Since their first deployment in 1948, the blue helmets of UN peacekeepers have come to symbolise hope, safety and impartiality. Thousands of courageous men and women from countries all around the world have dedicated themselves to serving the cause of international peace. Over the years they have worked tirelessly to support those countries and communities attempting to reconcile and rebuild after horrific conflicts.
Peacekeepers are vital in supporting fragile peace processes, including securing the physical safety of civilians - particularly women and children. For this, we should all be deeply grateful. I am proud that the UK is set to double its military commitment to this effort and that we will contribute troops to two different UN operations later this year - in South Sudan and in Somalia.
But as last week's UN Security Council meeting on Peacekeeping Operations and Sexual Exploitation and Abuse highlighted, the reputation of peacekeepers risks being tarnished by the small number of peacekeepers who sexually exploit and abuse the very people they are meant to protect. In country after country, the lives of women and girls - and sometimes men and boys - have been devastated by their actions.
Sexual exploitation and abuse perpetrated by peacekeeping mission officials was first raised 20 years ago at the UN General Assembly by Graça Machel. Since then, horrific allegations have surfaced almost every year and around the world, including in Bosnia, in Côte d'Ivoire, in Haiti and in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Reports on responses to these allegations have catalogued indifference at every level, denials, cover-ups, witch-hunts against whistleblowers and impunity for perpetrators. Victims are therefore doubly betrayed: first by their attacker and then by a system that fails to hold that attacker to account.
Many attempts have been made over the years to prevent peacekeepers from perpetrating these crimes and to introduce better mechanisms for holding them accountable when they do. In 2002, a task force was established to determine UN codes of conduct in relation to this issue. In 2005, the Zeid Report on sexual exploitation and abuse was published and a two-year reform package initiated. In September 2015, the UN Secretary-General reviewed recommendations made by the High Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, including rapid response teams, mechanisms for local communities to report incidents or concerns, and the repatriation of troops.
Despite these efforts, it is clear from the awful stories that have emerged from the Central African Republic over the past months that much stronger action is required to end this scourge. I therefore welcome the UN Secretary-General's recent report on special measures for protection from sexual exploitation and abuse and his appointment of Jane Holl Lute as his Special Coordinator on improving the UN's response. With last week's adoption of the first ever Security Council resolution on sexual exploitation and abuse the UN seems determined to tackle this issue once and for all.
My work on the Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative has shown me that progress on issues such as these is only possible when governments come together to support the UN's efforts. That is why I am making it a UK priority to work closely with the Secretary-General to ensure that this terrible cycle of abuse allegations, outrage and subsequent inaction ends now. As part of this effort, the UK Government will provide £1 million to support the UN's work - and that of Special Coordinator Lute - to improve the suitability of deployed peacekeepers, design a reporting system that communities will trust, and ensure a stronger UN response to proven allegations.
As a growing troop contributing country we also have a responsibility to ensure that UK personnel perform to the very highest standard when donning the blue helmet. I want the UK to learn from the experiences of other troop contributing countries and share our best practice in maintaining armed forces excellence with others. All of us who take part in UN peacekeeping must do everything we can to make sure that our personnel do nothing to sully the relationship between peacekeepers and the vulnerable populations they serve. We must commit to ensuring civilians are well protected and to breaking the culture of silence that shields perpetrators.