|For some, allegations of abuse have damaged the UN's reputation [GALLO/GETTY]
They are meant to protect the innocent and vulnerable in times of war and conflict. Instead, UN peacekeepers are sometimes guilty of perpetrating the very crimes they are meant to protect innocents from.
A spate of scandals involving UN troops, including child abuse, rape and gold smuggling, has left a stain on the UN's humanitarian credentials. And while they involve only a tiny minority of UN peacekeepers, or blue helmets as they are known, deployed around the world, they have shaken many people's confidence in the UN enterprise.
In May, a report by the British charity Save the Children found widespread sexual abuse of children by UN peacekeepers in southern Sudan, Haiti and Côte d'Ivoire.
"Children as young as six are trading sex with aid workers and peacekeepers in exchange for food, money, soap and, in very few cases, luxury items such as mobile phones," the charity's report stated.
The abuse extended to child pornography, prostitution and human trafficking of minors and the charity found that of the 250 boys and girls aged 10-17 it interviewed, half knew of such cases but were afraid to come forward.
The problem is not a new one; UN peacekeepers are alleged to have committed abuses in Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor, Kosovo, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone.
While, after each reported case, the UN is forceful in its condemnation and insists it is doing something to tackle the problem, it seems that with nearly every new UN peacekeeping mission tales of abuse and exploitation follow.
In 2005, following a string of scandals, Kofi Annan, the then UN secretary-general, announced the UN's 'zero-tolerance' policy on sexual exploitation by peacekeepers and appointed Prince Zeid Ra'ad Zeid al-Hussein as his special advisor on sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel.
In his final report, Prince Zeid described the UN military arm as deeply flawed and recommended a range of changes to help stamp out abuse.
His recommendations included that troop-contributing countries hold on-site court martials in cases of alleged abuse and that a UN unit, which would investigate allegations of abuse, be established.
Many of his recommended changes have since been implemented but the problem remains.
In 2007, there were 127 new allegations against UN peacekeeping personnel - down from 357 in 2006.
According to the UN's department of peacekeeping operations, as of December 31, 2007, the UN completed 123 investigations into allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse. The result of these investigations; 114 repatriations of UN peacekeepers and no suspensions.
|Peacekeepers in DR Congo were allegedly involved in arms smuggling [GALLO/GETTY]
So, is the UN really doing enough to stamp out the abuse and punish the offenders?
According to Michael Doyle, a UN specialist at Colombia University, 'enough' must mean the complete elimination of abuse.
"Peacekeeping is a sacred trust, a commitment to serve and protect the most vulnerable," he said.
"The UN can and should expose abuses that come to its attention and it should actively monitor peacekeeping forces to make sure any abuses are exposed."
In 2007, the UN announced additional measures which included providing victim assistance, conducting information campaigns and embedding investigators within UN missions.
Upon notification of a case of serious misconduct, the UN now not only informs the country concerned but also invites it to investigate the incident in co-operation with its own Office of Internal Oversight Services.
This approach was applied for the first time when Sri Lankan peacekeepers were accused of abuse in Haiti; more than 100 Sri Lankan troops now face court-martial.
But can the UN be sure that, if found guilty, they really will be held accountable?
Because of sovereignty issues, the UN does not have the authority to discipline peacekeepers who hail from its member states. And therein lays the problem. Only the peacekeepers' home states have the authority to try and punish them.
Equally, the UN has no right to conduct background checks on the personnel a country contributes to a mission.
In many cases of alleged abuse, the peacekeepers involved have simply been sent home, where they seldom face prosecution.
As peacekeepers enjoy absolute legal immunity, the host country is not able to step in and prosecute those involved.
The only power the secretariat has is to deport those allegedly involved to their home country, as was done with the Sri Lankan peacekeepers in November 2007.
The UN has sought the power to try offenders itself but this continues to be resisted.
Most peacekeeping troops come from the developing world; the largest troop contributors are Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria and Nepal, which together provide more than 40 per cent of all blue helmets.
The UN walks a fine line between acting forcefully to tackle abuse while not discouraging countries from contributing troops. With the number of peacekeeping operations around the world continuing to increase, and with close to 100,000 peacekeepers currently involved, the UN does not want to alienate contributing countries.
One creative solution has been the deployment of an entirely female peacekeeping unit in Liberia.
But while the UN searches for solutions, the problem continues and in August, an internal UN investigation found evidence that some Indian peacekeepers may have engaged in sexual exploitation and abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
These allegations surfaced after attention was focused on the UN mission in DR Congo following a damning report released earlier this year by Human Rights Watch.
The report accused the UN of covering up alleged involvement by Pakistani and Indian peacekeepers in arms and gold smuggling in eastern DR Congo, supposedly to avoid jeopardising any future Pakistani troop commitments.
While the UN struggles to address the problem, according to Steve Crenshaw, a UN advocate at Human Rights Watch, the ongoing allegations against some of its peacekeepers "undermines peacekeeping efforts and the reputation of the UN itself".