Sunday, December 17, 2006

LEOGANE, Haiti — Reports that peacekeepers raped teenage girls have surfaced in Haiti, where a United Nations mission so far had avoided the sexual abuse scandals that have sullied the international organization’s reputation in other parts of the world.

Natasha, whose real name is being withheld to protect her, says she was raped by a Sri Lankan peacekeeper in this quiet city an hour west of Port-au-Prince when she was 15 years old. Her mother forbade her from making a complaint, until now, nearly two years later.

“I thought they came for peace, not war,” said Natasha, now 17, who was the top student in her eighth grade class before she was forced to drop out after the purported rape. “I thought they came to protect us. I never thought they could abuse me in this way.”

However, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti has investigated 34 other cases of reported sexual abuse and exploitation since it arrived in the country 2 years ago. Among them is the case of a 15-year-old girl who in September 2004 accused a Brazilian peacekeeper of raping her inside a U.N. naval base.

U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said three investigations conducted found no evidence substantiating Natasha’s charges. The girl’s lawyer condemns the investigations as a whitewash, complaining that the U.N. never gave him or his client the final report.

No case of rape and only one case of sexual exploitation by U.N. personnel has been substantiated by the mission, which has more than 6,600 soldiers and 1,700 police officers. In March 2005, a U.N. investigation concluded that two Pakistani riot police officers had paid for sexual relations with a woman in the city of Gonaives. They were removed from Haiti, dismissed from the police force and sentenced to one year in prison by the Pakistani government, Mr. Wimhurst said.

“We take it very seriously,” he said. “Clearly, the vast majority of our people are behaving themselves, and indeed, since some of these allegations don’t pan out, I would say, it’s not a huge problem.”

Some rights activists say, however, that some victims are either too afraid or too intimidated by the U.N. bureaucracy to come forward.

“There are likely many more cases,” said Polin Aleandre, a social worker who claims five street girls ages 9 to 13 received sexual advances from peacekeepers in front of the national palace. “Sex has a huge stigma in Haiti, and rape even more so. People don’t talk about it at all.”

The United Nations has been rocked by a series of sexual abuse scandals implicating peacekeepers in recent years, highlighted by the revelation of widespread cases of rape, pedophilia and prostitution in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004. In response, departing U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan publicly admitted to the United Nations’ failure to stop sexual misconduct and began an internal effort to fight the problem.

Since January 2004, the United Nations has investigated 319 peacekeepers for accusations of sexual abuse or exploitation, resulting in the repatriation of 144 military personnel, 17 police officers and 18 civilian officials. The world body has no authority to punish wrongdoers and only can ask that their home countries do so.

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