THE BLOG
02/19/2013 06:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 21, 2013

When Peacemakers Become Perpetrators: Kathryn Bolkovac Introduces The Whistleblower at the UN

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Photo: Kathryn Bolkovac

Kathryn Bolkovac had a passion for doing what is right, representing an institution that symbolizes the culture of peace, humanity and international justice like no other in the world: the United Nations. After living up to the moral standards set by the very same institution, her career in international law enforcement ended in April 2001.

Bolkovac disclosed the horrors of sexual enslavement of young women, trafficked mainly from Russia and the Ukraine -- also performed by UN peacekeepers in Bosnia. According to a report provided by Human Rights Watch, the "clientele" in Bosnia consisted of International Police Task Force (IPTF) members, SFOR (Stabilization Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina) staff, local police, international employees, and local citizens.

Recently Bolkovac returned to UN headquarters in New York City, introducing her book The Whistleblower, the testimony that inspired the film with the same name, starring British actress Rachel Weisz. It is a moving and enlightening scripture that serves as a crucial reminder that according to a document released by the UN in March 2010, titled "Sexual Exploitation and Abuse": "sexual exploitation and abuse, in a variety of different forms, has been found to exist to a greater or lesser extent in all duty stations."

Former Nebraska police investigator Kathryn Bolkovac joined the UN Police Task Force in post-war Bosnia in 1999 as an employee of the private military contractor DynCorp in order to train local police officers. She became a human rights investigator, and after blowing the whistle on the humanitarian crimes taking place, she was fired. Bolkovac sued DynCorp in a British employment tribunal, claiming she had been unfairly dismissed. The tribunal ruled in her favor.

As a consequence, the UN published a bulletin of a zero-tolerance policy for all UN personnel in 2003, one among many other initiatives implemented over the years. Despite the concerted efforts, however, sexual assaults in the field instigated by UN peacekeepers are still occurring, the victimized groups often including boys and minors.

In September of 2011 the New York Times reported, "This week, hundreds of Haitians protested in support of an 18-year-old who said he was sexually assaulted by peacekeepers from Uruguay on a United Nations base, eliciting a furious rebuke from Haiti's president and an apology from Uruguay."

A major underlying problem is the limited control that the UN has over individual peacekeepers. A 2007 vote in the General Assembly prevents the UN from taking the lead role in investigating wrongdoing by peacekeepers; that responsibility falls with the troop contributing countries (TCCs) themselves.

This was a problem that had already been clearly identified in a UN internal study in 2005. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in reaction to the scandal and the image damage the UN had suffered, had established the position of the Special Adviser on Sexual Exploitation in Peacekeeping in 2004, which he filled with the former Jordanian ambassador Prince Zeid Raad Zeid al-Hussein who published a damning study in 2005, stating, "Member states are not reliable enough to do a good job on their own, especially in the early stages of a military investigation." The current UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has never filled that position.

Following, an interview with Kathryn Bolkovac, while visiting the UN headquarters in New York City to introduce her book The Whistleblower.

How did you feel about coming back to the UN in New York City?

It was an emotional and somewhat bittersweet moment for me. Although so many hard-working staff members support my work and are concerned about the treatment I have received over the years, it seems that many of those same staff members still recognize that many of the same problems I encountered still exist within the walls of the UN and mission areas. In fact, both during and after my appearance I had several UN employees wanting to contact me confidentially to report what they consider more of the same. Politics rather than transparent diplomacy is still a dilemma, as well as protection of those who wish to disclose wrongdoing, discrimination, mismanagement, or legitimate corruption.

When you sent your email with the subject, "Do not read this if you have a weak stomach or a guilty conscience," to about 50 senior mission personnel describing the unbelievable occurrences of trafficking, sexual abuse, and white slavery in Bosnia, did you ever think about the personal consequences you might have to endure?

At the moment I sent the email, I had already been experiencing serious retaliation against my work and reporting. Of course I never thought that my international law enforcement career would be destroyed for telling the truth and seeking justice, which is of course what the role of a law enforcement officer is supposed to be.

Looking back: Do you feel that civil courage and practicing ethics within one's profession are worth the sacrifices in the end?

To be honest it probably depends on the civil courage and ethical beliefs of the management in charge of whatever organization you may work for. It certainly is a gamble and the odds will be against you based on the stories of most whistleblowers with whom I have had contact with over the years.

Do you feel that people who decide to work for an organization such as the UN should be held accountable to higher moral standards? Did it disappoint you more when UN staff on management level failed to support you in the disclosure of your findings?

Absolutely! A higher moral standard should be expected by UN staff, peacekeepers, IPTF, and contracted private companies. We all represent the United Nations and our home governments. This work should be a calling to service, not a money-making venture.

How much credibility does the UN, as the international organization for preserving peace and justice in the world, have in your opinion after these experiences?

I am still trying to come to terms with that. It is very limited.

What role did Madeleine Rees, the former head of the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights play for you?

