Hollywood, Sex Trafficking and the United Nations

I recently saw The Whistleblower, a film about sex trafficking involving United Nations, diplomatic and international military personnel in Bosnia some 10 years ago. It was well done as far as these things go, but the reaction of the audience at the end of the film was depressing. When the postscript noted that none of those involved in trafficking had been arrested, much less prosecuted, there was an audible gasp in the theater. Frankly, it was embarrassing.

I worked for the United Nations mission in Bosnia for more than four years, from 1995 to late 1999. It disturbs me greatly that the impression the world has of this mission is of one that tolerates torture, abuse and sexual slavery because of the despicable acts of a few.

Certainly too many people were killed, raped, maimed, held in detention camps and subject to extreme hardship, including lack of basic utilities and sanitation during the war in Bosnia. (If you thought it was a pain living without electricity and water after Hurricane Irene blew through town, you should try it with snipers across the street.)

Despite the impression left by the film, the failure of peacekeeping missions to protect the local population is not simply because of a lack of integrity of UN staff. I can personally attest to the incredible courage, determination and honor of the overwhelming majority of my colleagues -- like the character played by Rachel Weisz in the film -- some of whom gave their lives in pursuit of peace and justice. We helped as many people as we could, even if it was not enough.

More typically, the failure to protect is set in motion by weak, ineffective or utterly non-existent policy in capital cities around the world, including Washington, London, Paris and Moscow. I'm not suggesting that personnel in the field are never to blame when things go awry. But in my experience, field missions fail because they lack the international support -- principally political, military and logistical -- necessary to succeed. Certainly, this was the case in Bosnia.

There are other reasons peacekeeping missions fail, including intransigence of local political and military leaders, ineffective leadership at the mission's most senior levels and a general deficiency in the structure and staffing of civilian police missions.

Because the rule of law is usually on life support in a peacekeeping mission, international civilian police officers are typically dispatched to train, supervise and/or monitor the local police. Despite minimum deployment requirements, many member states contribute police monitors who lack the skills and training necessary to adequately do their jobs. Often, they get too cozy with the local police they are supposed to be monitoring.

Aside from enlisting more qualified personnel from member states, the UN police need more civilians in their ranks. And I don't mean one or two political advisers in headquarters. I mean co-located with UN police throughout the mission. When police (and military personnel) work closely with civilians they have a better understanding of the environment in which they're operating and are therefore much more effective. But there are almost no civilians assigned to work with them.

Of course, UN personnel also must be held accountable for violations of the law and administrative cover-ups of misdeeds. It should not take a Hollywood film to shame the UN Secretariat and member states into remedying this disgraceful situation.

UN peacekeepers perform a vital task. Instability and conflict are in no one's interest. Even leaving aside the moral questions that are raised by failing to act in the face of aggression, failed states are breeding grounds for transnational extremism and criminal activity. The more people living in free societies based on the rule of the law, the better off we all are.

There is no question that peacekeeping is a complex undertaking. If the international community is to ensure that there is no sequel to The Whistleblower, it is going to require smarter policy, principled leadership and real consequences for those who not only break the law, but also tarnish the integrity and reputation of the entire peacekeeping community.