NEW YORK, Feb. 10, 2005 — -- Widespread allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of Congolese women, boys and girls have been made against U.N. personnel who were sent to help and protect them -- despite a so-called zero tolerance policy touted by the United Nations toward such behavior.
The range of sexual abuse includes reported rapes of young Congolese girls by U.N. troops; an Internet pedophile ring run from Congo by Didier Bourguet, a senior U.N. official from France; a colonel from South Africa accused of molesting his teenage male translators; and estimates of hundreds of underage girls having babies fathered by U.N. soldiers who have been able to simply leave their children and their crimes behind.
Ravaged by decades of civil war, and one of the poorest countries in the world, Congo has relied on the United Nations for both military protection and humanitarian aid.
"The U.N. is there for their protection, so when the protectors become violators, this is particularly egregious," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch who investigated the allegations on behalf of her organization. "This is particularly bad."
William Swing, a former U.S. ambassador to Congo who now heads the U.N. peacekeeping mission there, admitted the sexual crimes were a black mark on the United Nations.
"It pains us all," he said. "It's absolutely odious. And we're determined to wipe it out."
But Swing said the problem was just recently brought to his attention, and that only a small percentage of the 11,000 U.N. personnel in Congo were involved.
"A few people have managed to basically cause disgrace for the mission and for the U.N., and that's why we're determined to conquer it. I have sent a dozen home," Swing said. But human rights investigators have reported a far wider, even systemic problem, recording more than 150 allegations against U.N. employees in Congo.
And there is what human rights investigators have called "survival sex."
"We have heard cases where they have traded eggs for sex or bread for sex or a jar of peanut butter for sex," said Van Woudenberg. "These are not people who have very much. So they hang around the outskirts of these U.N. bases in order to try and get a handout, a little food. Maybe they can sell some bananas or some peanuts. And it has become not uncommon that peacekeepers invite these girls in -- and of course the younger the better, because there's less chance that they will be infected by HIV/AIDS."
The United Nations has documented cases where this has happened to girls as young as 11, according to Van Woudenberg.
Paying for sex, with food or cash, is strictly prohibited by U.N. rules. And even being in a place where prostitutes are available is supposedly prohibited by the U.N. Code of Conduct.
The United Nations said its crackdown on sex crimes includes a tough dusk-to-dawn curfew for U.N. personnel soldiers and a midnight deadline for civilian employees.
But at Café Doga, in the eastern town of Bunia, ABC News cameras caught a group of U.N. peacekeepers well after the curfew, partaking in drinks, dancing at a bar filled with prostitutes, and later loading several of the prostitutes into U.N. vehicles and driving away.
Swing said he had been unaware of such U.N. fraternization with prostitutes. "Well, perhaps my senior management there wasn't aware of it, and I will find out right away," he said. And when it was pointed out that several of the senior management were in fact leaving at the same time U.N. personnel left with the prostitutes, Swing responded, "I will look into it. It's not yet where we want to be but we will get there, I promise you."
U.N. peacekeeping troops first came to Congo five years ago to stop a raging border war, and the first reports of sex crimes began within a year of their arrival.
Men from roughly 50 different countries make up the U.N. forces in Congo, and the United Nations does not conduct background checks. Furthermore, U.N. troops are exempt from prosecution in Congo.
A contingent of South African troops was removed from Congo after numerous allegations of sex crimes against them. South African Lt. Col. Koos van Breda, accused of sexually molesting his teenage male translator, is now home awaiting trial in military court.
Congolese officials say scores of young girls in Congo were lured into sex with a senior U.N. logistics officer named Didier Bourguet, a French citizen who photographed his victims having sex with him. In one photo, on Bourguet's hard drive, which was obtained by ABC News, a tear can be seen rolling down the cheek of a victim.
Congolese officials suspect Bourguet was sharing these computer images with others in the United Nations, but he was sent back to France to face prosecution before a full investigation could be completed. He is currently in French custody awaiting trial.
"He is no longer a threat to the Congolese population," said Swing. "He's no longer effacing the image of the U.N. here. And I think it showed that we took it seriously."
Claude Deboosere-Lepidi, Bourguet's lawyer, said his client admits he was involved in systematic sexual involvement with minors that included other U.N. officials, and that the United Nations permitted an environment in which sex with young girls was tolerated.
Swing promised that the United Nations would make an effort to find the young women Bourguet photographed and include them in the U.N. victim support program. No such actions have yet been taken.
In fact, none of the victims interviewed for this story had received any help, of any kind, psychological or financial, from the United Nations.
One 14-year-old girl from Bunia was on her way to the village well for water, local police said, when two blue-helmeted U.N. troops, from Morocco, stopped her. One of the soldiers raped her, she said.
"We know that these people came to bring peace to this country," Dieudonne Shabani, the victim's mother, told ABC News. "So how come the same men who come to bring peace are doing this to my daughter? It really revolted me."
The family took their devastated daughter to the police and a doctor from an aid group filed a rape report with the United Nations. The next day, the family said the Moroccan commander from the United Nations came and insulted them by offering money for the case to be dropped. Nothing has been heard since.
At this point, said the Rev. Alfred Buju, the town's Catholic priest, the people fear the U.N. personnel.
"They're saying even to young girls, be careful to not be taken by those peacekeepers," he said.
Buju had his own exposure to the U.N. problem when he said he witnessed two Pakistani U.N. troops sexually assault a teenage girl in a church convent one morning last spring. After filing a report with U.N. officials, he said he was promised that the two offending soldiers would be expelled from the U.N. mission. But one month ago, Buju said he saw one of the soldiers involved in the assault at a U.N. checkpoint 25 miles away.
Another gaping problem U.N. officials failed to address is the hundreds of babies born to Congolese women and fathered by U.N. personnel.
Aimee Tsesi, of Bunia, said her 15-year-old deaf mute daughter was raped and impregnated by a U.N. soldier from Uruguay, and that she was turned away at the gates of the U.N. camp when she went for assistance.
"The U.N. is not able to give me food or money for my grandson," she said. "But if the U.N. hadn't brought this soldier here my daughter would not have become pregnant. And I would not be going through this suffering."
"What's going to happen to those children?" Van Woudenberg asked. "These are not women who are likely to find a lot of support for their children. So this is creating a whole different level of problem in the Congo."
And as of now, the United Nations said it will not take direct responsibility for babies abandoned by its troops, though Swing said the mission is "currently looking at a way to have a clearer and more viable paternity policy."
On the issue of reducing sexual misconduct among U.N. peacekeepers, however, Swing took a vow of personal responsibility.
"When you have an issue as serious as sexual exploitation and abuse of poor people you're trying to help, the answer is no, one can never do enough," Swing said. "Did I do enough? No. Do I need to do more? Yes. And I will."
To date, of the hundreds of allegations of sex crimes involving U.N. personnel, only two have faced any kind of prosecution.
"There's a lot of good words being said and I think there's a lot of good will about trying to deal with this, but we're not seeing concrete actions," said Van Woudenberg. "If you rape someone you can go home and never have to face any kind of criminal prosecution or any kind of serious deterrent. "This is unacceptable. How can this go on?"
Simon Surowicz and Jessica Wang contributed to this report.