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Former UN Police Investigator Explains The Problems She Faced As A Whistleblower

Former UN International Police Task Force investigator Kathryn Bolkovac, who altered officials to sex trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovinia during the 1990s and early 2000s.
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Former UN International Police Task Force investigator Kathryn Bolkovac, who altered officials to sex trafficking in Bosnia and Herzegovinia during the 1990s and early 2000s.

In 2001, Kathryn Bolkovac was fired from her position as a human rights investigator for the U.N. International Police Task Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bolkovac says her termination came after she “continued to make waves” about the involvement of other members of the U.N. forces in human trafficking, prostitution, and exploitation of women in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

After sending an email alerting the U.N. to the involvement of internationals in these cases, Bolkovac says she immediately felt repercussions from U.N. officials trying to keep her quiet.

“They actually demoted me from my position, and then four months later terminated me from the lesser position,” Bolkovac says.

Since then, Bolkovac has written a book about her experiences that was later adapted into a 2010 film, where she was portrayed by Academy Award-winner Rachel Weisz. She now travels internationally to educate organizations and institutions about the challenges whistleblowers face.

Currently, a number of protections such as watchdog organizations, national legislation and reforms are in place to defend whistleblowers. But they continue to face negative consequences for exposing governmental and organizational misconduct.

“Clearly [whistleblower protection] is not working, and the implementation process is horrible,” Bolkovac says. “The few whistleblowers that have come forward have not been protected. And numerous others still aren’t coming forward out of fear of losing their jobs.”

Bolkovac says the nature of employment for these international missions makes it difficult to hold organizations accountable.

“There’s always a type of smokescreen set up for accountability issues,” Bolkovac says.

Even though she won the case she filed against DynCorp, the contractor who sent her to the U.N. mission, Bolkovac says the case settlement “didn’t really even cover expenses,” while those responsible for her termination faced few consequences.

“The same individuals who were involved both in my demotion and terminations…were promoted by this company and continue to work on missions around the world to this day,” Bolkovac says.

She now spends her time trying to solve these accountability issues as part of a panel working on new U.N. initiatives for whistleblower protection and reform of peacekeeper immunity policies.

But Bolkovac says there is still a lot of work to solve accountability issues and misconduct during international missions.

“[These countries] don’t even have a functional government in place,” Bolkovac says. “How do we respond to [crimes] before the evidence is gone, before the victim is gone, before the perpetrator has been removed? These are all the issues that still need to be addressed.”

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Interview Highlights

On Working Cases Involving Internationals In Bosnia

Initially, the first three or four months, it became quite clear when I was there that there was a lot of strip bars, sexual activity going on with prostitution and night clubs, which many of the internationals were visiting and taking part in, which very much bothered me from the beginning. There was very little control and lack of accountability going on, especially off military bases, where most of the military contractors were; they had to find their own housing in the local communities of the people we were there to try and help. So it was a very difficult situation to go through, and very confusing for the most part. And then eventually, after being a human rights investigator for about three months, I was given a special project to work on in a town about 70 kilometers north of Sarajevo. And that's when I had the first human trafficking victim come to me at that time. And of course, back in the late 1990s no one was talking about human trafficking. That term really wasn't even heard, at least locally. There was some talk of it internationally. And the case that I worked was a girl that had escaped from a local bar up in the hills around this city. And that ultimately turned into kind of a snowball effect, where as over the next year, year and a half, I had worked over a hundred cases while I was there myself, who came through the offices.

On The Victims And Perpetrators Of The Crimes

[The victims] were girls who were coming from what would have been known as the former Communist Bloc nations of Ukraine, Moldova, Romania. And they were being brought in and physically migrating in, in some cases, but mostly being brought in by organized criminals who were colluding both with local nationals in Bosnia as well as internationals who had come in who had the money and were able to facilitate this.

On The Trying To Raise Awareness Of Her Cases And The Resulting Pushback

I was doing everything I could to, of course, investigate the crimes. And all of the allegations certainly did not involve internationals, but a few of them did. And when a few of those cases would come through my office, I would go through the internal steps of first to internal affairs, and then to the Secretary General's Office of the mission. Always having doors closed in my face. Many times, mission officials would come into the Internal Affairs Office and physically pull the files and the cases and just make them disappear. So there was just a multitude of different things going on. And toward the end of my time there, in the Gender Office role as Head Gender Officer, I had been promoted after the first year to Head Gender Officer because of my ability to work these cases. But then along with that came more and more cases of international involvement, which wasn't well-liked within the mission.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

REBECCA CRUISE, HOST: Kathryn Bolkovac, welcome to World Views

KATHRYN BOLKOVAC: Thank you very much for having me.

