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Human-rights activists accuse UN of coverup

UNITED NATIONS -- Human-rights activists accused the United Nations yesterday of effectively whitewashing a guns-for-gold scandal that allegedly saw its peacekeepers arm rebels they were supposed to be disarming in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In a letter to UN peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno, New York-based Human Rights Watch takes issue with the world body's findings that only one Pakistani soldier had helped smuggle gold from the resource-rich country and that no UN peacekeeper had been involved in gun-running.

The findings run counter to evidence collected by numerous non-UN observers inside Congo, which suggests the illegal trade was widespread.

"The Pakistanis were involved in a Mafia ring that included the Congolese army and Kenyan traders all smuggling millions of dollars in gold from eastern Congo into East Africa," New Brunswick-raised Anneke Van Woudenberg, who runs a team of Human Rights Watch investigators in DRC, said from Kigali, Rwanda.

"It's clear that the kind of support that was provided -- including access to UN cars and accommodation, and to providing them with UN security -- was well beyond one individual."

The allegations refer to events that occurred in late 2005 but did not become public until May this year, when Human Rights Watch and others spoke out as the UN investigation -- by the organization's Office of Internal Oversight Services, or OIOS -- dragged on.

Asked about the investigation as he left a meeting with the UN Security Council July 13, Guehenno summarized the findings, saying later the matter was closed. OIOS has yet to release its report, while Pakistan -- one of the biggest contributors of soldiers to the UN's 100,000-strong peacekeeping missions around the world -- says it is conducting its own investigation.

"We fear that the conclusion reached by the OIOS investigation may not have taken into account all available information," says the Human Rights Watch letter, signed by Kenneth Roth, the group's executive director, and Steve Crawshaw, its UN advocacy director.

It points out the commanders of the Nationalist and Integrationist Front -- the rebel group that allegedly provided gold for weapons -- admitted in a May 25 press release that Pakistani peacekeepers had provided them with both guns and ammunition.

On the same day Guehenno announced the end of the gold-for-guns inquiry, UN officials in Congo confirmed a new investigation was underway -- this one into allegations the mission's Indian soldiers had recently traded food and tips about their pending raids for gold from Congolese-based Rwandan Hutu rebels.

The latest scandal erupted over the weekend when the UN said it was probing allegations Moroccan peacekeepers had been having sex with underage girls in Ivory Coast.

"The environment is ripe for this sort of abuse, given the isolation of these missions, the age of the soldiers and the fact they have greater income compared to the often destitute people they're serving," said Ramesh Thakur, distinguished fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont., and co-editor of Unintended Consequences of Peacekeeping Operations.

He says the UN should consider telling serial-abuser countries that their soldiers will be excluded from service.

Canada recently led the crafting of a code of conduct for peacekeepers -- but it mandates no punishments for individuals who disobey, and even UN officials say it is only a "first step" currently without teeth.

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