff involved in the abuse. But to date, of the hundreds of allegations of sex crimes involving U.N. personnel, only two have faced any kind of prosecution.
Here are Ross's responses to your questions about his investigation:
Gail in New Orleans, La. asks: Exactly who's responsible for policing and disciplining the United Nations? Are there any measures in place to protect the rights of women and children on an international scale in cases involving sexual exploitation? If so, who is responsible for enforcing them?
Ross: The U.N.'s system of accountability appears seriously flawed. Peacekeeping troops come from U.N. member states and are only accountable to their own governments. U.N. civilian employees enjoy immunity from local prosecution and as a result tend not to face charges in countries where they are stationed.
Miranda in Naugatuck, Conn., asks: How can an American citizen help to get the U.N. personnel prosecuted to the extent they need to be? People should not get away with this. Americans and the world are becoming complacent with Africa's issues.
Ross: The U.S. government is one of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, the ultimate authority over all U.N. operations. A citizen may wish to express its concern to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations as well as the executive branch of our government and urge concrete action by the U.S. mission for changes that make peacekeepers truly accountable for their crimes.
Cindy in Bristol, Tenn, asks: What can we do to help these poor people?
Ross: There are a handful of local, Congolese and some foreign NGO's that are trying to support victims of sexual abuse. You may contact producer David Scott if you would like to pursue this issue.
Penny in Branson, Mo., asks: Will you continue to follow up on this story to hold the U.N. officials accountable in the Congo? Also will you investigate the other places where the U.N. peacekeepers are -- to see if there exist systemic abuses by the U.N. peacekeepers?
Ross: We do intend to follow up on this story, and depending upon developments to look into other aspects of the problem in the U.N. system.
Jessica in Miramar, Fla., asks: Have there ever been past allegations of sexual abuse by U.N. workers in other poor or developing countries? And will any actions be taken against the other staff members involved in the sex abuse?
Ross: Dating back to Cambodia in 1993, where Bulgarian peacekeepers were widely accused of sexually abusing local women, this kind of misconduct has been a common feature of United Nations missions around the world. It is not clear whether U.N. personnel will now be held accountable on a significant or systematic basis.
Aimee in Venice, Fla., asks: What are the chances for those victims to seek legal compensation, i.e. can they sue and win? These are atrocities.
Ross: Because U.N. personnel enjoy immunity from local prosecution, it is extremely unlikely that any of the victims will see justice in the Congo.
Ava in Columbus, Ohio, asks: What are they doing about finding the father of the babies, and are there people looking after the women?
Ross: There is no evidence that we could find that anyone in the U.N. is making a serious or systematic effort to identify the fathers or to hold them accountable. In fact, the head of the U.N. Congo mission admits they have no effective paternity policy.
The babies themselves are seriously at risk. Keep in mind that their mothers are among the poorest people in the world, quite literally. And they are living in a war zone, which is the reason for the U.N. intervention. In this context, the babies abandoned by peacekeepers will suffer deeply entrenched poverty in the care of their struggling mothers. There is no institutional support system for them provided by the U.N. or any of its affiliated groups.
Nicole in Shoshone, Idaho, asks: Is the Congo the only place where these types of crimes have taken place? How can the U.N. claim to address the problem when the video provided by "20/20" proves otherwise?
Ross: The Congo is clearly not an isolated case in terms of alleged sexual misconduct by peacekeepers. Dating back to Cambodia in 1993 where Bulgarian peacekeepers were widely accused of rapes of local women, numerous U.N. missions have come under criticism for tolerating such misconduct. And the U.N. itself issued a scathing report about sexual misconduct by peacekeepers and NGO employees in West Africa in UNHCR operations in 2002.
Mahasin in Washington, D.C., asks: Thank you for uncovering the horrible misconduct of U.N. personnel in Congo. However, Congo is not the only country that is suffering from the U.N. "accupation" and not protection. I am from Eritrea and I witness the openly sexual exploitation of young Eritrean women and abuse by U.N. personnel every time I visit my country on vacations. I feel that there is no consequences what so ever for their actions. Will there be more investigations on this subject and do think the U.N. officials you interviewed will implement disciplinary action against their staff?
Ross: Dating back to Cambodia in 1993, where Bulgarian peacekeepers were widely accused of abusing local women, sexual misconduct has been reported in numerous U.N. missions. We would be interested in any specific information the writer has about the problem in Eritrea.
It is difficult to say whether or not the U.N. officials we encountered are in fact determined to take effective action against the problem. Some human rights investigators believe the U.N. is saying the right things but failing to follow up with corrective action.
Dee in Gainesville, Fla., asks: What percentage of the troops are estimated to be involved in the abuse?
Ross: We are not in a good position to quantify a percentage of implicated peacekeeping troops. Clearly, there are hundreds of allegations which may imply a large number of U.N. personnel involved in misconduct. Without a greater degree of transparency on the part of the U.N., it is not possible to quantify the number implicated in the hundreds of allegations.
Christian in Oceanside, Calif., asks: Regarding the Uruguayan soldier who raped the deaf girl, is this news back in Uruguay?
Ross: We are not aware whether or not this case has been reported in Uruguay.
Shannon in Milwaukee, Wisc., asks: Is there anything the U.S. officials can do about this? If so when, and how? How long has this been going on? What does the president think?
Ross: The United States government is a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which is the ultimate authority over all U.N. operations. As a member, the U.S. government could, if it wished, press the Security Council for a resolution that would make all serving peacekeepers directly accountable to United Nations. In the current system, peacekeeping troops remain accountable only to their own governments, member states of the United Nations.
To date the United States Department of State has expressed outrage about the problem and has called on the U.N. and member states to prosecute offenders. It is not clear if and when these calls will become concrete action.