UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday proposed cutting payments to countries that fail to investigate sex abuse accusations against their troops deployed in peacekeeping missions, among a series of new steps aimed at stamping out the misconduct.
The United Nations has been badly shaken by the wave of allegations of sex abuse by troops it deploys in missions with a clear mandate to protect civilians.
Guterres said in an annual report that there had been 145 cases of sexual exploitation and abuse involving troops and civilians across all UN peace missions in 2016, up from 99 in 2015.
The increase is partly explained by the fact that more victims are coming forward, with some allegations relating to cases from previous years.
Guterres, who took the UN helm in January, said the United Nations "continues to grapple with the scourge of sexual exploitation and abuse, despite great efforts over many years to address it."
Four missions have the highest numbers of cases: MINUSCA in the Central African Republic, MONUSCO in the Democratic Republic of Congo, MINUSTAH in Haiti, and UNMISS in South Sudan.
Under UN rules, it is up to troop-contributing countries to take action against their nationals who face credible allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation while serving under the UN flag.
But human rights groups have complained about the lack of accountability for peacekeepers. Many have avoided investigation altogether or received light punishment.
- Financial penalties -
Guterres proposed that payments to countries that fail to investigate allegations "in a timely manner" should be withheld, and that those amounts could be instead directed to a victims' trust fund.
The measure is already in place for individual peacekeepers facing allegations, but the proposal would broaden it to payment for the full contingent of troops deployed in a mission.
Pledging to "put victims first," Guterres called for appointing a special human rights expert who would serve as an advocate for victims' rights and report directly to him.
The allegations in 2016 came from 311 accusers, almost all of them women and girls, but Guterres said he was certain many cases were unreported.
In the four missions plagued by high incidence of sexual abuse, the UN chief proposed that a victims' rights advocate be named as part of UN personnel.
He also called for setting up a team of special investigators to better respond to allegations, stronger vetting of UN personnel, "prohibitions on alcohol consumption" and new guidelines for peacekeepers on non-fraternization.
Guterres said there was "no magic wand" to end the problem, but that the United Nations can "dramatically improve" its response.
The UN chief is under pressure to improve peacekeeping after the United States, the biggest financial contributor to peace operations, said it was reviewing its nearly $8 billion in annual support for the blue helmets.
Amnesty International said it was encouraged by the proposal to stop paying countries that fail to investigate abuse allegations against their troops and called on the General Assembly to endorse it.
"We are concerned, nonetheless, that there is still insufficient pressure on member states to ensure that incidents of sexual abuse are fairly investigated and prosecuted," said Amnesty's crisis response adviser Joanne Mariner.
Guterres announced plans to hold a high-level meeting in September on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly to draw support for his proposals.