UNMIL investigating alleged sexual misconduct by peacekeepers in four incidents

Allegations of sexual misconduct by UN peacekeepers serving in Liberia have been substantiated in four incidents and investigations launched, the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) told IRIN on Tuesday.

"There were numerous allegations, of which four clusters of allegations were substantiated - meaning that there was enough information to suggest that possible wrong-doings took place," said Paul Risley of UNMIL, a force of 15,000 peacekeepers.

The UN Mission in Cote d”Ivoire, which has more than 6,000 troops, said similar inquiries were also under way there.

According to Risley, the allegations in Liberia first came to light at the end of 2004 and beginning of 2005 following investigations by the US-based Washington Post newspaper.

The newspaper, quoting an internal UN letter, said that girls as young as 12 were prostituting themselves to peacekeepers at a club called 'Little Lagos' in the central Liberian town of Gbarnga.

"[There] girls as young as 12 years of age are engaged in prostitution, forced into sex acts and sometimes photographed by UN peacekeepers in exchange for $10 or food or other commodities," read the internal letter.

The UN Secretary General's spokesman in New York, Stephane Dujarric, first confirmed the allegations on Friday.

"The allegations range from the exchange of goods, money or services for sex to sexual exploitation of a minor," said Dujarric.

Other allegations were uncovered with the establishment of a special hotline set up in January.

"Civilian or UNMIL staff can call and talk confidentially with either an investigator or a counsellor, which also contributed to the collection of evidence," said Risley.

According to Risley, special boards of inquiry have now been established. Their evidence can be used in a court of law to prosecute individuals - military or civilian.

"Most likely prosecutions will take place outside of Liberia as the majority of UN peacekeepers enjoy immunity from prosecution locally - except in the most serious of cases," said Risley.

"Events in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) set new precedents. We are assured that if any of these cases are substantiated and brought to court, that the home country of the troops concerned will press full charges," he said.

The UN peacekeeping mission in DRC is investigating 150 cases of sexual abuse involving some 50 UN peacekeeping troops or members of the civilian staff.

Alan Doss, head of the UN peacekeeping mission in Cote d'Ivoire (ONUCI), also told IRIN that similar allegations had been substantiated there.

"Yes some allegations have been made against individuals and groups. Though one case is a case too many, there haven't been a lot and each one has been followed up by an investigation," said Doss -- later confirming that only one sexual abuse and exploitation charge had been investigated.

Typical allegations included soldiers frequenting places where under age sex workers were present.

"Once a case is investigated, it goes to the military concerned for disciplinary action to be taken - and they do (take action)," said Doss.

Punishment can include imprisonment and even court martial, said Doss, though he could not confirm what penalties had been handed out to former ONUCI peacekeepers.

Both missions are establishing a complaints procedure to deal with cases of sexual abuse and other misconduct allegations.