The group released a report linking cases of abuse to 23 humanitarian, peacekeeping and security organizations. U.N. peacekeeping troops were identified in the report as the most common perpetrators.
“These abuses are perpetrated by a tiny minority of aid workers and peacekeepers,” Save the Children UK’s CEO Jasmine Whitbread said. “But that tiny minority is doing irreparable damage.”
Jane Holl Lute, assistant secretary-general in the U.N. peacekeeping Department of Field Support, condemned any and all sexual abuse by peacekeeping troops.
“None is OK,” Lute told the Online NewsHour. “We come in and people see us as their help, we come in and people think we are their relief.”
On Tuesday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement saying he was “deeply concerned” by the report.
“The abuse of children by those sent to help is a significant and painful issue and one that U.N. peacekeeping has — and will continue to — address candidly, comprehensively and robustly,” the statement said.
Save the Children’s findings were based on fieldwork and interviews with 250 children between the ages of 10 and 17 in Southern Sudan, the Ivory Coast and Haiti. The countries were chosen both because they are experiencing crisis and to illustrate that abuse is not just occurring in one region.
The abuses described included rape, sexual slavery, child trafficking, prostitution and trading sex for non-monetary items.
“Children as young as six are trading sex with aid workers and peacekeepers in exchange for food, money, soap and, in a very few cases, luxury items such as mobile phones,” the report said.
More than half the children interviewed knew of cases of physical sexual abuse by aid workers or peacekeepers, and some recalled 10 or more such incidents.
The group found that the majority of people who experienced abuse said they would not report it, in part because of concerns of reprisal or loss of necessary aid.
The inadequate response by aid organizations to allegations of sexual misconduct compounds the problem, the group said.
Lute agreed that the U.N.’s and other international aid groups’ processes for receiving complaints and responding quickly need improvement.
“We’re not responding in nearly as timely a way as we need to on genuine allegations,” Lute said, adding that the U.N. should make it a priority to establish ways to alert a community about the outcomes of abuse investigations.
While the report does not draw conclusions about how widespread the problem is, Whitbread called it “severe” and said any country in conflict is at risk for these behaviors.
However, there have been some successes in implementing new policies to prevent abuse in aid organizations, she said, and credited the U.N. for its code of conduct and progress on internal reporting.
“What is lacking is that safe mechanism for children to be able to go report, in confidence, without fear of reprisals, at a country level” as well as an international watchdog group that can help synthesize all the different aid groups’ individual efforts, Whitbread said.
Both are the primary recommendations of the report, which also called for better investigation of claims.
Lute indicated that the U.N. could be open to an outside organization monitoring their work.
“This is a stain on our record that we are trying to obliterate and if an external watchdog group can help that, I would be happy to do that,” Lute said.
The U.N. counts about 1,500 allegations of sexual abuse by peacekeepers in the past four years, Lute said. There are roughly 200,000 U.N. peacekeepers and military police worldwide.
In 2004, a U.N. report found that a “shockingly large number” of peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo were involved in the sexual abuse of young girls in exchange for eggs, milk or a few dollars.
This led to the U.N. “zero-tolerance” policy barring soldiers from having sex with locals. It also led to recommendations in 2005 that peacekeepers guilty of abuse should be punished and their salaries should be frozen. It also called for a fund to be established to help women and girls impregnated by abuse.
But Lute said the U.N. continues to have limited control over peacekeeping troops and disciplinary action.
“We rely on the troop-contributing countries to vet — and to stand for — and to vouch for the law-abiding quality of the troops,” Lute said.
They also have control over the discipline of the troops. For allegations of sexual abuse, consequences have ranged from imprisonment and being discharged from the military, to a verbal warning or — in some cases — nothing at all, Lute said.
Despite the U.N. moves, reports of abuse have continued. In November, the U.N. sent 100 Sri Lankan soldiers home because of allegations they paid for sex while stationed in Haiti.
But creating a comprehensive strategy to address prevention, reporting and enforcement continues to be a challenge for the U.N., Lute said.
“You can’t simply deal with this by having a policy, or conducting an investigation, or by heads rolling.”