Whistleblowing on the UN

Peacekeepers were engaged in sex trafficking in Bosnia until Kathryn Bolkovac and Madeleine Rees did the right thing.

By Emma Bürgisser, Nina Maria Hansen, and Lucy O'Brien

It is a windy morning in Geneva, Switzerland and Madeleine Rees presses hard on her bike pedals to reach the corner office of the world’s longest serving women’s peace organization, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom—WILPF—where she has been Secretary General since early 2010. Stepping through the sliding glass doors at Rue de Varembé? 1, a sidewalk just next to the Geneva-based United Nations, she takes the elevator to the fourth floor, where WILPF occupies eight office spaces in perfectly organized chaos and creative clutter. She surveys the scene happily. It’s certainly different from her previous job.

Peacekeepers and Sex Trafficking

In 1995, Madeleine Rees, a British lawyer by training, had been the head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bosnia. One day she received a visitor, a woman peacekeeper named Kathryn Bolkovac, who had been a police officer in the United States and had been sent to Bosnia to work as an International Police Force Monitor.

After the peace agreements in Bosnia were signed, there had been a great increase in brothels in the area, as new peacekeepers arrived, as usual for peacekeeping economies that tend to intensify gender inequality. However, Kathryn Bolkovac had found that some peacekeepers were not just visiting these brothels as customers, but actively participating in the trafficking of women and girls for the purposes of sexual exploitation. These women and girls then faced the daily horrors of brutal gang rapes, sexual slavery and even murder beneath the bright lights of Bosnian nightlife.

Many of them had come to Bosnia under false pretensens—say, to work in a modeling agency or as babysitters—but were trafficked against their will by some of these international peacekeepers and others trying to profit off the chaos and lack of structure. Some of these women and girls died, while others still have not been able to resume their normal lives and probably never will.

But the story only starts there. Kathryn presented her findings to the highest levels of the UN when she had gathered all her evidence and could make strong cases against a number of individuals within the UN peacekeeping ranks. However, instead of taking immediate action to bring the perpetrators to justice and support the victims, the UN’s instinct was to protect itself. As a result, Kathryn’s contract was terminated and this story was never to see the light of day.

Fortunately, Kathryn then joined forces with Madeleine, and together they managed to finally blow the whistle on this enormous and powerful organization, while successfully suing the private military company that terminated Kathryn’s contract as well. Once the whole scandal came out in the press, the highest levels of the United Nations got involved, with many lofty promises made on improving accountability and protecting victims In other words, the UN did a thorough job of media management, unfortunately without much result.The United Nations had hired Kathryn Bolkovac through a private military company called Dyncorp, and most of the people who had engaged in that deplorable behavior were employees of Dyncorp. None of those men has ever been prosecuted for their actions in Bosnia, and most even stayed with the company. At most some of them may have been relocated, moved between companies, or have simply been rehired by now.

The reactions to Kathryn Bolkovac’s courageous actions have made her life very difficult financially, emotionally, and psychologically. She now lives in Netherlands with her partner. Considering these struggles, she sometimes wonders whether she should have done what she did. Still, she continues her advocacy work in improving accountability standards for peacekeepers and supporting victims of sexual violence and abuse where she can. Her book The Whistleblower is one example of these efforts.

This book was turned into a Hollywood film in 2009, The Whistleblower. In it, the English actress Vanessa Redgrave portrays Madeleine Rees. The film depicts the real facts of what happened to women trafficked predominantly to “service” the internationals there. It tells the story of Kathy Bolkovac, played by Rachel Weisz. The role of Rees is minor in the film, but it shows her as instrumental in shining light on the abuse by the Balkan peacekeepers and in creating a framework for assistance.

Madeleine left the UN in 2010, shortly after the film came out and circulated within the UN. She decided to join WILPF to be in a position to speak real truth to power and freely challenge the patriarchal systems that govern the politics of interanational peace and security.

Setting Some Standards

Ten years after these stories were first brought to light in Bosnia, WILPF is still seeing the same things happening on the ground. Sexual violence, abuse, and trafficking are still part of the daily life of many peacekeeping operations, but now the cameras have turned away.

For that reason, in 2012, WILPF organized two legal conferences with experts on international law. Part of the objective was to figure out how to prosecute these peacekeepers for sexual violence and abuse they may commit during their operations. Legally, it is very complicated to prosecute these cases for a multitude of reasons. For example, the accused is always from another country than where he committed the act. He might be hired by a private military company based in another country, and that company may be hired by another country or by the UN. There are also issues with immunity from prosecution. Most UN peacekeepers have some type of legal immunity that may hinder cases being brought forward.

Also, real and effective whistleblower protections are scarce in current UN operations. If someone has seen what is going on and wants to do the right thing, he or she will often become marginalized. And even if someone does get accused, often they have already been relocated before any proper or transparent investigation is allowed to take place. Civil society, let alone the individual victims, often have no way of even knowing who their attackers were or where they have been relocated.

For all those reasons, it is clear to WILPF that the current system of peacekeeping accountabilities is nowhere near the fair, transparent, and accessible process to which victims of sexual violence and abuse have a fun- damental right. WILPF will therefore continue its work under Madeleine Rees to advocate the UN for better standards, from improving vetting standards for private military and security companies hired by the UN to creating strong whistleblower protections. WILPF does this work under the banner “Paths to Justice,” in an attempt to highlight the difficult path to justice victims are facing right now, and the many different measures states and the UN have to take to assure everyone access to their fundamental human rights.

As for Madeleine’s future, anyone who knows her can tell you that it’s hard to predict where she’ll be in five minutes, let alone in five years. What we do know is that next year, in April 2015, Madeleine will be hosting one of the largest peace conferences of the century. Under the banner “Women’s Power to Stop War,” WILPF is bringing together thousands of women peacemakers from all over the world in The Hague, connecting, celebrating, and strengtening the 100-year-long struggle for sustainable peace. Together, the new peace agenda of the 21st century will be forged, and all peace activists are welcome. As Madeleine is now often heard saying: “See you in The Hague!”

The authors all work with Madeleine Rees at WILPF in Geneva.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2014

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2014, page 6. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Emma Bürgisser here
Search for other articles by Nina Maria Hansen here
Search for other articles by Lucy O'Brien here

Peace Magazine homepage