Sex scandal in Haiti hits U.N. mission

The Baltimore Sun

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Girls as young as 13 were having sex with U.N. peacekeepers for as little as $1.

Five young Haitian women who followed soldiers back to Sri Lanka were forced into brothels or polygamous households. They have been rescued and brought home to warn others of the dangers of foreign liaisons.

The young mother of a peacekeeper's child had to send the toddler to live with relatives in the countryside after other children and parents taunted him with the nickname "Little Minustah," the French acronym for the United Nations mission here.

In the latest sex scandal to tarnish the world organization, at least 114 Sri Lankan troops have been expelled from the U.N. Stabilization Mission in Haiti for sexual exploitation of Haitian women and girls.

This poorest country in the Western Hemisphere has endured repeated occupation, each time suffering instances of statutory rape and economically coerced sexual relations.

But this time, the troops had been sent to protect them. The United Nations had taken measures to stop such abuse after revelations three years ago that its troops in Congo were having sex with girls in exchange for staples such as eggs and milk or token sums of money.

When the abuses in the Haitian capital's impoverished Martissant neighborhood were brought to the mission's attention in August, a unit of the self-policing U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services was deployed to investigate. Its report to the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations in New York remains confidential, but mission commanders repatriated 111 soldiers and three officers on disciplinary grounds in November.

MINUSTAH spokesman David Wimhurst said all violators of U.N. ethical policies are swiftly punished.

"The rules are very strict and very clear. There's a zero-tolerance policy," he said of the code of conduct that all of the nearly 9,000 U.N. soldiers, police and civilians deployed in Haiti must uphold. "You can't have sex with anybody under 18 or with anybody in exchange for money, services, promises or food."

In a country where more than half of the 8.5 million people live on less than a dollar a day, the parents and friends of girls engaging in sex for food or other compensation "tend to close their eyes and pretend nothing is happening," said Olga Benoit, of Haitian Women's Solidarity.

Young girls have congregated outside peacekeeping posts since the first U.N. troops arrived in summer 2004, sometimes begging, other times flirting or practicing a few words of English, French or Spanish. After dark, scores of young girls in skimpy shorts or dresses can be seen loitering in the streets, waving to signal their availability to off-duty soldiers.

Despite a successful campaign against the spread of AIDS in Haiti, sex remains a taboo subject. There is no sex education in the schools, Benoit said.

As with many nations contributing troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions, the Sri Lankan government retains responsibility for disciplinary action against its soldiers here. Authorities in the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo, in consultation with the commander of the 950-member Sri Lankan contingent, ordered the repatriations and deployed a high-level investigative team to determine the extent of the abuses. That inquiry has yet to be completed, said Wimhurst, the MINUSTAH spokesman.

A spokeswoman for the Sri Lankan mission at the United Nations in New York, Mahishini Colonne, said she didn't know when her government's investigation would wrap up or who, other than officials in Colombo, would receive the report. She said reparations to Haitian victims were likely "one aspect being considered."

Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue, the Haitian minister of women's affairs, said she believes the abuses might be more widespread than reported.

The United Nations has not shared its findings with the Haitian government. Lassegue said such a move was a necessary first step for Haitians to gather evidence to pursue reparations and dissuade misconduct.

"We don't yet have any perspective on the size of the problem," she said. "And my worst fear is that there are many others out there we don't even know about."

Carol J. Williams writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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