ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
United Nations peacekeepers are called in to protect some of the world's most vulnerable populations, civilians caught up in war. But in recent years, there's been a series of accusations that the U.N. forces have been sexually abusing the very women and children they've been sent in to protect. The United Nations says it has a zero tolerance policy, but critics say that's a policy on paper only, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was unusually emotional this week when he spoke about the latest allegations that a 12-year-old girl was raped and a 16-year-old boy and his father killed in operations led by African peacekeepers in Central African Republic.
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KI-MOON: I cannot put into words how anguished and ashamed I am by recurrent reports over the years of sexual exploitation and abuse by U.N. forces.
KELEMEN: He forced the head of the U.N. mission in Central African Republic to resign and summoned leaders of all U.N. peacekeeping operations to a video conference today. Ban's spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, describes the secretary-general's message this way.
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STEPHANE DUJARRIC: He stressed that zero tolerance means zero complacency and zero impunity, and that when allegations are substantiated, all personnel - whether military, police or civilians - must be held accountable.
KELEMEN: Activists call this a good start, but Paula Donovan, of AIDS-Free World, says it's not enough just to fire the head of the U.N. mission in C.A.R.
PAULA DONOVAN: He should also be calling for the resignation of the force commander. That's the person who's in charge of all the military operations in the peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic. And that should happen after any allegation of sexual exploitation or abuse in any peacekeeping country because this is system-wide problem.
KELEMEN: Her organization helped expose allegations that French troops abused young boys in Bangui in the early days of the conflict there, and Donovan says the U.N. sat on the information until it was leaked to the media. And this is typical, she says - the U.N. moves too slowly, whether in C.A.R or in Liberia or Haiti.
DONOVAN: The average investigation by the U.N. takes 18 months, so of course by that time, especially in a case of rape, the evidence has disappeared, the victims have been threatened, the witnesses have all been intimidated and it's impossible to move forward. And the U.N. simply stamps it unsubstantiated, not enough evidence to move forward.
KELEMEN: It is up to troop-contributing countries to hold to account any peacekeeper who might be involved in such crimes, but the U.N. needs those countries to keep supplying troops as demands keep rising for peacekeeping operations. And that points to a broader problem, says Stewart Patrick, of the Council on Foreign Relations.
STEWART PATRICK: As it currently stands, you have the wealthy donor countries including the United States putting in a lot of money for peacekeeping, but the actual troop-contributing countries tend to be from the developing world, and their training standards are - to put it mildly - uneven, and their discipline as well.
KELEMEN: Patrick says the U.S. could help countries investigate and follow up on allegations against their personnel and President Obama could keep the spotlight on this issue at a special meeting on peacekeeping on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly next month.
PATRICK: That is going to be an opportunity for him to really make this issue one that is front and center so that it no longer is something that is simply the subject of noble words but doesn't result in any real action.
KELEMEN: Patrick says there finally seems to be some momentum to try to resolve a problem that's been around for decades. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.