Madeleine Rees, a former U.N. human rights official and the inspiration for one of the heroines in the film The Whistleblower, was wrongfully dismissed from her job with the Geneva-based U.N. Office of the High Commission for Human Rights in March 2010, according to a ruling by the U.N.’s administrative disputes tribunal.
The ruling comes at an awkward time for the United Nations, which has been struggling to determine how to react to last month’s release of a major motion picture that recounts one of the darkest periods in modern U.N. history: the story of how U.N. peacekeepers became implicated in the trafficking of eastern European women into sexual slavery in Bosnia.
While Secretary General Ban Ki-moon‘s administration bore no responsibility for the abuses in Bosnia, it did play a role in firing Rees, who is portrayed in the film by Vanessa Redgrave as one of the most outspoken and courageous defenders of the rights of trafficked women in Bosnia. U.N. officials said her dismissal had nothing to do with her role in Bosnia, but concerned questions about her performance in a subsequent job.
After a round of internal debate, Ban invited the film’s director, Larysa Kondraki, to screen the film for an audience of senior U.N. officials and member states at U.N. headquarters.
U.N. officials had hoped to use the event, which would include a panel discussion with the director, to highlight the steps that the U.N. has taken to address the failing in Bosnia.
Ban wrote last month in a letter to the director that he "was saddened by the involvement of the international community, particularly of the United Nations, in the abuses connected with the trafficking of women and their use as sex slaves, as highlighted in the movie." He noted that the U.N. has imposed a "zero-tolerance" policy on sexual misconduct and that he intended to make combating such abuses a priority. "I want to assure you that we shall embrace the challenge your film places before us."
As the U.N.’s top human rights officer in Bosnia, Rees led a fierce internal battle against the U.N.’s top peacekeeping brass to rein in sexual trafficking and to ensure that U.N. blue helmets weren’t inadvertently complicit in these crimes by barring them from patronizing brothels where the girls worked. The film recounts her role in recruiting a former Nebraska cop, Kathryn Bolkovac (played by Rachel Weisz), and encouraging her to pursue investigations into the involvement of U.N. peacekeepers in sex trafficking.
Rees left Bosnia in 2006, when she was transferred to Geneva to head up the U.N. Women’s Rights and Gender Unit. But she clashed with the new leadership team, including Navi Pillay, the U.N. high commissioner for human rights, who was appointed by Ban, and her deputy Kyung-wha Kang, a former top Korean diplomat and aide to Ban who was appointed by Kofi Annan in his final months in office.
Rees filed a grievance last year, arguing that she had suffered "irreparable harm" to her professional reputation and career at the U.N. after she was unjustly demoted in 2009 and finally pushed out of her job altogether in March 2010. The U.N. High Commissioner’s office denied the charges, saying she had been reassigned to a new job after senior managers voiced repeated concerns about her performance, and that they did not renew her contract after she refused to accept another job she had been offered.
Judge Coral Shaw, a justice in the U.N. Dispute Tribunal, ruled that the U.N. had acted unlawfully in reassigning Rees to a new post, and that the U.N. should rescind the decision as well as its subsequent decision not to renew her contract.
"The judicial procedure is not yet completed, and there may be an appeal — therefore we can’t comment at this point," said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the High Commissioner’s office, to Turtle Bay. But he added, "The case has nothing whatsoever to do with the shocking events in Bosnia, as depicted in the film The Whistleblower, and its disingenuous to link the two. The case relates to Madeleine Rees’ subsequent position as the Head of OHCHR’s Women’s Rights and Gender Unit in Geneva."
But specialists say that a series of bureaucratic steps — including scant public reports on sex crimes and the establishment of a U.N. memorandum of understanding that places greater authority for disciplining peacekeepers in the hands of governments — have made it increasingly difficult to assess the U.N.’s response to the problem.
"Member states are not reliable enough to do a good job on their own, especially in the early stages of a military investigation," Prince Zeid Raad Zeid al-Hussein, Jordan’s U.N. ambassador and a former special advisor on sexual abuse in peacekeeping operations, told the New York Times. "We, the member states, have by and large failed to do what I had hoped we would do."
In recent months, the U.N. has faced a rash of new allegations of peacekeeping abuses. Earlier this month, Uruguayan President Jose Mujica issued an extraordinary apology to Haiti’s President, Michel Martelly, for the role of Uruguayan blue helmets in the sexual abuse of a Haitian man in a U.N. base. Mujca said he was personally ashamed of the "criminal and embarrassing conduct of a few" Uruguayans and promised that they would be held accountable for their behavior.
A secret U.S. diplomatic cable, released by Wikileaks, disclosed that U.N. peacekeepers in Benin traded food for sex with underaged girls in Ivory Coast. The peacekeepers were sent back to their country, but little is known about their fate. The U.N. has also repatriated peacekeepers from Sri Lanka, Morocco, and other countries in recent years.
Follow me on Twitter @columlynch.