A US Embassy cable released by Wikileaks (September 01) has revealed that United Nations peacekeepers from Benin stationed in the Ivory Coast lured underage girls in the town of Toulepleu to engage in sexual activity in exchange for food.

The cable, written in January 2010, describes a survey conducted by the NGO Save the Children UK of ten underage girls living in Toulepleu. In the survey, eight of the ten admitted to having engaged in sexual activity with peacekeepers in return for food or lodging.

Follow-up interviews revealed that the girls told their tale to other members of their communities, prompting parents to push their own daughters into similar activity, to “find someone who will provide for them”.

The UN Office in Abidjan (UNOCI) immediately issued a statement saying that “If these allegations are founded, it would be the responsibility of the countries from which these peacekeepers come to take appropriate action against those involved.”

Earlier (August 3), UN spokesperson Michel Bonnardeaux confirmed that 16 Beninese peacekeepers had been repatriated and barred from serving the UN, following a yearlong investigation. He commented that the reported activity was a “‘command and control problem’, on the part of commanders who failed to foster a sex abuse-free environment”.

Bonnardeaux reported that although 42 allegations of sexual abuse by UNOCI’s peacekeepers have been reported since 2007, there have been none this year. 

The scandal comes despite plans drawn up in 2009 for Sexual Exploitation Awareness (SEA) training for over 8,000 peacekeepers. The cable said that as a result of staffing gaps, the SEA campaign has not taken place nor had planned UN visits to peacekeeper battalions scheduled to take place at least twice during deployment.

Reports of sexual misconduct on behalf of UN peacekeepers have been widely reported in a number of countries, including Congo, Cambodia, Haiti and Bosnia. The latter incident has been recently documented in the film The Whistleblower, based on the experiences of Kathryn Bolkovac and her discovery of a thriving sex-trafficking ring involving peacekeepers of the UN Mission in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The July/August issue of The Global Journal features interviews with the two  protagonists who inspired the film The Whistleblower, including Kathryn Bolkovac.