The United Nations, on Friday October 14, 2011, screened The Whistleblower at its New York Headquarters, using the film’s theme of a contract worker fired for investigating the alleged complicity of UN peacekeepers in sex trafficking, to reaffirm its policy of zero tolerance for any such abuses.
“I was deeply saddened by the involvement of the international community, particularly the United Nations, in the abuses connected with the trafficking of women and their use as sex slaves,” UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon said at the start of a panel discussion after the screening.
“This movie tells that ugly story,” he added of the events portrayed, in which Kathryn Bolkovac, a UN peacekeeper under contract from a United States company, runs the office investigating sex trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovina and finds that peacekeepers, UN workers and international police visit brothels and facilitate trafficking by forging documents and aiding the illegal transport of women. The company fires her, and she eventually wins a wrongful termination case against it.
Ban detailed the many steps that the UN has taken “to prevent and punish such terrible abuses,” including the introduction of conduct and discipline units in each peacekeeping operation, curfews, placing areas out-of-bounds, rigorous investigations of alleged perpetrators, and their repatriation and punishment by their own countries.
“The bottom line is that we have made much progress since the dark period portrayed in this film. We also know that we still have much to do. This film reminds us how important one person’s voice can be. It underscores how important it is to speak out against abuse or injustice.
“Those who do so, in good faith, must not be punished, nor should they be met with resistance from within… We need to promote a culture in which people feel free and obliged to raise their voices in the face of wrongdoing and abuse.”
Among the guests on the panel was Uruguayan Ambassador José Luis Cancela, whom Ban acknowledged in his speech. Last month four Uruguayan peacekeepers serving with the UN mission in Haiti were sent home to be investigated for the alleged sexual assault of an 18-year-old Haitian man. Uruguay has said they will receive the maximum punishment if found guilty.
Panellists included the film’s director Larysa Kondracki and Madeleine Rees, a former UN human rights lawyer who was portrayed in The Whistleblower by the actress Vanessa Redgrave and who is now Secretary-General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Other panel members were Under-Secretary-General Susana Malcorra, who heads the Department of Field Support (DFS) at the UN, and UN Police Adviser Ann-Marie Orler.
Introducing the panel discussion, Under-Secretary-General for Communications and Public Information Kiyo Akasaka noted that the film highlights several issues high on the UN agenda – human trafficking, violence against women and cross-border organized crime – and depicts UN personnel serving in Bosnia-Herzegovina frequenting establishments where forced prostitution took place.
“These acts were in clear breach of the UN peacekeeper’s ‘code of conduct’ and, in some cases, were illegal,” he said.
“The UN mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina initiated actions to see that those personnel were held accountable. But we all know that what could have, or should have been done, was often not done.
“Sexual exploitation and abuse by UN peacekeeping personnel, anywhere, anytime, is heinous and unacceptable. It is a grave breach of the trust bestowed in the United Nations – by those who look to the United Nations for protection and expect of the United Nations the highest possible standard of ethics,” Ban emphasised.
The discussion was attended by more than a dozen high-level UN officials, including Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs B. Lynn Pascoe, Ban’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy, Under-Secretary-General for Management Angela Kane and the Director of the Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) Michael Stefanovic.