U.N. peacekeepers' violations of women they are supposed to protect was brought uncomfortably close to home by the recent screening of "The Whistleblower" at U.N. headquarters earlier this month.
After the Oct. 14 screening, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon opened a panel discussion by noting "much progress since this dark period portrayed in this film," while also acknowledging there is more work to be done.
But Larysa Kondracki, the movie's director, quickly contradicted him, saying, "situations have escalated and if you read the news today there are a lot more movies to be made." The 2010 film--released in U.S. theaters in August--portrays U.N. peacekeepers trafficking and sexually abusing women in Bosnia-Herzegovina following its mid-1990s civil war.
In September, Uruguay recalled five peacekeepers from Haiti after a cell phone video of them sexually assaulting an 18-year-old Haitian man began to circulate on the Internet. Uruguay is investigating the instances of abuse and has vowed to prosecute the accused peacekeepers to the fullest extent of the law.
That same month, the U.N. barred and repatriated 16 peacekeepers, commanders and senior officers from Benin after a leaked U.S. embassy cable found they had coerced underage girls in Ivory Coast to perform sex acts in exchange for food.
While the U.N. "sought disciplinary action" against the group from Benin, it has "not received confirmation of the details of disciplinary or judicial proceedings," according to a United Nations Department of Peacekeeping spokesperson.
In 2006 the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations began to document allegations of "sexual exploitation and abuse," a phrase that includes a wide spectrum of abuses from human trafficking to sexual harassment.
Since then, allegations of abuse have dropped dramatically; 127 in 2007; 85 in 2010; and 60 so far in 2011.
Madeleine Rees, chief of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights from 1998 to 2006 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, doubts those official statistics are telling a true story. Rees is a character in the film for her real-life role as boss and staunch advocate of the movie's central character, Kathy Bolkovac, who loses her job for trying to stop colleagues from trafficking and abusing women, some of them underage.
Rees attended the screening and said in a follow-up phone interview that the allegations could be dropping because fewer women and girls are reporting abuse.
"I would love to say yes [there has been progress], but I am afraid I am going to say no," she told Women's eNews in a phone interview following the forum. "Without real institutional changes you can't make much difference. There's a lot of talk about this . . . but essentially the problem has always been unless you have a policy which has teeth, which has serious consequences, then the problem is not going to stop."
Rees left Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2006 and stopped working for the United Nations in 2010. In September 2011, the U.N. Dispute Tribunal ruled she was unlawfully pushed out of her job in Geneva.
Both Rees and Bolkovac were invited to the Oct. 14 screening and panel six days in advance, not enough time for Bolkovac to make the necessary arrangements.
Rees said the issue of sexual exploitation and abuse by peacekeepers can still be problematic for people within the U.N. system, which delegates most of the responsibility to the member nations that recruit members of their own national militaries and police forces to serve as peacekeepers.
Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict Margot Wallstrom told Women's eNews that she keeps up-to-date with peacekeepers, but that this issue doesn't fall within her mandate.
Rees, now serving as the secretary general of the Geneva-based Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, disagreed with Wallstrom on that.
"This is part of her mandate. It's just men wearing different colored uniforms, that's all," she said. "There's just a general reluctance to take this issue on because look at what happens to people who do."
The United Nations condemns all forms of sexual exploitation and requires peacekeepers to undergo training in sexual violence and abuse before they begin their service. But international military immunity means the U.N. can only recall peacekeepers. From there member nations are often charged with investigating the allegations of abuse.
The duty is sometimes neglected, said Ivan Barbalic, permanent representative of Bosnia-Herzegovina to the U.N., during the post-screening discussion.
"There's a tendency to cover up and protect even in the fact-finding phase," he said. "There must be participation from headquarters to make sure this is partial and objective."
Movie director Kondracki also noted that top officials in U.N. headquarters should be scrutinized just as carefully as peacekeepers for their moral and legal conduct.
"This is not just about peacekeepers on the ground. We have videos of high-level diplomats walking around U.N. headquarters with people they purchased," she said during the forum.
By that point in the discussion period, Ban had left the room.