Sex crimes by staff 'overshadow' good work: UN chief

Sexual exploitation by a small percentage of UN workers is "completely at odds" with the organization's mission and undermines its work, Kofi Annan says.

Sexual exploitation by some UN workers is "utterly immoral" and "completely at odds" with the organization's mission, Secretary General Kofi Annan said at the start of a conference aimed at ending the crimes.

Annan made the commentsin an opening address at the UN High Level Conference on Eliminating Sexual Exploitation and Abuse by UN and NGO Personnel. The conference in New Yorkdrew officials from the UN department of peacekeeping operations, UN agencies, member states, troop-contributing countries and non-governmental organizations.

Annan saidone act of sexual exploitation committed by a UN staff member was one too many.

"Even if it is only a few who take advantage of our positions of relative power in the countries where we operate, it is a few too many," Annan said.

"Our behaviour should be something that others can emulate and be judged against."

The officials were discussing ways to address acts such as sexual assaults, rapes, human trafficking and sex with adult prostitutes by UN staff. These include allegations of sexual exploitation by UN peacekeepers in such countries as Congo, Liberia and Haiti.

Since 2004, the United Nations has investigated 319 cases of sexual exploitation involving some UN staff. The investigations have led to the summary dismissal of 18 civilians and the repatriation on disciplinary grounds of 17 police and 144 military staff.

Most UN staff 'upstanding,' Annan says

Such acts do not reflect the "upstanding behaviour" of most UN staff and the uniformed personnel who serve alongside them, Annan said.

"Throughout the world and in difficult and dangerous conditions, these courageous men and women make invaluable contributions to our work for peace and human dignity," he said.

"It is tragic and intolerable that those contributions are undermined by the small number of individuals among them who have engaged in acts of sexual exploitation and abuse.

"Such acts violate the trust and respect placed in us by the communities we are sent to help. They cause great harm to women and children who already face extreme hardship and violations in their daily lives. And they overshadow in the eyes of the public our many achievements."

Already raised standards, cracked down

Three years ago, after officials from the UN and non-governmental organization worked on the issue, Annan issued a bulletin entitled "Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse."

UN member states recently adopted standards set out in the bulletin, which spells out prohibited sexual conduct, explains the duties of individual and managers, and applies to all UN staff, including those in uniform.

Annan said the UN has made progress in implementing the bulletin, including by handlingallegations of sexual exploitation more professionally, firing staff if they are found guilty, and sending uniformed staff home and barring them from future peacekeeping service.

'We have really only begun': Annan

However, the secretary general saidthe world body still needs a UN-wide strategy to implement the bulletin.

"Today our personnel are better informed about what is expected of them," he said. But there still exists in some member countries a climate where victims do not feel free to come forward to report such acts, he added.

"We have really only begun. My message of zero tolerance has still not got through to all of those who need to hear it, from managers and commanders on the ground to all our other personnel," he said.

Annan said he has put together a draft policy statement and comprehensive strategy for victims of sexual exploitation by UN staff to be discussed by member states. Annan said victims, and the children born of such acts, need assistance.

"No one in the UN is above the law," he said.

In September 2005, Annan set up a group of legal experts to examine how to strengthen the accountability of UN staff and related personnel, such as UN police officers and military observers, who commit crimes while serving in UN peacekeeping missions.

The group has issued its report, which includes a proposal for an international convention on the matter. He said he wanted that report to be discussed at the conference as well.

As well, after allegations surfaced about UN peacekeepers in the Congo, the UN's peacekeeping operations department tightened its procedures and put investigators in place to enforce its "zero tolerance" policy.