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Romeo Dallaire gestures to a reporter as he takes questions following the announcement he will retire from the Senate Wednesday May 28, 2014. The retired senator is part of a group opening a campaign to end sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and international employees.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

The United Nations is damaging the credibility and effectiveness of its peacekeeping missions by failing to tackle a serious crisis of sexual abuse by its troops in Africa and elsewhere, according to one of Canada's most famous ex-peacekeepers.

Roméo Dallaire, who commanded the beleaguered UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, said there is a "culture of silence" and near-impunity for UN peacekeepers in their missions abroad, contributing to the growing scandal over sexual abuse and exploitation by the blue-beret troops.

Despite reports of sexual abuse and exploitation for the past 20 years, the crisis continues with allegations of new cases and a systematic cover-up. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, reported 79 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers around the world last year.

The scandal reached a new level of notoriety last month when a leaked report revealed that UN investigators had found evidence that French troops had sexually abused children in a refugee camp in the Central African Republic in exchange for food. France has opened a formal investigation, and critics say the UN failed to take the original report seriously.

"It doesn't seem to be abetting," Mr. Dallaire said in an interview with The Globe and Mail on Wednesday. "What we've got is not working. It's undermined a lot of the credibility."

At a daily media briefing on Wednesday, UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric said the UN's handling of sexual-abuse allegations has "greatly improved" over the past decade, but he added: "At some point, there may be a need to take a look at how the whole issue is handled in-house."

Mr. Dallaire, a retired lieutenant-general and former Canadian senator who now works on issues such as child soldiers, said he has personally seen reports of sexual abuse among UN peacekeepers since 2001. "It's been continuing to accumulate, a festering situation that one would have thought we'd be able to resolve, but there hasn't been enough teeth to make it happen," he said.

"It's so damning, because it goes against the fundamental reason why you're sending troops there in the first place. We're not there to fight a war, we're there to establish security and protect civilians. So when the guys who are coming in with the job of protecting civilians are the ones who are abusing civilians, how can you establish credibility and be effective?"

The sexual-abuse crisis may be among the reasons why developed countries such as Canada are reluctant to participate in UN peacekeeping missions these days, since they don't want to be tainted by association with the scandal, he said.

Mr. Dallaire joined a group of international leaders on Wednesday in New York to launch a campaign for stronger action against sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers. Among the leaders were Graca Machel, widow of South African liberation hero Nelson Mandela; Stephen Lewis, the former Canadian ambassador to the United Nations; former Bangladeshi diplomat and UN official Anwarul Chowdhury; Theo Sowa, former chief executive of the UN African Women's Development Fund; and Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World, a civil-society group that has been leading the campaign.

They say the UN troops who should be "protectors" have often become "predators." Much of the problem, they say, is due to the UN's policy of giving the peacekeepers immunity from legal processes for any actions during their peacekeeping missions. The UN can waive this immunity, but the delays can allow evidence to disappear or witnesses to be intimidated.

The leaders noted that the abuse problem has been documented for 20 years. "The evidence is that things have not improved – they have gotten worse," Ms. Machel told a press conference.

The victims of abuse and exploitation by UN soldiers are "women and children who have been brutalized by war," she said. "Their eyes are still haunting us. We can't forget the pain they've gone through."

Mr. Chowdhury and Mr. Dallaire rejected the argument that nations won't want to contribute troops to UN missions if they don't have immunity. Bangladesh, the largest troop-contributing nation, "will welcome setting the standards high and keeping the good name of the UN," Mr. Chowdhury said.