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UN peacekeepers accused of thousands of cases of abuse, AP finds

April 12, 2017 at 6:25 PM EDT
A new investigation by The Associated Press found nearly 2,000 allegations of abuse and exploitation by United Nations peacekeepers in the past 12 years in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Haiti. More than 300 of the sexual abuse cases involved children; few perpetrators served jail time. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Trish Wilson of the Associated Press.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The peacekeeping force deployed by the United Nations has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. That is due in no small part to past allegations of sexual abuse by troops deployed in countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

A new investigation by the Associated Press finds the problem of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers is wider and even more disturbing than previously known.

Hari Sreenivasan has the story from our New York studios.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The AP found nearly 2,000 allegations of abuse and exploitation in the past 12 years. More than 300 of those cases involved children. And since the U.N. cannot punish peacekeepers from other countries, only a fraction of the alleged perpetrators served jail time.

The AP also spoke with officials in 23 countries who had troops serving as peacekeepers and were accused of these violations.

Trish Wilson is the international investigators editor who oversaw the AP story.

Ms. Wilson, thanks for joining us.

How did you come upon the investigations that were under way by the U.N.?

TRISH WILSON, Associated Press: Well, earlier last year, there was a lot of reporting out of the Congo and the Central African Republic about another wave of allegations against U.N. peacekeepers, so we decided to take a look at the numbers going back to 2004, when the first wave of allegations came out against peacekeepers.

And that’s what got us started. From there, we just kind of — we just counted the number of allegations per year that the U.N. had reported.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, you have zoomed in on Haiti and started to look at almost a pattern of behavior here. What happened there?

TRISH WILSON: Haiti has been singled out as being a country where a lot of these abuses have occurred in an unusually high number, given the total of 2,000.

So we just went to look and see what we could find out in Haiti. We compiled the numbers. We found 150 cases. We found a lot of cases involving children. And, as we were doing the reporting — we have a team in Haiti and we sent our investigative reporter Paisley Dodds to Haiti.

And, eventually, we stumbled across this internal report, investigative report from the U.N. which chronicled this amazing tale of children that were in a sex ring that was abused — and were abused by U.N. peacekeepers over a three-year period. It was nine children abused by 134 U.N. peacekeepers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, these children were paid sometimes, what, a few pennies or a dollar at a time for sex acts?

TRISH WILSON: Yes.

It was low as — there was food, yogurt, juice given to the children, who were hungry, and that’s why they did this. We saw — the lowest amount we found was 75 cents, and the highest amount was $20.

HARI SREENIVASAN: On the one hand, the U.N. conducts what you call a thorough investigation, but then what happens after that?

TRISH WILSON: You know, that’s what’s curious. It was really a very good investigation by the U.N.

They looked — they went to the children. They made sure that the children were not making it up. The children actually spoke Sinhalese, which is — which was very telling. They showed pictures of 1,000 peacekeepers to the children. And the children identified various locations where they had sex with these — or were forced to have sex, or lured into having sex by these peacekeepers.

So it was really quite a good investigation. What happened after that investigation is what typically happens at the U.N. and is one of the reasons why this is such an important study, or case study. It’s — the problem is that the U.N. is in a legal bind.

As you said when you opened the segment, it doesn’t have jurisdiction over any of these countries. So the deal is, here’s our investigative report. Now it’s time for Sri Lanka to come in and take a look at this report.

And, in this case, Sri Lanka did; 114 of those soldiers were sent home. But what happened after that is anybody’s guess. There is no accountability. There are no names of any of these people, and nobody ever went to jail.

So, if you can imagine, these kinds of corroborated crimes against children over a three-year period, corroborated by a U.N. investigative team, and then nothing happens.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you point out that there was — you said that some of these students — or some of these children were speaking Sinhalese, which is one of the languages spoken in Sri Lanka. And how would they have known it if they had not been in touch with these peacekeepers?

There were other countries as well involved. And it’s happening in other parts of the world. Yes.

TRISH WILSON: Yes, there have been allegations all over the world.

I mean, this particular story focused on Haiti. But we are looking at — we are doing a series. This is the first in a series that looks at what’s been going on with U.N. peacekeepers. So there have been, sure, problems in Central Africa Republic, problems in Congo with U.N. peacekeepers, as well as other places.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What’s been the reaction from the United Nations to this?

TRISH WILSON: Well, they say that they are very concerned. They do not think that this is acceptable.

They seem to want — they have announced yet another wave of reforms. But these reforms are very similar to what they announced in 2004, when the first wave of allegations became public.

So, the question is, well, how do you fix this? Is this OK? Can we really pay for peacekeepers to go abroad to protect people, and, instead, have this appalling abuse against the very civilians they’re sent to protect? No.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Trish Wilson from the Associated Press, thanks so much for joining us.

TRISH WILSON: Thank you for having me.

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