U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently sat down with some of his senior advisors to watch The Whistleblower, a controversial new film that depicts U.N. peacekeepers as participants in the illicit sex trade in Bosnia.
Ban said he was "saddened" by the role of U.N. blue helmets in abuses linked to sex trafficking, the illicit trade which continues to be "ablight on humanity and our conscience," according to a copy of the confidential letter Ban sent to the film's director, and obtained by Turtle Bay.
The new movie, starring Rachel Weisz and Vanessa Redgrave, is inspired by the real-life story of Kathryn Bolkovac (played by Weisz), a Nebraska cop who served as a U.N. police officer in Bosnia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Bolkovac claimed she was forced out of the United Nations after uncovering evidence of U.N. participation in prostitution with trafficked women, a claim the U.N. disputed at the time.
The movie documents Bolkovac's struggle to save the live of two Ukrainian girls who get sold into sexual slavery in Bosnia. Her efforts are thwarted by compromised colleagues who themselves purchase the services of trafficked women and in some cases actually participate in trafficking.
She faces up against heartless U.N. bureaucrats who come across in the film as more interested in complying with the U.N.'s byzantine rules and preserving the organization's good name than protecting the lives of these women.
For weeks, top U.N. officials have debated how to respond to the film, which opened on August 5 in theaters in New York and Los Angeles. As Turtle Bay previously reported, the cases of sexual misconduct in Bosnia occurred under former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan's watch.
But one of the film's heroines, Madeleine K. Rees (played by Redgrave) claims she was forced out of her job as a rights defender at the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights under Ban's watch.
The film's Canadian director, Larysa Kondracki, recommended the U.N. hold a viewing for top U.N. brass. But some top officials advised against a viewing, saying it would be better to ignore the film, while others argued in favor of confronting the U.N.'s sordid past, and using the viewing as an opportunity to draw attention to sex trafficking.
Last week, Ban took Kondracki up on her offer, issuing her an invitation to show the film next month at U.N. headquarters to top U.N. officials and representatives of governments that supply peacekeepers to U.N. missions. He also invited her to participate in a panel discussion on sex trafficking. The U.N. General Assembly president, Ban wrote, has thrown his support behind the event.
"Last week, I saw the film with my senior advisors," Ban wrote in a letter to Kondracki. "I was pained by what I saw. I was also saddened by the involvement of the international community, particularly of the United Nations, in the abuses connected with the trafficking of women and their use as sex slaves, as highlighted in the movie."
Ban recalled that the United Nations was present in Bosnia for about a decade struggling to rebuild a country that was devastated by civil war. "Working closely with several international institutions, we tried to bring peace to the country and the adjoining region," he wrote. "Within the mandate given to us, there were many tasks required of the United Nations, some of which it did well, others it could have done better. Your film points to one area where our work left questions behind."
Ban used the letter to outline steps the United Nations has taken in recent years to address human trafficking, including the implementation of a "zero tolerance" program and the creation of a conduct and discipline office within the department of peacekeeping. "But I recognize, rules and measures alone are insufficient. The culture must change. I am determined to lead by example. At the United Nations we shall recommit to the fundamental tenets of international public service," he wrote. "I want to assure you that we shall embrace the challenge your film places before the United Nations....The vulnerable women whose condition your film showcases will not be forgotten. Thank you for raising this important issue with such passion."
The U.N.'s outgoing peacekeeping chief, Alain Le Roy, told reporters that the reforms have dramatically reduced the number of cases of sexual misconduct by U.N. peacekeepers, saying the number of sexual exploitation cases within the U.N.'s peacekeeping ranks has dropped to 84 last year from 350 five years ago.
But it has been difficult to assess the real impact of the reforms because the U.N. publishes scant details about the nature of sexual abuse cases. For instance, under an agreement with governments that supply peacekeepers, the U.N. does not release the names or nationality of suspected offenders, nor will it describe the alleged offenses. The U.N. General Assembly, meanwhile, adopted a resolution in 2006 -- after U.N. investigators uncovered evidence of widespread sexual misconduct in the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- that shifted greater authority for investigating and holding perpetrators accountable to their own governments.Follow me on Twitter @columlynch
Longtime Washington Post correspondent Colum Lynch reports on all things United Nations for Turtle Bay.