The screening of the movie The Whistleblower comes to an end. In the dark room, the atmosphere is heavily charged with disgust and indignation. Massive applause blasts out from a fully filled theatre, both to appease the collective feeling of nausea and pay tribute to the courage and humanity of Kathryn Bolkovac, the former US police officer. She alerted the world to a wide-scale child sex-slave and human-trafficking scandal involving the international community in post-war Bosnia. Her mission in the international police force in Bosnia was brutally terminated, and after a two-year battle, a British employment tribunal ruled that she had been unfairly dismissed by Dyn-Corp, the largest contractor in this business worldwide. Kathryn Bolkovac was in Geneva on the occasion of the preview screening of the movie of her story, to take part in a discussion with stakeholders, experts and the audience. Although used to touring the world to raise awareness about human trafficking and sexual exploitation, the exercise had a bitter flavor in Geneva, a UN stronghold. She was exposed anew to the UN bureaucracy which had helped to crush her struggle to destroy the sexual exploitation machinery linked to UN personnel and international aid workers hired by private contractors in Bosnia. 

While recognizing that not enough had been done, Nathalie Prouvez, from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, mentioned “concrete” measures taken by the UN since the scandal was revealed: a “bulletin” by the UN Secretary-General announcing a series of “special measures”, the publication of “a comprehensive strategy” to eliminate future sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) in UN peacekeeping operations, a “revised draft model memorandum of understanding” between the UN and troop-contributing countries, a Conduct and Discipline Unit in charge of “providing overall directions for general policy on conduct and discipline issues”, and the adoption of a “Comprehensive Strategy” on assistance and support to victims of SEA by UN staff and related personnel. 

These measures have not prevented SEA from happening again in Kosovo, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo because there is no effective mechanism to enforce them. And there are still no international mechanisms to hold the perpetrators accountable for their crimes. The UN is facing the Member-States’ inflexible determination to protect the immunity regime and their legal sovereignty over fellow citizens working for international organisations. Should the UN refuse peacekeepers with no legal national commitment against SEA to enter the field? Would this push the States to undergo a moment of truth or would it possibly jeopardize the available forces for peacekeeping missions? Obviously, when referring to peacekeepers, every one understood who was really missing from the panellists. 

What makes the matter worse is the increasingly widespread use of private military or security companies in peacekeeping operations. The personnel deployed by these contractors not only lack a military culture or law enforcement discipline and leadership but they also enjoy a civilian status which discharges their home State from legal responsibility, and protects them from criminal military prosecution. A code of conduct for private security providers was developed under the leadership of Switzerland in 2010 and had been signed by 266 private security companies as of 1 December 2011. The code, dubbed a “window dresser” by some, is looked at sceptically because it was partially developed from the very codes of conduct that private companies had already brought forward and used for years, on a voluntary basis. 

Although a culture shift is felt in the UN, much remains to be done. In February 2012, the intergovernmental working group, established with great difficulties by the Human Rights Council, will examine a project for an international convention to regulate private security companies with binding legal instruments. But fierce opposition from the USA, the U.E. and Switzerland is expected to be shown against any such project that includes enforcement and accountability measures. 

From the panel, Madeleine Rees, who, as former Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, supported Kathryn Bolkovac’s struggle in Bosnia, painfully observes, “There has never been an apology to Kathy from the UN. There has never been an acknowledgment that what she did was heroic. On the contrary, she is still portrayed as having done something incorrect. If we really want to encourage whistleblowers, which the Secretary General says he wants, then the least that the UN could do is start by apologising and saying that what she did was absolutely right and absolutely heroic”

F. G.