CRUISE: Well we're very excited to have you here, because you have a very interesting story, a very interesting life experience that has shaped you. And I was hoping that we could just start off by talking about that story. You are originally from Nebraska, so not too far from Oklahoma. And you worked as a police investigator for a number of years. And then in the late 1990s you headed to Bosnia, working for a military or security contractor, as Bosnia was going through the initial phases of reconciliation. And maybe that's where we could pick up. What was your experience there when you first got there? And what happened to you when you were there? What did you witness?

BOLKOVAC: Sure. Well when I arrived, I actually became first of all acquainted with the entire U.N. structure and how things actually work under this U.N. umbrella. And the government contractors that I was working with were not actually security contractors. They were part of the military contingent force, the International Police Task Force, which was seconded to the United Nations. So it was very much a dysfunctional kind of piece of organizational lineage that I had to cross. I had to report both to the United Nations, to this U.S. government contractor, as well as to the Office of Human Rights, where I worked as a human rights investigator. And initially, the first three or four months, it became quite clear when I was there that there was a lot of strip bars, sexual activity going on with prostitution and night clubs, which many of the internationals were visiting and taking part in, which very much bothered me from the beginning. There was very little control and lack of accountability going on, especially off military bases, where most of the military contractors were; they had to find their own housing in the local communities of the people we were there to try and help. So it was a very difficult situation to go through, and very confusing for the most part. And then eventually, after being a human rights investigator for about three months, I was given a special project to work on in a town about 70 kilometers north of Sarajevo. And that's when I had the first human trafficking victim come to me at that time. And of course, back in the late 1990s no one was talking about human trafficking. That term really wasn't even heard, at least locally. There was some talk of it internationally. And the case that I worked was a girl that had escaped from a local bar up in the hills around this city. And that ultimately turned into kind of a snowball effect, where as over the next year, year and a half, I had worked over a hundred cases while I was there myself, who came through the offices.

CRUISE: And so, these were women who had been trafficked from outside of the Western Balkan region. And they were being trafficked and used by international officials that were there to assist the people of Bosnia as they went through this reconciliation process.

BOLKOVAC: These were girls who were coming from what would have been known as the former Communist Bloc nations of Ukraine, Moldova, Romania. And they were being brought in and physically migrating in, in some cases, but mostly being brought in by organized criminals who were colluding both with local nationals in Bosnia as well as internationals who had come in who had the money and were able to facilitate this.

CRUISE: And I think what's so, this is very disturbing anyways, but when we think about Bosnia, this of course is a country that faced genocide, ethnic cleansing, and where rape, of course, was used as weapon of war. And then you start seeing this other side, where again women are victimized in this very awful manner. So, you witnessed this, you had women that were coming up to you, explaining what was going on. What steps were you able to take? Or what did you do?

BOLKOVAC: Well, initially I was doing everything I could to, of course, investigate the crimes. And all of the allegations certainly did not involve internationals, but a few of them did. And when a few of those cases would come through my office, I would go through the internal steps of first to internal affairs, and then to the Secretary General's Office of the mission. Always having doors closed in my face. Many times, mission officials would come into the Internal Affairs Office and physically pull the files and the cases and just make them disappear. So there was just a multitude of different things going on. And toward the end of my time there, in the Gender Office role as Head Gender Officer, I had been promoted after the first year to Head Gender Officer because of my ability to work these cases. But then along with that came more and more cases of international involvement, which wasn't well-liked within the mission. So at one point after I began raising concerns about this, I wrote an email to about 50 U.N. officials, including some government contractor officials who I worked for. And it was really more of an educational email, trying to point out the fact of what was going on and trying to education them that, "look, this really needs to stop, we're here to set the example" kind of thing. And I was immediately demoted from my position by the United Nations officials, who ultimately were the government contractor officials also working for the U.N. and in authoritative positions. So they actually demoted me from my position, and then four months later terminated me from the lesser position. Because, of course, I continued to make waves about these cases.

CRUISE: So you were fired for standing up for these women and for bringing the situations to light. What was your recourse, then? You did go through a legal process at this point.

BOLKOVAC: Yes. Well, most people don't realize how we send contractors, especially contractors who work for the United Nations to these foreign missions. And ultimately you are seconded through a government contractor. Our governments don't send you directly, so there's always a type of smokescreen setup for accountability issues. When I was terminated by this government contractor, called DynCorp, their contract was actually underwritten under the laws of England. They weren't even underwritten under the laws of the United States. So I physically had to pursue my case in an employment tribunal in South Hampton, England. It was a three-judge panel, and this took about a year, year and a half, to finally get through. And in the end, I did win. They had to give me a small settlement of about a hundred and ten thousand British pounds – which didn't really even cover expenses for the two or three years that I was out of my position – and subsequently were given continuous government contracts since that time. And the same individuals who were involved both in my demotion and termination and throughout this case, and who were found to be actually unreliable witnesses by the tribunal in their findings, were promoted by this company and continue to work on missions around the world to this day.

CRUISE: Very negative consequences, I suppose, in that regard – that these people are still involved. But there were perhaps some positive things that came out of this. You did bring to attention the fact that this was going on, and there has been some result.

