UN peacekeepers routinely buy sex with everything from jewelry to televisions and even shoes in countries where they are deployed, a draft UN report says, in the latest damning revelations tarnishing its operations.
A third of sexual abuse allegations targeting UN personnel involve children and teenagers under 18, according to the report by the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), obtained by AFP Thursday.
Interviews done with victims in Haiti and Liberia suggest that the United Nations is downplaying the scale of the problem by underreporting cases of sexual abuse and exploitation by its peacekeeping personnel.
In Haiti, 231 people admitted to having "transactional sexual relationships" with peacekeepers in exchange for "jewelry, 'church' shoes, dresses, fancy underwear, perfume, cell phones, radios, televisions and, in a few cases, laptops."
The women interviewed in the report said they were hungry, homeless or needed items for their babies or their households.
A survey of 489 women aged 18 to 30 in the Liberian capital Monrovia showed that over a quarter of the city's women had engaged in sex with UN peacekeepers, usually for money.
When peacekeepers refused to pay, some women in Haiti "withheld the badges of peacekeepers and threatened to reveal their infidelity via social media," according to the report.
The report pointed to the surveys and interviews done in Haiti and Liberia as indicative of a broader trend in peacekeeping of trading sex for goods.
"Evidence from two peacekeeping missions demonstrates that transactional sex is quite common but underreported in peacekeeping missions," said the draft dated May 15.
There were 480 allegations of sexual abuse from 2008 and 2013 with the largest missions registering high numbers of cases, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Haiti, Sudan and South Sudan.
The OIOS reported that civilians serving in missions account for 33 percent of all allegations, even though they only represent 17 percent of the mission's personnel.
UN peacekeeping officials have pointed to a drop in cases of sexual abuse from 127 in 2007 to 51 last year, but the reductions "are partly explained by underreporting," said the OIOS.
The United Nations maintains it is enforcing a zero-tolerance policy for sexual misconduct and that it "strongly discourages sexual relations" between its blue helmets and the people that they are helping.
But the report cited widespread confusion among UN peacekeepers on the boundaries that should not be crossed.
There was a "general view that people should have romantic rights" and UN staff "raised the issue of sexuality as a human right," it added.
Taking action against peacekeepers who engage in transactional sex has been problematic. Civilian staff are often dismissed while cases involving soldiers are handled by the countries of origin.
Soldiers are barred from taking part in future peacekeeping operations while commanders are "insufficiently" made accountable for the sexual misconduct of their troops.
The final report, to be released on Monday, follows an outcry over allegations of child sexual abuse by French and African troops in the Central African Republic.
Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has ordered an independent external review after the United Nations admitted that those cases were poorly handled.
Responding to the report's findings, Under-Secretary of State Atul Khare said sexual exploitation "committed by those who should be protectors is truly abhorrent."
Khare noted that UN efforts to address sexual abuse allegations were producing results, with a "decreasing trend" at a time when there are more troops and personnel being deployed in crisis zones.
The United Nations has 125,000 peacekeepers deployed in 16 missions worldwide.