The reputation of United Nations peacekeeping missions suffered a humiliating blow yesterday as an internal report identified repeated patterns of sexual abuse and rape perpetrated by soldiers supposed to be restoring the international rule of law.
The highly critical study, published by Jordan's ambassador to the UN assembly, was endorsed by the organisation's embattled secretary general, Kofi Annan, who condemned such "abhorrent acts" as a "violation of the fundamental duty of care".
The embarrassment caused by the misconduct of UN forces in devastated communities around the world - including Haiti, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, Cambodia , East Timor and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) - has become an increasingly high profile, political problem.
Allegations have recently surfaced that troops sent to police Liberia were regularly having sex with girls aged as young as 12, sometimes in the mission's administrative buildings.
In the DRC, peacekeepers were said to have offered abandoned orphans small gifts - as little as two eggs from their rations, says the report - for sexual encounters.
Used condoms, an inquiry by the UN's Office of Internal Oversight Services discovered, littered the perimeter of military camps and guard posts.
Alarm about the involvement of UN peacekeepers in sex trafficking first became widespread during the 1990s when investigators found soldiers were customers in brothels run in Bosnia and Kosovo which relied on women sold into forced prostitution. One recent estimate suggested up to 2,000 women have been coerced into sex slavery in Kosovo.
Yesterday's report, by Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein, was commissioned to reform the way in which troops behave on UN missions. It was also aimed at devising a new investigative framework to detect and deter soldiers exploiting young victims, who are often impoverished refugees.
The UN is coordinating 17 mandated, peacekeeping operations around the globe, involving a deployment of 75,000 personnel from scores of contributing nations.
"Despite the distinguished role that United Nations peacekeeping personnel have played over the last half-century," the study notes, "there regrettably will always be those who violate codes of conduct and dishonour the many who have given their lives in the cause of peace. Sexual exploitation and abuse by military, civilian police and civilian peacekeeping personnel is not a new phenomenon."
But the study, released at the UN's headquarters in New York, adds: "The reality of prostitution and other sexual exploitation in a peacekeeping context is profoundly disturbing because the United Nations has been mandated to enter into a broken society to help it, not to breach the trust placed in it by the local population." There have even been reports of paedophilia committed by peacekeepers.
Entitled A Comprehensive Strategy To Eliminate Future Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in United Nations Peacekeeping Operations, the document insists that UN interventions operate on the principle that they will not "in any way increase the suffering of vulnerable sectors of [a] population".
In the DRC, the report says, "sexual exploitation and abuse mostly involves the exchange of sex for money (on average $1-$3 per encounter), for food (for immediate consumption or to barter later) or for jobs".
Sexual exploitation by peacekeepers may threaten the security of missions, the study suggests, exposing them "to blackmail and violent retaliation". It also speeds the transmission of HIV/Aids.
"Victims frequently suffer from psychological trauma as a result of their experiences. Victims and abandoned peacekeeper babies may face stigmatisation by their families and communities, which deprive them of all support."
One possible precaution, Prince Zeid contemplates, is to ban all sexual relations between local populations and members of resident UN military missions in high-risk areas. It would "protect the reputation and credibility of the mission" and safeguard "a local population highly vulnerable to abuse".
Another solution may be to encourage better recreational facilities for soldiers off duty. "Sites could [contain] sports areas, free internet facilities and subsidised telephone lines to facilitate contact with family and friends."
An increase in the percentage of female peacekeeping personnel would help, the report observes. "The presence of more women in a mission, especially at senior levels, will help to promote an environment that discourages sexual exploitation and abuse."
But the report's more radical recommendations are contained in proposals to over haul the investigation of allegations of rape and abuse. Courts martial, it says, should be set up within mission areas for "serious offences" to ensure immediate access to witnesses and evidence.
They would demonstrate that there was "no impunity for acts of sexual exploitation and abuse by members of military contingents". At present many of the accused return to their home countries where prosecutions are rarely pursued.
There have been exceptions. In the DRC, France recently jailed one UN civilian employee for rape and making pornographic films. South Africa and Morocco have also taken action against others.
Soldiers found guilty should have their pay docked and be made financially accountable, the report says.
It adds that there should be "DNA and other tests to establish paternity" and fathers forced to provide child support.