Bosnia: a courageous whistleblower sacked, but tells her story

Just read “The Whistleblower” by Kathy Bolkovac – a tough and highly principled American police officer, hired by a private company DynCorp – which was in turn contracted by the UN in Bosnia – to work as part of the International Police Task Force there from 1991 to 2001. She proved effective at handling domestic abuse and gender violence cases – and was promoted to the UN’s human rights desk on these issues. She describes the poor/non-existent training given by DynCorp, and how she later discovered that several senior officials working in Bosnia had faced sexual harassment charges back in the US. Even more seriously, she discovered that quite a few IPTF and UN personnel were visiting brothels populated by kids trafficked in from places like the Ukraine. Some even “bought” girls as domestic or sexual servants, and apparently thought nothing of it. She filed reports, but was met with resistance from officials and was eventually sacked by DynCorp. She subsequently won her case against DynCorp for wrongful dismissal.

It’s painful reading for anyone who works for the UN – only relieved to some extent by the strong and determined individuals she came across who did help her and supported her cause. I am a believer in UN peacekeeping and political missions – and independent research on them by groups like the Rand Organization has shown they have a high rate of successfully reducing violence at relatively low cost. But the problem of private, poorly-trained contractors – with, crucially, no legal accountability, is an incredibly serious problem both for organizations like the UN and the US military. New laws have been brought in to cover more contractors under US law, but as I understand it, few if any convictions have followed. There’s clearly also a major problem with UN peacekeeping – involving poorly trained recruits, with little or no human rights training, being apparently left to exploit under age (and often trafficked) sex workers – with very few repercussions. The most the UN says it’s able to do is to repatriate offenders and request that providing countries apply legal procedures, since they alone have jurisdiction. It looks as if, in practice, very little is done in providing countries because of a lack of political will and interest. In this context, zero tolerance policies are almost meaningless.

The frightening and disturbing thing is that the very officials who covered up abuses and then tried to get rid of Bolkovac, are still heading up major DynCorp operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here’s an extract from the book – as I said, it does show that individuals can make a difference – and this keeps my faith. Fortunately organizations like the UN are lucky to have people like Kathy Bolkovac and many like her, working for them – but issues like this are really tough.

This extract goes into what happened with one of the cases Kathy uncovered: (her book has been made into a film “The Whistbleblower” with Rachel Weisz)

LADIES OF THE EVENING (October 2000) Doboj, the oldest city in Bosnia, was built around a stone fortress dating back to the thirteenth century. Loosely translated as “near the battle,” Doboj had been captured over the centuries by nearly every empire in Europe—from the Turkish Empire, to the Hungarian, to the Austrian, to the Bosnian. Accurately reconstructed, the stone and wood fortress walls wind up the hilltop, and it is now a tourist destination. Families can dress in medieval garb and take pictures with their heads in a guillotine, or look like Rapunzel with hair hanging out of a cupola window, or pose with a cannon ready to fire through the turrets. On the outskirts of town, sixteen young women arrived at the local IPTF station during the first week of October.

They were originally from Moldova, Ukraine, Romania, Croatia, Bosnia, and Belarus, and had been found after police raided a local bar called the Kent. Most of the women were willing and eager to talk, and they all gave separate, detailed reports of local and international police who frequented the bar as their clients. They described specific identifying features: gold teeth, jewelry, uniforms, tattoos, and first names. Those of us in the Human Rights Office were always encouraged and hopeful when trafficked women were willing to talk about what they had experienced. This group was the largest and most forthcoming we had encountered yet. We never learned just why these women were so willing to talk—perhaps they had made a pact to testify if they ever got out of captivity, or perhaps it had to do with the human rights officers, how involved they were from the beginning and how effective their interviewing skills were.

The IPTF station commander in Doboj, a monitor from Spain, was especially interested in a particular seventeen-year-old girl. He took her into a private office to conduct an “interview” and was sitting knee to knee with the girl, his hands holding hers, when another monitor walked in. The station commander then tried to persuade the regional human rights investigator that he should personally drive the girl to UN Headquarters in Sarajevo. This drive did not occur, of course, and eventually the girl confessed that she and the station commander had been carrying on a “relationship.”1 The station commander was written up, and the report was submitted to IPTF Internal Affairs—only to be pulled for unexplained reasons. This was the single largest case implicating IPTF that we had documented yet. I wrote a thorough report of the details collected from the victims and suggested we conduct a photo line-up using computer printouts of IPTF monitors’ photo ID badges so that the victims could identify additional suspects. I made four copies of the report, placing one in my personal files and sealing the other three in separate envelopes.

I hand-delivered one envelope to Alexander Mayer-Rieckh, chief of the Human Rights Office; one to the Internal Affairs Office; and the last one to IPTF Commissioner Coeurderoy’s office. The commissioner was not in, but his secretary assured me she would give him the envelope. I passed quietly by Deputy Commissioner Stiers’s office next door. One of my human rights colleagues had informed me that Stiers continued to berate our efforts, saying things like, “Oh, now we have to be politically correct and call prostitutes ‘trafficking victims,’ ” and referring to human rights workers as a bunch of do-good zealots who thought with their hearts instead of their heads.

