The film “The Whistleblower,” has brought back into focus the horrors that were inflicted on many, many women in Bosnia as a consequence of the conflict, this time, not the rape of women in war. It was the sexual exploitation and abuse of women trafficked into Bosnia after the hostilities were ostensibly over. It is based on real events and I know because I was there (and am honored to have been portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave in the film). But I am uncomfortable. Many people have congratulated or thanked me for trying to do something about the appalling conduct of many of those working in the international community, for trying to set up mechanisms that would give real assistance to women and enable them to be heard and responded to. The fact is though, that we failed. It was never enough and there were never enough of us trying to make it happen.  When the worst ravages of this “trade” ended, it was not because we had stopped it, it was because the market had pretty much gone, literally, to other missions or home. The film should provoke us to demand that it is not left to market forces to determine the fate of so many women.

Everything portrayed in the film actually happened. It did not necessarily happen to those characters, but it happened. Kathy, the Whistleblower, lost her job. She has never worked in law enforcement since and her courage in exposing the truth ruined her professional career. But the real tragedy of the film is what happens to the young women and children. The youngest victim I met was 11. The real tragedy is that nothing happened to those who used and abused them. 

Trafficking is big business, “extreme capitalism”. The traffickers see themselves as entrepreneurs who identify markets and then provide the goods. In the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the perceived market was the 80,000 mainly male peacekeepers present after the peace accord, the “goods” were the women from an impoverished Eastern Europe, a region undergoing a painful economic transition. The majority of women were duped into thinking they were undertaking safe migration for a short period of time to work, earn a bit of capital, and return home.  Most were from Moldova, Romania and Ukraine but over time, the number of women from Serbia increased as well as the incidence of internal trafficking of Bosnian women.

The entrepreneurs were right. The market materialized and the trade in women for forced sexual exploitation burgeoned.  The initial phase was characterized by extreme violence and illegality, possible only because of the lawlessness that prevailed in Bosnia-Herzegovina at that time, and because of the lack of political will on the part of national and international organisations to address it.  There is no question that there was involvement of men from the international community. It is also incredible that they could believe that what was going on was “just prostitution.” 

I have been convinced of the arguments put forward by some academics and NGOs working with victims in Bosnia-Herzegovina that the tolerance of trafficking and sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) is a product of the militarization of the societies in which it takes place. There is evidence of similar activities and patterns of abuse in all conflict and post-conflict settings where there are peacekeepers, international police, aid workers and so on: the perceived market, which believes itself to be outside and free from the rule of law and thus can act with impunity. They are wrong in this, but absent any attempts to ensure investigation, prosecution and punishment, then they might as well be right. 

There are two elements at play: the issue of masculinities in a culture of militarization, and lack of adherence to international law. 

The first is an obvious outcome.  To believe that the existence of an ostensible “zero tolerance policy” will make a dent without a fundamental cultural shift in how men relate to women, and not just in conflict, is to be naïve.  It is that shift and how to achieve it that needs identifying. 

The second part, by comparison, is easier. It is a matter of interpreting the law beyond political considerations which have prevented any serious application to date, and to ensure that there are consequences for all who engage in sex trafficking no matter what role they play, from the recruiter to the man who buys the sex and commits the act of rape.

The doctrine of immunity has been the shield in the cover-up so far. It has been misunderstood and misapplied. Almost all functionaries in other countries have functional immunity. This is true for UN employees, for troops under the status of forces agreements (SOFA), and for private contractors hired by States.   Anything that is legitimately seen to be part of the job of that person is covered. 

Common sense dictates that the commission of a crime is absolutely not part of a job description. It is even more difficult to understand how crimes as serious as rape, sexual exploitation, slavery and extortion can be excluded, particularly when it is as a result of their position that the individual has the access, authority and ability to commit such crimes. 

The United Nations Secretary-General has responded positively to the film and this is to be welcomed and encouraged. He has admitted and regretted that there were “lapses” in the past. He has reiterated the standing of the zero tolerance policy, which means no procuring of sex whilst on mission. He has said that there must be more training and that “the culture must change”. But he must do more. He must ensure that the troop-contributing countries (TCCs) comply with legal obligations to investigate, punish and report men who rape women. In most cases it is not known if there have been any consequences for those who have committed criminal acts.  We do know, however, that men who have been sent home have turned up in other missions. The arguments put forward by the UN not to demand accountability is that TCCs will simply stop providing much-needed troops. This leads to the appalling situation that a man can commit a serious crime in someone else’s country and not be prosecuted for a reasons of political expediency. Sending troops is a very lucrative business: take a look at the substantial contribution peacekeeping provides to the GDP of many TCCs. How many would deny their military or police the chance to earn large sums though UN service? 

The SG should be encouraged by all to do the right thing as a matter of law and of morality.  Start with strict obligations on Member States to ensure training, regulation, investigative procedures, prosecutions and open and transparent reporting back to the UN. This is a minimum. Ensure that there is a senior official with responsibility to ensure monitoring and reporting in-country and ensure that it is possible for complaints to be made. The majority cannot come forward for fear of retribution and the UN cannot use the number of complaints as an indicator of real incidence. If it were, then we would be fooled into thinking it was not a problem in Bosnia.

There are many former and current UN employees who have tried to do the right thing. This film demands that UN and Member State leadership take up the issue and deal with it as a matter of absolute urgency. 

The human rights of all those women, and some men, subjected to this appalling violence demands no less.