By Charlotte Parker
It is easy to get lost in the Palais des Nations, the seat of the United Nations in Geneva. I think this is symbolic. There are thousands of rooms—and thousands of people working in them—each a cog that needs to work properly for the UN machinery to fulfill its mandate. Sometimes one gets forgotten, or passed over, and the machine doesn’t work.
Two weeks ago, I entered the Palais through the press wing and passed through ten different departments and two bustling conferences before I arrived in the big delegate room where the UN Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) task force was hosting a movie screening and panel on Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse (PSEA). The room was what you might imagine for an event of so many long acronyms: a dais, chairs for hundreds of people, microphones at each seat. I left after two hours of jarring film and discussion with a strong sense that the missing room in the Palais is an office of accountability.
The IASC task force on PSEA is a way for the UN to work with affiliated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) to make a standard worldwide policy for preventing sexual exploitation and implementing complaint and whistleblowing mechanisms. To translate the jargon: anywhere there are aid organizations or peacekeeping missions—the DRC, Haiti, Bosnia, Afghanistan, Liberia, Libya—there is a high incidence of sexual exploitation that ranges from frequenting local sex workers to participating in human trafficking operations. The people hired by the UN, member states, and private contractors to keep peace and protect human rights are, in many cases, violating those rights. Worse, as international personnel, they have diplomatic immunity. Most offenders go unpunished and often even continue in their positions. The IASC task force works to fix that fundamental problem across global agencies.
To spark discussion on the complications and challenges underlying its goals, the task force showed the 2010 Hollywood movie The Whistleblower. It’s a full-length movie based on the true story of an American police officer, Kathryn Bolkovac, who joins the UN peacekeeping force in Bosnia in 1995 and uncovers her colleagues’ complicity in a cross-border trafficking ring. When she is promoted to a position with the UN’s Office of Gender Affairs, she becomes more and more entangled in seeking justice, and risks not only her own life but those of the women she is trying to help.
It’s a difficult movie to watch, both philosophically and visually. The UN and civilian peacekeeping forces are made up of men who see no wrong in helping the trafficking ring cross borders in exchange for thick wads of cash. The trafficked women are raped, beaten, and kept in chains in the basements of the nightclubs where they work. And the Global Displacement Agency, an invented organization that nonetheless looks like a hybrid of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or the International Organization for Migration (IOM) releases one of the trafficked women, brought in by Bolkovac, to the mercy of the traffickers because she doesn’t have official identification.
The connecting thread between all of the issues that The Whistleblower raises is the failure of this international bureaucracy to protect the people under its mandate. The director of the GDA, played by an elegant and cold Monica Bellucci in a grey skirtsuit, shrugs and says “sorry, it’s policy.” Perhaps, after years of writing project proposals and policy briefings in an office building, it becomes easy for officials to forget the woman’s cry or the mother’s grief for which they, in the end, have become responsible. Even the abbreviation used at a global level to discuss issues related to trafficking—SEA, sexual exploitation and abuse—sterilizes the issue.
Then, there’s the question of power and agency. It’s hard to watch most of the scenes where Bolkovac interacts with the trafficked girls. The American woman is strong and assured in her police uniform. The girls are frightened and powerless, and Bolkovac’s efforts to help them are so informed by what she thinks is right that she deprives them of any real agency. There’s a horrible series of scenes in which Bolkovac promises two of the girls that they will be safe if they come with her and identify photos of two of the UN men complicit in the trafficking operation. “I will protect you,” she says. As she takes one of them from the GDA office in an armored truck, an unmarked car crashes into them. Two men—informed by someone in Bolkovac’s office— knock out the driver, kidnap the girl, and take her back to the nightclub, where she is brutally raped as punishment for talking. Bolkovac continues her investigation and raids the nightclub again. This time, to Bolkovac’s anguish, the girl won’t leave in fear for her life. The men blame her for the raid anyway. She is dragged to the woods and shot. Where, then, is the line between helping and harming? Bolkovac’s courage in the film is admirable but reckless.
At the root of the problem is perhaps that she has no official, UN channel to lodge a complaint or seek justice. The film is sensationalized at points for shock value, but the true Kathryn Bolkovac was, like her character in the film, dismissed from her post after uncovering her colleague’s involvement. Only some of the men she outted were dismissed, and none faced charges in their own countries. How, then, do we dismantle what Madeline Rees, the former head of the UN Human Rights Commission in Bosnia, called in the IASC panel the “architecture of impunity?” Since 1995, the UN has instituted an official commission to investigate whistleblowing claims, but of 300 claims in 2011 only one was compensated, and the legal protection doesn’t apply for civilians. The creation of the commission is a step forward from the culture of denial that shaped Bolkovac’s story, but there is still so much to be confronted.
There is no way I have touched or can touch on all of the subtleties of this issue in one blog post, after watching one movie and hearing one discussion. But I strongly believe that an awareness of subtleties can, at the very least, inform the way we speak of and look at international action on issues like human trafficking. Watching The Whistleblower is a devastating but important place to begin.
Charlotte Parker ’13 is in Berkeley College. She is an intern for the summer at the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. The views in this post do not represent the official views of IOM or its member states. Contact her at email@example.com.