I was very interested to see where this case took us. Positive identification of IPTF monitors who were frequenting brothels and paying for services there would send a strong message to mission officials and all IPTF members that these were serious charges. In addition, most of the women wanted to cooperate with the Human Rights Office and testify against their captors and the men who solicited services. The only one to opt out was the seventeen-year-old who had admitted to the relationship with the Spanish IPTF station commander. She did not want to testify against him; she just wanted to go home. Legalities aside, the young woman had decided that the station commander was someone who had been nice to her and who cared about her well-being. In a world where she had been not only abused sexually but also physically restrained and tortured, a kind man (albeit one still illegally paying for her services) seemed like a godsend.

The next morning I turned on my computer to find an email from Contingent Commander Reid Jones. The email was sent to me and approximately 120 others, most of whom were American DynCorp monitors. In it, Jones described—with questionable terminology—that there had been a raid on “some houses of ill repute” and that a “few ladies of the evening” had been taken into custody. He then revealed: “I have been informed that several descriptions were given of ‘American IPTF’ monitors. … Apparently, photo line-ups will be made available to the ‘witnesses.’ ” My head was spinning. Did an officer just leak confidential information on the particulars of a case—to the suspects in the case? I reread the email. Yes, he did. He might as well have entitled the email “Get your alibis in order, everyone!” He went on to state that the credibility of these women was in question, as were the “particulars of their employment.” Being held captive and forced to work as a sex slave would not exactly fall under the category of employment. I took several deep breaths before hitting reply. I cc’d my human rights bosses, Alexander Mayer-Rieckh and Madeleine Rees, and forced myself to omit the choice language coursing through my mind.

In my email back to Jones I explained that under American and international law, many of these girls were technically being raped when monitors paid brothel owners for time with them. “Since I am personally working on these issues I will bust my butt to make sure any US monitor is repatriated or criminally charged if I can prove their involvement,” I wrote. I also made sure to mention that some brothels have hidden cameras and that we had solid evidence. Not more than a few minutes later, I received a response from Jones in which he continued to berate the victims and question their motives. “In defense of any accused American monitor, I will most certainly attack the credibility of any person knowingly allowing herself to be smuggled into the country,” he wrote. It was my turn again, and I wrote back asking if we could have coffee this week so we could talk about actual cases and numbers. “Obviously you are uninformed on the difference between prostitution and trafficking victims,” I wrote. “Prostitutes get paid for their services. Girls do not smuggle themselves into this country, even if they know they are going to work as a prostitute they don’t expect their passports to be taken, to be locked up, beaten, starved.” Jones responded that he could not have coffee, as he would be in Paris, “probably in a legitimate place of business.” He then went on to insist that most of these women were happy and sarcastically wondered how it was that if the IPTF were indeed “so prevalent in these establishments, then why do the girls not whisper in their ears that there is a problem???”

It was now clear to me that my conversation with one of our top-ranking officials was just going in circles. I went to talk with the chief of the Human Rights Office, Mayer-Rieckh, who was as appalled and disappointed as I was at this imprudent and foolish attitude; he was also disconcerted that my human rights report had somehow swiftly made its way into Jones’s hands, violating the code of confidentiality. Jones, the American contingent commander, had no authority to view this report without prior written approval from Mayer-Rieckh or from someone in the Human Rights Legal Office. Mayer-Rieckh said he would speak to Jones’s superior, Deputy Commissioner Stiers, but the damage was already done.

The next morning, there was an apologetic email for me from Jones: “What I took as good-natured bantering yesterday, you evidently took seriously.” He apologized for me and said it had been his responsibility “to reassure officers not yet named that they will receive due process.” Unfortunately, it was never revealed just how Jones got his hands on my report, nor did this apology do anything to curtail the larger issue at hand: Jones was far from the only one on this mission who was misguided and unwilling to try to accurately understand the plight of trafficked women. The irony of Reid Jones referring to his actions as assuring officers “due process” was enough to make me choke. Due process was what my office was trying to act on. Due process were words that got tossed around plenty, but, I would come to learn, when it boiled down to seeing action, there was none—no matter which side you were on. Still, we had over a dozen victims willing to testify, and IPTF Internal Affairs was now investigating.

Internal Affairs had been experiencing staffing issues: The chief of the unit had resigned, reportedly due to a lack of support and transparency from mission officials. Every monitor I knew who worked in this department often felt as if they were just spinning their wheels. One of the investigators on this case, Linda Blake, a Canadian IPTF monitor, was making good progress interviewing several of the trafficking victims, and I was hopeful that because of the overwhelming evidence, this case might see some momentum. I ran into Linda in the hall one afternoon and asked how the investigation was going. She took a deep breath as if she had to prevent herself from exploding. “There is no investigation,” she said. “An IPTF regional commander from Ireland walked into my office a couple of ago and demanded to see the file on his officers. He then said that there’d been a big misunderstanding in the field, and he had personally handled the situation with the officers and was pulling the investigation.” “On whose authority had he been given permission to pull the file?” I asked. “I have no idea,” she said, “and I can’t wait until my time is up in this mission. I can’t stand the double-talk. It’s like the whole thing is a big joke.”

I pressed other human rights investigators in the Doboj region to learn why the case had been pulled and by whom. They all rubbed their temples or shifted nervously and sighed that they could not continue to investigate, they had to consider their careers back home; sorry, but they could not stick their necks out any more than they already had. So now intimidation was not only the tactic captors used with trafficking victims, it was also becoming an effective method used by the high ranks to silence human rights officers in the field.

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