BOLKOVAC: Yes. And I think that's, of course, been the mainstay of my career. For the past 10 years, actually, I've been traveling internationally and speaking at universities, defense departments, police organizations around the world, really educating people on these issues. I wrote a book, besides the film that was produced because of my story. And it really goes into all these of issues. Because, of course, it was a story about human trafficking, but it really was more than that, much more than that. It was about the use of government military contractors, or mercenaries in the mission areas, it was about whistleblowing issues, it was about codes of conduct and ethics. So there are five or six really hot-topic issues that were all kind of put together in my story. So, there have been all kinds of initiatives passed, legislation has been attempted to get passed here in the U.S. to try and hold contractors more accountable when they go into these missions. There’s been limited success with that. But there’s also been whistleblower organizations come forward who are now keeping more of an eye on these situations, watchdog groups like the Government Accountability Project, the Project on Government Oversight, and, of course, many international organizations who are working with the member states of the United Nations to correct this problem. In fact, I was invited back to the United Nations two years ago to speak and do a book signing there. And the film was actually screened at the United Nations as well. And I think that within the next three or four years, there's going to be some significant changes within the United Nations and some reforms made

CRUISE: This happened in 1999, I believe, and your story came out in the early 2000s – horrific information. And they did then institute whistleblower protections and try to put some support in place for people like yourself that are coming out and highlighting these issues. And yet, we still do hear that this sort of thing is going on. I think what comes to mind most clearly is the situation in Haiti a couple of years ago. But in all places that there seem to be U.N. peacekeepers, we seem to hear some of these stories, whether it's trafficking or some other form of sexual exploitation. So, is there really something that can be done? You say in the next four years, maybe some restructuring, maybe more protections. What can they do?

BOLKOVAC: I'm glad you bring that up. And I think the main problem, of course, is: yes indeed, the U.N. was able to put together a whistleblower policy, and it's certainly not law, it certainly doesn't get followed. And there certainly, since 2005 when it was implemented, the few whistleblowers that have come forward have not been protected. And numerous others still aren't coming forward out of fear of losing their jobs. So, clearly it's not working and the implementation process is horrible. On the member state side, of course, it's very difficult because of sovereignty issues, including our own here in the United States with constitutional issues, to get countries to sign on to any kind of legitimate process where efficient and effective and expeditious investigations can be done when these things happen. I mean, clearly, when you're looking at sexual assaults of young girls and women taking place in foreign countries that don't even have a functional government in place, how do we respond to that before the evidence is gone, before the victim is gone, before the perpetrator has been removed? So these are all the issues that still need to be addressed. And there are some pretty significant things taking place right now, where many professionals are coming together to look at possibly solving some problems, and presenting some solutions to the U.N. I'm not at liberty to speak to all of them right now. I am sitting on that panel and they're going to kick off the initiative here in the next few months, it sounds like. But there are some things going on to try and get some of that accountability removed and to hopefully peacekeeper immunities within these missions, for sexual violence.

CRUISE: You're activism, then, has continued. You're still working to bring attention to this and, it sounds like, very involved on multiple levels to hopefully ameliorate the situation. Now you mentioned that you had a movie, or a movie came out about you, and then you also wrote a book. And I think it's interesting. If you could talk just briefly about the difference between having a film that's "Hollywoodized" about a situation, and then what really happened? What the differences were that people might find in your book, that they won't find in the film?

BOLKOVAC: Right. Well the film is called “The Whistleblower,” and it stars Rachel Weisz. She portrays me. It also has Vanessa Redgrave, David Strathairn, and some pretty top actors and actresses in it. It was an excellent film, the director did an excellent job of getting a very strong message out about human trafficking and government corruption in the U.N. missions, and kind of how this all facilitates and plays on each other around the world. There are some major differences in the film and book. They're two separate projects. Like I said, the film was inspired by my story, so I am a real character in the film, portrayed by Rachel. And Madeleine Rees is also portrayed in the film. But all the rest of the characters a very much composite characters and fictional characters. But they're based, pretty much, on true stories that took place. The film director and writer traveled Europe for a year and a half, two years, interviewing victims, interviewing NGOs, interviewing government officials. So this is a very factual account, portrayed fictionally. The book, on the other hand, goes much further into the details of the government contractor, the organized crime that was taking place, and the whistleblowing issues that I had to face, as well as the human trafficking, codes of conduct, and ethics issues. They're both great projects. Of course the book is being used at universities and institutions around the world now, as a teaching tool. And I'm quite proud of that, as well.

CRUISE: Kathryn Bolkovac, thank you so much being here. And thank you for sharing your story with us.

BOLKOVAC: Thank you.

Copyright © 2015 KGOU Radio. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to KGOU Radio. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only. Any other use requires KGOU's prior permission.

KGOU transcripts are created on a rush deadline by our staff, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of KGOU's programming is the audio.

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