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U.N., Haiti, Uruguay Probe Sexual Assault Claim

by Edith M. Lederer
Wednesday Sep 7, 2011
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The United Nations, Haiti and Uruguay are investigating allegations that U.N. peacekeepers from Uruguay sexually abused an 18-year-old Haitian man, the United Nations said Tuesday.

U.N. deputy spokesman Eduardo del Buey told reporters that the five alleged perpetrators have been confined to barracks pending the outcome of the three investigations.

The alleged attack occurred on July 20 but only became public last week when a video taken by cell phone was circulated and the U.N. announced an investigation. The Uruguayan military has called the incident at the peacekeepers’ base in Port-Salut on Haiti’s south coast a prank that got out of hand and says a preliminary U.N. investigation shows no evidence of rape.

"If the investigations prove that the allegations are true," del Buey said, "we would expect that these people be prosecuted in the full extent of the law."

In a statement Sunday, the Uruguayan defense ministry said a U.N. preliminary investigation had found that the men did not sexually abuse the Haitian teen but that they committed misconduct by allowing a civilian into their barracks and could face severe penalties.

Uruguayan Defense Minister Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro took a tougher line Tuesday, promising that the investigation will go down "to the bone."

In comments on the Defense Ministry’s website, he said Uruguay "should apologize as urgently as possible to the people and government of Haiti, give reparations to the victim of these abhorrent acts, be exhaustive in its investigation and apply the maximum imaginable sanction against those responsible."

Fernandez Huidobro stressed that members of the armed forces are prohibited from "referring to this episode as a joke, since the use of that word is shameful for any armed forces’ official because here there was no joke, but a serious aggression against a person."

The video of the encounter is clearly sexual in nature. However, a U.N. spokeswoman in Haiti, Eliane Nabaa, said the U.N. had not come to any conclusions - a view echoed by del Buey who said "we are waiting to see what the outcome of the investigations are."

Dr. Clifford Gauthier, a physician who examined the young man a month after the alleged attack, told the AP in Haiti that he found evidence that was consistent with signs of sexual abuse even five weeks after the attack. He said he asked the young man why he waited so long for treatment and didn’t get an answer.

While allegations of abuse have dogged U.N. peacekeeping missions since their inception over 50 years ago, the issue was thrust into the spotlight after the United Nations found in early 2005 that peacekeepers in Congo had sex with Congolese women and girls, usually in exchange for food or small sums of money.

The U.N. peacekeeping department instituted a "zero tolerance" policy against sexual abuse, a new code of conduct for its more than 110,000 peacekeepers deployed around the world and new training for officers and all U.N. personnel. Nonetheless, allegations of sexual abuse persist in Congo and elsewhere.

Nigel Fisher, the U.N. deputy envoy in Haiti, told the AP on Tuesday that all U.N. employees in the country had been told that "you have to behave with the best comportment at all times, and I don’t care what it is, whether it’s walking the streets, whether it’s driving properly, or behavior in the camps."

The United Nations doesn’t have the authority to prosecute those accused of sexual abuse but it has urged countries that deployed the troops to pursue legal action against alleged perpetrators.

"We’re very gratified with reports that we got from the Uruguayan Defense Ministry that they would take appropriate action if the allegations are proven to be true," del Buey said.

Haitian President Michel Martelly has "vigorously condemned" the alleged assault of the young Haitian, calling it an "act that revolts the national conscience." Several hundred Haitians demonstrated in Port-Salut on Monday, calling for reparations for the young man.

Protests, though smaller, continued Tuesday. About 50 people gathered in front of Parliament in downtown Port-au-Prince to press for the U.N.’s ouster.

The allegation threatened to worsen the reputation of the U.N. in Haiti which is viewed by many Haitians as an occupying force. Many Haitians are still angry over a cholera outbreak that was inadvertently brought to the country by peacekeepers from Nepal last year.

Del Buey was asked whether in light of the video, the U.N. was retracting its statement on Aug. 18 that the allegations of sexual abuse were unfounded.

"It’s not being retracted," he said. "We did not comment on the video because ... we didn’t know where the video came from, who took it. We don’t have a sort of chain of evidence to show that the video was bona fide."

"That video is now part of the court case that the family is bringing against the Haitian prosecutor, and the family is bringing against the five perpetrators. So the video is something that we would not like to comment on becase it is evidence in an ongoing investigation," he said.

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Associated Press Writer Raul O. Garces in Montevideo, Uruguay contributed to this report.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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