The United Nations (search) soon will release a report on how to hold accountable peacekeepers accused of sexual abuse and other violations in strife-torn parts of the world.
The report's release later this month is the culmination of months of investigative work by Prince Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein (search) of Jordan. Its release is supposed to help the United Nations regain an even keel after being rocked by reports of the rape of women and children by peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (search). Peacekeepers have also been linked in the past to sex crimes in East Timor and prostitution in Cambodia and Kosovo.
The allegations are not the only problem facing the United Nations. They come as several investigations probe what happened to the U.N. Oil-for-Food program, a multi-billion dollar scandal that has led some to question the very legitimacy of the organization.
"It's devastating. It's a terrible set of allegations, that peacekeepers sent to keep the peace in poor, weak countries with vulnerable people who have not been able to have their rights protected for years, that some of them behave in this way. I mean, it completely undercuts our mission, and we recognize that," Mark Malloch Brown, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's chief of staff, told FOX News.
"He's [Annan] coming down on it hard, and he's sent the equivalent of his vice president, the deputy secretary-general, out to the main missions over the last few weeks to lay down the law, make sure everyone understood it."
Building a 'Culture of Accountability'
A major challenge for U.N. officials is imposing punishment on the guilty. Because of sovereignty issues, the United Nations doesn't have the authority to discipline peacekeepers who hail from its member states. And most countries don't want to give the world body that authority.
"It gets down to accountability and, the U.N. being an international body without sovereignty unto itself … It can't prosecute acts of heinous crimes of personnel and soldiers given to it by member states," Robert McClure, an American Army colonel who commanded an engineer battalion in Haiti to support a U.N. peacekeeping contingent, said.
McClure spent two years on the U.N. peacekeeping staff keeping watch over U.N. missions in Sierra Leone and the Republic of Congo.
"If you [allow the U.N. to prosecute international personnel], then you supercede laws of the international nations … how much sovereignty does a state want to give up to the United Nations? And the answer is, not much," McClure said.
When Annan tapped al-Hussein last November to work with countries that offer up peacekeepers, he charged him with not only making sure peacekeepers on the ground are following the U.N.'s code of conduct but also that their home countries deal with any criminal acts.
"[Al-Hussein] is putting forward a report, which will be out shortly, which will have a number of very strong recommendations dealing with these issues and we look forward to putting them forward and working with the member states to get these things accomplished," a U.N. official told FOXNews.com.
In the Congo, all but two of the 65 military personnel accused of sexual abuse or misconduct have been sent back to their home countries. Among civilian personnel, 17 are being investigated for illicit behavior. One of the accused individuals is currently in a French prison facing charges and accused of running a pedophile ring.
U.N. officials maintain that member states are beginning to take the matter of abuse by peacekeepers seriously. In Morocco, for example, authorities announced the arrest of 16 peacekeepers accused of sexually abusing local Congo girls and they discharged the contingent's commander. South Africa has followed suit, while Nepal has relieved some senior commanders in the Congo.
In the Congo, U.N. officials say they already have taken a number of steps to prevent more abuse. They have issued a non-fraternization policy, banning peacekeepers from having consensual sex with adult locals and discouraging social interaction unless it's part of their daily duties. U.N. officials maintain there's a strict curfew in place but a recent FOX News investigation discovered that the curfew was being ignored by some.
Annan has asked member states to provide 100 more military police to the Congo mission to help sift through abuse allegations, as well. Other steps apply to all U.N. peacekeeping operations and include establishing a "personal conduct unit" and installing code-of-conduct officers in all missions.
In-Country Courts Martial?
Since the United Nations can't impose punishment on criminal peacekeepers, one possible solution to this problem is to establish courts martial for military personnel within the country where the peacekeeping mission is taking place. The home country of the accused peacekeeper would do the investigating instead of the country where the alleged activities took place, since nations such as Haiti and Sierra Leone have little semblance of any effective law and order system.
"These are countries that want to be viewed as [having] professional militaries. It is very difficult to conduct a legal inquest thousands of kilometers from where it happened because you don't have access to witnesses and chains of evidence are broken," the U.N. official told FOX News.
Adding another degree of pressure to the United Nations is the U.S. State Department.
American officials are pushing for a number of changes to require:
— Instituting advance training for U.N. peacekeepers that makes it clear that sexual abuse and exploitation will be quickly investigations and dealt with appropriately.
— Requiring troop-contributing countries to commit, in writing, to provide such training and to deal swiftly with abuse allegations and report back to the U.N. on the results.
— Establishing a roster of people who have committed sexual abuse or exploitation while serving with the United Nations, promising to bar them from future service.
"The United States takes its responsibility with respect to U.N. peacekeeping missions very seriously. I believe other Security Council members do as well," Kim Holmes, assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of International Organization Affairs, said during a recent House committee hearing on the issue.
"Sexual exploitation of civilians is intolerable and we will place its prevention and punishment as a top priority in all U.N. peacekeeping missions," Holmes said.
But perhaps the most effective way to root out this type of behavior, McClure suggested, is the intense media attention being given to peacekeeping abuses.
"The exposure of crimes will in and of itself cause states and the practice to at least slow down and hopefully stop," McClure said.