(HN, October 17, 2011) - In a rare move, the United Nations has admitted the involvement of UN professionals in human trafficking and sexual exploitation and has apologized for their acts.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made the admission at a panel on human trafficking and sexual exploitation late Friday following the screening of the highly-acclaimed German-Canadian co-production, The Whistleblower.
(HUMNEWS was able to review a transcript of the panel today).
Said Ban: "I was deeply saddened by the involvement of the international community, particularly the United Nations, in the abuses connected in the trafficking of women and their use as sex slaves. This movie tells this ugly story."
Ban viewed the film in August with senior advisors and subsequently wrote to the director Larysa Kondracki and ordered the film to be shown at UN headquarters. Ban said he wanted to act after reading a letter from Kondracki. He said sexual exploitation and human trafficking has taken on "a frightening global dimension."
He added: "In all of our work it is essential to face up to difficult issues. When we fall short we must learn the lessons and to act on them.
The UN mission in Boznia-Herzogovina was the focus of the Canadian-German co-production, and centred around the true story of American whistleblower Kathryn Bolkovac- an American former police investigator from Nebraska, who worked as a UN International Police Force monitor in Bosnia.
Bolkovac was not only shocked to discover the sexual enslavement of young girls in the mission, but that UN peacekeepers and private contractors were major customers. The film documents a disturbing culture at the UN of denial, retribution and cover-up in regards to the abuses at the peace keeping mission. It stars Rachel Weisz, Monica Bellucci, and Vanessa Redgrave.
Referring to the peace keppers' acts portrayed in the film, Ban said: "These acts were in clear breach of UN Peace Keepers code of conduct, and in some cases, were illegal...We all know that what could have been done and should have been done was often not done."
Ban said several steps have been taken by the organization since the revelations have come to light.
He said the UN now has clear policy shaped by the story in the film. "That policy is no tolerance, none." He added clear policies and codes of conduct are now in place for staff in the field, including curfews and delineation of out-of-bounds areas for UN personnel.
Ban also said that by 2014, the UN police should consist of about 20 percent.
"The bottom line is that we have made much progress since the dark period portrayed in this film..But we also know that we still have much to do," said Ban.
For her part, Kondracki told the panel that much more needs to be done. "I do worry...but rhetoric only goes so far," she said, adding that sexual exploitation is still continuing.
Kondracki also pointed out that the UN only notified the main protagonist of the film, Bolkovic, was only invited to the panel six days ago.
Bolkovic, she said, has never received a formal apology from the UN, nor was her record ever cleared.
Madeleine Rees, former UN rights lawyer and secretary of the Women’s International League For Peace And Freedom (played in the film by Redgrave), also attended the panel. She said the panel would have never taken place without the appearance of the film.
Rees said she is often asked if there is more she could have done during the difficult time portrayed in the film. "We were blocked every time by the very people we were trying to work with. And I feel guilty for that."
She said that the only time that the trafficking stopped was when the peace keepers went away.
The Whistleblower, Rees added, accurately portrayed the shocking reality on the ground in post-conflict Bosnia: "Everything that happened in the film is true, and I know because I was there...What you saw happened to the girls in that film did happen.
"But we will never know to how many because we weren't able to keep the records."
Rees said that when she first raised concerns about UN peace keepers involvement in sex trafficking, she was met with giggles, boredom and was even told off.
The panel appeared to reveal a split in opinions, with UN officials taking a defensive stance for their actions since the accusations came to light. "In practical terms..we have moved a lot. We have many more instruments than we did 10 years ago," said UN Under-Secretary General Susana Malcorra.
In an email response in HUMNEWS today, Kondracki said she remains cautiously optimistic.
"I hope for more than just rhetoric. The Secretary General was apologetic, he spoke how this film raises the issue about the importance of the single voice, and how we need courageous people to continue to stand up against abuse.
"But Kathy (Bolkovic) still hasn't been recognized for her work. The UN still claims she was fired for time sheet violations - so until at the very least that is corrected, I don't have full faith in the zero tolerance policy he is citing.
"I'm hoping that apology to Kathy and to the thousands of victims of the rape, kidnapping, murder and torture committed not only by peace keepers but then covered up by high-level diplomats, is forthcoming. It would signal to me the start of genuine reforms."
Currently, the UN is sponsoring 18 peace keeping operations and special missions, utilizing 14,000 individuals. They serve between six and 18 months, and are then rotated. "The vast majority of these officers do excellent work, some do not," said Ann-Marie Orler of Sweden, who is the Police Officer in DPKO.
- HUMNEWS staff