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U.N. Slammed for Refugee Sex Scandal

NewsMax.com Wires
Friday, March 8, 2002
GENEVA, Switzerland At a confidential forum, the United States and the international community castigated the U.N. Refugee Agency for the sex scandal surrounding the alleged mass abuse of West African refugee children by aid workers and "peacekeepers," according to senior diplomats.

The agency was firmly instructed to take urgent measures to deal with the crisis, the sources said Wednesday.

The U.S. delegation told a closed-door session of UNHCR's top executive committee Tuesday, "These allegations of abuse by the very people entrusted with care of refugee people are deeply distressing and utterly appalling to all of us."

Putting aside diplomatic speak, the United States said: "Protection is the core mandate of UNHCR. So, right here, right now, our objective is to ensure that immediate and parallel action is taken to establish the ground truth and to put measures in place to ensure that refugee children are protected from abuse."

Ironically, the storm is about the way UNHCR has dealt with governments and aid agencies after the disturbing findings of a joint survey it sponsored with Save the Children of the United Kingdom, to look into the problem of sexual exploitation in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea.

At the end of a 40-day mission in late October and November, the experts returned with alarming allegations of widespread sexual abuse by many of its aid workers locally employed by more than 40 agencies, including U.N. "peacekeeping" forces, U.N. relief agencies, and national and international humanitarian non-governmental organizations.

Senior Western diplomats told United Press International that although the agency's inspector-general was notified of the serious allegations in late November and the United Nation's Office of Internal Oversight Services in New York in early December, governments and NGOs were kept in the dark.

"The fact that UNHCR knew about the contents of the report for some time without informing the members of the Executive Committee, raises some rather tough questions," Norway's Ambassador Sverr Bergh Johansen told delegates.

It was only after the British Broadcasting Corp. publicized contents of the survey report on Feb. 26 that UNHCR revealed some of the contents of the still classified study.

"We deeply regret that these allegations of abuse were not shared with UNHCR donors and partner organizations earlier," said the United States. A long list of African countries including Uganda, Kenya and South Africa took the floor and called for total transparency, and for harsh punishment of the perpetrators, diplomats said.

African delegates also pointed out "the deficit of support for Africa" and the Kenyan delegation emphasized the abuses were "crimes against humanity," the same sources said.

An African ambassador told UPI that "many other moral breakdowns might be happening in other areas of the world," and "there should be no limit in geographical scope."

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the refugee agency's top official, Ruud Lubbers, said they were shocked and distressed by the reports of child abuse in the refugee camps.

Annan directed that the allegations "be investigated as thoroughly and urgently as possible," and reiterated the policy of zero tolerance for such acts.

Lubbers who also ordered an investigation, said, "There is absolutely no place in the humanitarian world for those who prey on the most innocent and vulnerable of the world's refugees."

But the belated reaction has not calmed the humanitarian community.

"Lask week, many of us expressed shock over the manner in which UNHCR and Save the Children-U.K. have dealt with the findings of the report," said Ed Schenkenberger van Mierop, coordinator for the International Council of Voluntary Agencies.

"Without being informed as to whether or not our agencies are named or not in the report, these agencies are unable to take some of the responsible management decisions that are urgently needed," van Mierop told the executive session Tuesday.

"We call on UNHCR to inform the agencies confidentially of the names of the staff that were given to the assessment mission," he said.

In a similar vein, after a heated meeting with the No. 2 official at UNHCR, nine international NGOs including Care International, World Vision International and Caritas International wrote on Friday to Lubbers and the chief of Save the Children-U.K. to express dismay at the refusal to share information with them.

The nine agencies said they were also surprised that remedial measures, including internal investigations and action plans, had been taken without the participation of other partners.

The European Union's ambassador, Carlo Trojan, told UPI that he was concerned that the serious and detailed allegations "are still in the phase of in-house inquiries," and said, "There's a case to initiate a judicial mechanism.

"In many of our countries we prosecute and punish" such perpetrators, he said.

Trojan noted that the U.N. oversight office had so far conducted an investigation only in Sierra Leone.

"There's something substantially wrong when the fate of the victims is given less weight by UNHCR than concerns over legal liability," complained a humanitarian official.

Despite calls by governments and NGOs to provide them on a confidential basis with the names of the 67 individuals alleged to have taken part, the agency has declined, citing "legal concerns and fairness," as well as the limitations of anecdotal information.

UNHCR also insists that furnishing the names might put child victims still living in camps at risk. The organization is prepared to reveal confidentially which agencies and NGOs are implicated, but not the names of individuals, UNHCR officials said. The U.S. delegation insisted that where the report identifies individuals, "those people should be suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. Those found guilty must be fired immediately and brought to justice."

"This calls for a special investigation bypassing established procedures," said a U.N. affairs consultant, who declined to be identified.

A number of Western ambassadors, who requested anonymity, said - given the fragile political situation of the three West African countries and the fact that so many agencies are implicated - the only way to secure justice for the victims is by creating an international tribunal.

"There has not been adequate concern for the victims," the Holy See representative, Archbishop Diarmuid Martin, told UPI.

Earlier, the archbishop stressed in the executive session that the victims are children "who have suffered trauma, the terrible trauma of sexual exploitation, which will remain with them in their future, long after the scandal has been forgotten by the mass media or indeed the diplomatic community."

He also said that because the crimes were committed in countries where conflict has made the judicial system weak, "[we] should not permit those guilty of such terrible offences to slip through loopholes in the international juridical network."

Deputy UNHCR chief, Mary Ann Wyrsch, conceded to delegates that the tragic testimonies "make it heartbreakingly clear that we failed. We must do more and we must do it now."

The United States has said it can help the agency, but told UNHCR, "Tell us what you will do and be quick, be decisive, be open."

One humanitarian group, Focal Point for East and Horn of Africa, speaking on behalf of a group of NGOs, said, "We must all take responsibility for this collective failure."

Copyright 2002 by United Press International.