On Human Trafficking: The Whistleblower

As Ambassador to UNICEF UK, in 2004 I was asked to visit Ecuador as part of my commitment to their End Child Exploitation campaign. I witnessed the devastating effects on many of the children I met there who had been trafficked to the cities to work on toxic dumpsites in Quito and Guayaquil, in the Bella Rico mines, and as sex workers in Quito. Many were living in horrific conditions and some were as young as five, depending on older children for their survival.

One of my most vivid memories is visiting a woman called Angelina, who was dedicating her life to helping the young girls who had been set to work on the streets as prostitutes. I went to meet many of the young girls myself, the oldest of whom was no more than 17. Nervous at first, each began their own personal account of what had happened to them -- and they had all thought they were coming to the city to earn money as domestic servants or waitresses, that they would be able to send an income back to their families in rural Ecuador, and that this was their chance of a lifetime. A trusted male family member or friend had in each case persuaded the families to hand over their children for the promise of a better life. Their freedom taken, these girls had entered a life of abuse far from home, kept to all intents and purposes as slaves.

Human trafficking around the world is reaching horrific proportions. With an estimated 12 million people worldwide living in slavery, human trafficking is the third most profitable criminal activity after drugs and arms trafficking. 80% of trafficking victims are women, and an estimated 2 million children are bought and sold each year. 80% of trafficking involves sexual exploitation of vulnerable women, usually under the age of 18. With $4 billion attributed to the brothel industry worldwide, sex trafficking is big business, with very few people ever arrested or convicted of trafficking. Under-reported and under-prosecuted, these girls and women are the silent victims of poverty and war.

Now on general release and starring Rachel Weisz, The Whistleblower is a must-see film which adds another layer of shame to the crime of human trafficking. Based on a true story, Kathryn Bolkovac was a U.S. police officer who took a job with a government contractor to be a peacekeeper in Bosnia. After facilitating the first successful prosecution of a case of domestic violence since the war in Bosnia, she is put in charge of 'gender issues' and is thrust into the seedy and dangerous underworld of sex trafficking, soon uncovering a criminal network that extends to the highest levels of law enforcement agencies within Bosnia as well as among international organizations working there on behalf of the U.S. government who enjoy immunity from prosecution.

The world portrayed in The Whistleblower is one most of us would never see for ourselves, but we must not remain blind to its existence. It's about time we opened our eyes to this grim reality. The U.S. government goes into war-torn countries with a reputation for believing itself morally superior, enlightened crusaders for democracy and fairness. To be represented instead by people who abuse that position for their own economic gain is a perversion of purpose. As Vanessa Redgrave's character says in the film, we can't go into a vulnerable country ostensibly to protect, but then prey upon its most vulnerable citizens. And as in every conflict scenario, the most vulnerable are the children and the women who are used both as the weapons and the spoils of war.

The statistics for the use of private contractors are a significant factor here, too. During the Vietnam War, the proportion of private contractors to U.S. government forces was 1:55. In Iraq it was roughly 1:1. In Afghanistan the private contractors actually outnumbered the U.S. government forces. In this new reality, governments must exercise control of the behavior of its representatives abroad, and institute some kind of accountability if they step outside of the law. Immunity from prosecution for international forces can only work in an ideal world. But we are very far from an ideal world, and no one should ever be immune from justice.


Everyone should see The Whistleblower.