Tuesday, May 9, 2006

The United Nation’s “sex-for-food” scandal continues to spread. As the human rights group Save the Children documents in a new report, U.N. peacekeepers in the war-torn, refugee-rich Liberia have been accused of selling food for sex from girls as young as 8. They are the latest victims in a growing tragedy that includes girls from Burundi, Ivory Coast, East Timor, Congo, Cambodia and Bosnia, proving correct a prediction made last year by the assistant secretary-general at the United Nations for peacekeeping operations. “We think this will look worse before it begins to look better,” she said last May after efforts to investigate peacekeepers in Congo had fallen short.

The report found abuse at all age levels from 8 to 18, though the victims older than 12 were identified as being “regularly involved in ‘selling sex’.” But “all of the respondents clearly stated that they felt that the scale of the problem affected over half of the girls in their locations,” the report said.

Similar to other U.N. missions, the scandal in Liberia seems to be the result of inadequate training, zero threat of punishment and collusion with top mission officials and NGO workers. “In all the [refugee] camps where discussion groups were conducted, the Camp Management Committee and block leaders were implicated,” the report found. What’s more, parents of the abused children typically have refrained from complaining since selling their children for sex is the only way to get food.

Despite being aware of the abuse for some time, the United Nations appears to be operating at its usual sluggish pace. A U.N. humanitarian coordinator in Liberia, Jordan Ryan, told the Associated Press that the report was “outdated” and that “much has improved since then.” “There are good things that are now happening in Liberia,” he said, adding that those caught engaging in “sex-for-food” are fired.

That, unfortunately, hasn’t been good enough. It took U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan nearly a year of similar allegations from the mission in Congo before telling reporters that he was taking the matter seriously. When the United Nations finally did act, a handful of peacekeepers were fired. But the scandal continues to spread, suggesting that a more serious overhaul of hiring and training practices needs to be implemented.

Toward that end, the United States needs to exert greater pressure. Congress should take the place of an unconcerned U.N. bureaucracy and hold hearings to investigate how and why young girls continue to be at the mercy of U.N. workers. At the very least, such hearings would shine a much-needed light on these tiny victims, whose lives have been shattered by the peacekeepers in blue helmets.

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