She was one of the few people I could trust to tell the truth. She knew the political will of the UN and did her utmost to support me and speak out on the inaction and cover-up that was being perpetrated, even at the potential loss of her own job.

Does the fact that the private military contractor DynCorp continues to win multimillion-dollar military contracts with the American government in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Haiti among other places, make you question the practices of the US government? What alternatives would there be for the UN or the US government to sufficiently staff their field operations?

I address this issue in my book. However, in a few words, the most important thing to me is that government contractors have no business in law enforcement or judicial roles in mission areas, or for that matter domestically in the USA. We can and should have a federal agency overseeing and recruiting our law enforcement officers for work overseas, and accountability and allegiance to our government and values should be the first priority. Please review the provisions of the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act [from 2010]. It has never passed, nor gotten out of committee. [The proposed legislation allows the government to prosecute government contractors and employees for certain serious crimes. The legislation expands on the Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act (MEJA), which provides similar criminal jurisdiction over Department of Defense employees and contractors, but does not clearly apply to U.S. contractors working overseas for other federal agencies, such as the Department of State.] Private contractors are in the business of making money and many of their employees have allegiance to the company who gives them their paycheck. This is a serious problem.

What happened to the former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General (SRSG) in Bosnia, Jacques Paul Klein, under whose supervision the cases of human trafficking occurred, and who then went on to lead the UN mission in Liberia where he presided over similar scandals?

It is my understanding he was removed from his position after his activities in Liberia which were found to be somewhat unethical and unprofessional. I do believe he still makes a good living lecturing and teaching around the world.

That leads me to diplomatic immunity a policy that in some cases can prevent prosecution related to human trafficking perpetrators. This has also been a recurring matter related to UN diplomats that have been trafficking housing staff from their home countries into the US and subsequently could not been prosecuted. In how far did this form of legal immunity play a role in protecting offenders in Bosnia?

Status of Forces Agreements, and a policy of allowing home countries to discipline or prosecute their nationals for criminal behavior or misconduct, are two things that need continued review on these immunity issues.

How effective do you think is the Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU) established by the UN in 2007? [The Conduct and Discipline Unit (CDU) was formally established in the Department of Field Support in 2007 following the initial formation of a Conduct and Discipline Team in the Department of Peacekeeping Operations in 2005. It was launched as part of a package of reforms in United Nations peacekeeping designed to strengthen accountability and uphold the highest standards of conduct.]

I do not have much information on this, however, it appears from the comments of the UN Staff this week that it is rather ineffective.

Do you feel there is enough legislation in place, both in the US and internationally, to punish human trafficking perpetrators adequately? If not, what legal prosecution mechanisms would you like to see put in place?

No. We need to enact something similar to the Civilian Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act. This would allow rapid and effective reporting mechanisms, investigative jurisdiction, arrest with probable cause, and many other necessary tools to seriously work on this issue.

Is the UN's "zero tolerance" policy on sexual abuse by peacekeepers, announced in 2003 effective? [The UN started making publicly available its aggregated data on such misconduct.]

This is a policy that is impossible to enforce and is not overseen in a serious manner that allows employees to come forward with complaints without fear of retaliation.

The movie The Whistleblower was screened at UN headquarters in NYC and you recently visited UN headquarters as well in order to present and sign your book The Whistleblower, which inspired the film. Is that, in your opinion, an honest attempt to flag immoral behavior within the UN system or a public relations move? In particular, considering the fact that a UN internal memo was leaked before the screening, that clearly indicated members of the UN staff tried to play down the movie and prevent the screening.

I think the leaked memo, which I have not seen, came from the legal advisers, not the UN Staff. I give credit to Ban Ki-Moon for screening the film. I think the action is both a PR move and an attempt to bring attention at least to more changes that must be addressed within the UN as discussed above. Clearly there are still many problems. This is not a chapter in the past.

President Obama signed a provision in the U.S. National Defense Authorization Act of 2013 (NDAA 2013) into law on January 2, 2013, which is supposed to strengthen whistleblower rights for U.S. police officers who work in United Nations peacekeeping missions. Do you believe that that will help police staff coming forward with the truth when they experience the violation of law within a UN field operation?

I am not sure yet. This will have to be tested. Also once again this refers to a pilot project over a four-year period of time in which contractors who work for federal agencies other than the Department of Defense will be scrutinized. It might be a good idea to contact the man who has been put in charge of the oversight and implementation of this new law, as well as a recent Presidential Executive order cracking down on human trafficking in government contracting, Rob Berchinski, Director of Security and Human Rights Policy with the National Security Council. I am also trying to reach out to his office to see how I can assist in this process through my work and international advocacy work. I hope I get a reply.

How do you interpret the fact that the current Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, never filled the position of the special adviser on sexual exploitation in peacekeeping, since that seems to be a recurring, ongoing problem?

Hmm.. I guess I am not really surprised. Aren't there any qualified applicants?

For details about Kathryn Bolkovac, upcoming travels, readings and other activities, please go to www.bolkovac.com.