Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said sexual abuse is a problem that goes beyond peacekeeping missions and plagues the entire United Nations, pledging Monday to root out the problem “once and for all.”
The leaders of 57 countries joined a group established by Guterres to prevent sexual abuse and exploitation, the centerpiece of a high-level meeting to showcase the world body’s commitment to fighting a scourge that has darkened the reputation of peacekeeping missions around the world.
They included many of the countries whose military personnel have been accused of sex crimes while serving on U.N. peacekeeping missions. Some of the nations have yet to punish any alleged perpetrators.
“We are here to take bold, urgent and much-needed action to root out sexual exploitation and abuse once and for all in the United Nations,” Guterres said.
The Associated Press launched an investigative series in March on the U.N’s peacekeeping crisis, uncovering roughly 2,000 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation during a 12-year period. Most of the allegations were against peacekeepers, but other U.N. agencies were also involved.
Guterres said he has “been haunted by my many encounters with women and children scarred by sexual violence and further stigmatized sometimes by their own communities.”
He stressed that “sexual exploitation and abuse is not a problem of peacekeeping, it is a problem of the entire United Nations.”
“We cannot allow the unspeakable acts of a few to tarnish the work of thousands of men and women who uphold the values of the United Nations Charter, often at great personal risk and sacrifice,” Guterres said.
In March, the secretary-general announced new measures to tackle the problem, including a new focus on victims and bans on alcohol and fraternization for troops.
On Monday, he announced that 75 countries have signed or pledged to sign a separate compact committing to preventing sexual abuse. He also introduced the first U.N. rights advocate for victims, Australian lawyer and human rights advocate Jane Connors.
Hanging over the meeting were new allegations that the U.N. mishandled 14 abuse cases involving peacekeepers in Central African Republic.
The cases cited by the Code Blue campaign, a watchdog group, were investigated last year to determine whether the allegations could be substantiated.
Code Blue said that in eight cases the alleged victims were not interviewed, and 10 cases did not appear on the U.N. website where data is supposed to be released about sexual misconduct cases.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Monday that a preliminary inquiry determined seven of the cases were recorded in the tracking system and had been acted upon. He provided no other details but said a full investigation is in progress.
Code Blue criticized the measures announced Monday, saying it saw little difference from pledges made by the U.N. at a similar event more than decade ago. The group proposed that U.N. member states create an independent court mechanism to investigate allegations.
The U.N. lacks legal jurisdiction over its peacekeeping force and relies on member states to prosecute crimes by their own troops, making justice elusive in many cases.
One of the grimmest cases detailed in the AP investigation recounted how a group of Sri Lankan peacekeepers ran a child sex ring in Haiti between 2004 and 2007.
Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena was among the 57 leaders who joined the “circle of leadership” against sexual abuse. But no Sri Lankan peacekeeper has been prosecuted for a sex crime, despite a U.N. investigation.
Earlier this year, the U.N. announced four new child sex abuse cases in Central African Republican involving U.N. troops from Bangladesh, Congo, Niger and Senegal.
At the meeting, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said her country has dealt strongly with two sex abuse allegations it has received against its peacekeepers over the years.
“Bangladeshi peacekeepers have consistently maintained good image and credibility almost in all missions,” Hasina said.
She provided few details, saying only that one perpetrator was dismissed from the military and imprisoned.
Hasina also announced that Bangladesh was contributing $100,000 to a victims’ fund established by the United Nations.
The U.N. said $463,000 in initial contributions is being used to fund projects in Congo, where many of the allegations have been made.
U.S. President Donald Trump also added his name to the “circle of leadership.”
Earlier this year U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley cited the AP’s investigation at a U.N. Security Council meeting, warning that the United States could withdraw funding for missions where sexual abuse is rife and for countries that fail to hold perpetrators to account.