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The United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the head of UNICEF, the UN’s children agency, voiced their outrage today at reports of possible widespread sexual abuse of children in West African refugee camps. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan “is clearly shocked and disturbed at the news…[and] has directed that these allegations be investigated as thoroughly and urgently as possible, and remedial action aimed at strengthening the protection of women and children be taken as necessary,” a UN spokesperson told a press briefing in New York. “The Secretary-General reiterates the policy of zero tolerance for any such acts perpetrated by anyone employed by or affiliated with the United Nations,” said spokesperson Marie Okabe. “He intends to act forcefully should any of these allegations be confirmed and undertakes to do so in a transparent and expeditious manner.” Ms. Okabe added that an independent four-person investigation team was already on the ground, looking into the allegations. The team, comprising a paediatrician who is an expert on child abuse, a staff member of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Inspector-General’s office and two officers from the UN’s internal watchdog, the Office of Internal Oversight Services, is expected to provide its findings in early March. Meanwhile, the head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Carol Bellamy, said that the agency was deeply concerned about the sexual abuse and exploitation of girls and boys “wherever and however it occurs,” and noted that the issue has been a key part of its ongoing work to protect the rights and dignity of children. UNICEF has also worked to raise awareness of the problem among governments, encouraging them to adopt legislation criminalizing all forms of sexual exploitation, and worked to sensitize UN staff, including UN peacekeepers, to children’s rights, Ms. Bellamy added. According to an assessment released late Tuesday by UNHCR and the non-governmental organization, Save the Children UK, much of the abuse is allegedly perpetrated by local staff employed by national and international aid organizations, including UNHCR. The information is based on testimony from children in camps located in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone gathered during a 40-day mission to the region by a team from the two organizations. “All of us at UNICEF are committed to ending the sexual abuse of children,” Ms. Bellamy said. “We stand ready to work with UNHCR, Save the Children, and other partners and governments to ensure the issues raised by this week’s report are fully explored, understood and addressed.” read more