NEW YORK – United Nations military officials have the power to direct the troops placed under their command, but are relatively powerless when it comes to punishing them if they are accused of crimes against humanity.
That appears to be the case involving four U.N. peacekeepers from Bangladesh accused of sexual abuse and other crimes while on a mission in the Sudan. While each has been expelled from the Sudan, U.N. officials admitted Thursday that the world body can do little to make sure they are punished once they get home.
"For peacekeeping, the United Nations depends on member states," U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas told reporters Thursday. "They can only keep on asking to find out whether this is pursued farther.
"I think that's what they're trying to do. It's not a formal thing — it's a collaboration with those countries," she said, adding, "I don't know whether they [the U.N.] would be involved in the national jurisdictions."
Montas said Thursday that the United Nations is following up with Bangladeshi authorities to determine what's happened to the accused since they were sent back home a few months ago. Of the allegations, she said: "We have different accusations against them and not all of them are sexual allegations."
The Bangladesh Mission to the U.N. did not return a phone call by FOXNews.com for comment.
There are 13 other U.N. peacekeeper misconduct cases in the Sudan currently being investigated; some include sexual abuse and rape. Montas said she didn't know the exact number of similar cases pending worldwide, but stressed the United Nations has a "zero impunity, zero tolerance" policy for such activity.
The United Nations sends what's called as a "note verbale" to member states when an accusation arises, recommending what action to take against the accused offenders. A follow-up happens 30 days after that note is sent to find out what punishment, if any, was meted out.
"Sometimes there have been whole groups of soldiers repatriated ... because of alleged misconduct," Montas said. "There are some very proactive action being taken by DPKO (U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations) on those counts. I don't think even one case is acceptable, not even one."
What's frustrating to military commanders on the ground is that there is little they can do to offending peacekeepers, other than putting them on desk duty, restricting them to quarters, and requesting a full investigation and repatriation.
In "most cases" when U.N. peacekeepers are accused of crimes, Montas said, they aren't allowed to continue their regular duties.
The United Nations says it has made progress in the last two years in working with troop-contributing countries to ensure action is taken when credible allegations surface. It's up to the peacekeeper's home state, however, to punish them, officials said.
"What we want is to change the culture of peacekeeping," an official at U.N. headquarters in New York told FOXNews.com. "We're not there yet, but we are worlds ahead of where we were two years ago ... it's a good start."
He added: "There isn't any issue that we deal with that I think we take more seriously than this. We've thrown a huge amount of effort and resources and we've made real progress."
The United Nations says the get-tough message is getting through to countries. Recently, entire units have been kicked out of peacekeeping missions with the cooperation of the home state. Ukraine and Nigeria, among others, have cooperated with DPKO in disciplining their own personnel.
"It's very much something member states are taking seriously," the U.N. official at headquarters told FOXNews.com. "We are catching these guys and we're doing everything we can to make sure the message gets through: Zero tolerance. Meaning, zero complacency when we receive allegations and zero impunity when the allegations are found to be credible."
The United Nations depends on member states to provide peacekeepers to missions throughout the world. Because of sovereignty issues, the world body doesn't have the authority to discipline those blue helmets that misbehave, and participating countries aren't very willing to give the U.N. that power, either.
"The U.N. officially has a policy of 'zero tolerance' but the reality is that it's cognizant of these abuses for years," said Anne Bayefsky, editor of Eye on the U.N. "This is not an unfamiliar problem. The United Nations knows its peace operations are plagued with sexual exploitation and abuse and every once in a while, they produce another report saying 'we really have to ensure the zero tolerance policy is implemented,' yet the problem occurs over and over again so it's clearly not being implemented."
Because the United States is such a large contributor to peacekeeping missions, Bayefsky added, "the American taxpayer's entitled to ask some pretty hard questions about whether or not they should be funding, in effect, this egregious criminal behavior."
A spokesman at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations said "of course" the United States will make addressing peacekeeper abuse allegations a priority this year.
'A Whole Culture to be Changed'
The United Nations came under heavy fire after numerous reports of the rape of women and children, and exchanging food or money for sex, by U.N. peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo— the largest U.N. peacekeeping operation — in the fall of 2004. Peacekeepers have also been linked in the past to sex crimes in East Timor and prostitution in Cambodia and Kosovo. The Congo operation barred U.N. troops from fraternizing with locals, but that policy doesn't apply everywhere.
In 2005, the United Nations year fired 170 military and civilian personnel accused of sexual abuses while on duty. U.N. peacekeeping chief Jean-Marie Guehenno said at the time six commanders were among those sacked because they were responsible for their troops' violations of U.N. rules against sexual exploitation.
Since then, former Secretary-General Kofi Annan tapped Prince Zeid al-Hussein, Jordan's U.N. ambassador, to study how to prevent such abuses. He told the General Assembly in February of last year that it could take two to three years for a new reform program to take hold.
Zeid issued a report in March 2005 saying the problem can only be combated by action by the Secretariat, countries which contribute to U.N. forces, the General Assembly and by leaders on the ground.
Zeid requested that member countries hold courts-martial for their troops in the country the offense allegedly took place. But U.N. members balked at that idea.
DPKO has set up a special unit to deal with the issue. In the field, peacekeeping operations adopted measures to forbid sexual relations with prostitutes and with minors, and "strongly discourages" such relations with the host population. Conduct and discipline teams headed by senior experts also were established at the eight largest missions, and hotlines were established to receive complaints. The Office of Internal Oversight Services has a team permanently based in the Sudan that investigates all allegations of abuse.
"It's a whole culture to be changed," Montas said. "You have to realize you have thousands and thousands of peacekeepers and they are deployed all throughout the world in broken societies. So the problems are there. There is a definite efforts on the part of DPKO on trying to prevent the type of situation we're talking about — once there have been allegations, to listen to the victims and thoroughly investigate each case."
The U.N. official told FOXNews.com the main reform that will be pushed in the General Assembly this year on the issue is a victim's assistance package for those found to be subjects of peacekeeper maltreatment.
"We have 100,000 people in the field in 18 operations … peacekeepers are frequently the last best hope for these people," the official said. "There's a tremendous amount of good being done out there and it's a shame that the reprehensible actions of a few seem to overshadow the valuable work being done by so many."
FOX News' Jonathan Wachtel contributed to this report.