Turtle Bay

Sex, lies, and videotape at the U.N.

After weeks of internal deliberations, the United Nations recently held a pair of private viewings of a controversial new film, The Whistleblower, which explores U.N.  complicity in sex crimes in Bosnia over the past two decades. Based on real events and reviewed last month by Turtle Bay, the film recounts how U.N. peacekeepers became involved ...

After weeks of internal deliberations, the United Nations recently held a pair of private viewings of a controversial new film, The Whistleblower, which explores U.N.  complicity in sex crimes in Bosnia over the past two decades.

Based on real events and reviewed last month by Turtle Bay, the film recounts how U.N. peacekeepers became involved in the illegal sex trade in Bosnia in the late 1990s and the early 2000s. Top officials have been concerned that the film’s imminent release — it hits theaters in Los Angeles and New York on August 5 — could harm the institution’s international reputation. The U.N.’s new women’s agency, headed by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet, arranged the latest screening this week in a U.N. office building in New York.

The horrific incidents depicted in the film occurred well before Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and his leadership team arrived at the United Nations. But Ban’s tenure is also implicated in the story, if somewhat tangentially: One of the film’s real-life heroines, Madeleine Rees, portrayed by the British actress Vanessa Redgrave, was forced out of the United Nations during his first term as Secretary General.

Rees has since filed a grievance with the U.N. internal disputes tribunal in Geneva. She cites her role in exposing U.N. involvement in sexual crimes in Bosnia, as well as the U.N.’s "collusion" in the rendition of six Algerian nationals to Guantanamo Bay, as among the reasons she may have lost her job. A decision on her case is expected any day, Rees and U.N. officials told Turtle Bay.

The U.N.’s top spokesman, Martin Nesirky, declined to comment on the case, saying it would be improper to discuss a case before the tribunal has rendered its judgment. Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, also declined to comment, citing legal constraints.

But Rees’ application indicates that her superiors at the U.N. High Commissioner’s Office had sanctioned Rees, who is gay, for promoting a potentially controversial conference on gay rights. "The catalyst for my removal and a stated ground by OHCHR [The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights], was the side event profiling human rights violations on grounds of sexual orientation," she wrote in her application.

Rees claimed that she had initial backing for the conference from Pillay, who "was very enthusiastic and said she would cosponsor [the event] and speak." But she said she was subsequently excoriated by Pillay’s deputy, Kyung-wha Kang, after powerful U.N. members protested. Pillay and her top aides subsequently rallied behind Kang, she claimed.

Rees says she suspects she was being singled out because of the reputation she had earned for standing up for victims rights in Bosnia, where her efforts to press for a crack down on abuses by peacekeepers ran afoul of the U.N.’s political leadership.

She cites a conversation in which Kang warned that top U.N. peacekeeping officials had previously sought her removal from Bosnia. According to Rees, Kang said her history of confrontations with the top brass would make it difficult to consider her for any future field assignments. "If someone of such high rank said this — it should be taken seriously," Rees claimed Kang told her.

Ban’s spokesman, meanwhile, scolded Turtle Bay this week for its coverage of The Whistleblower, challenging our suggestion, offered somewhat tongue in cheek, that the U.N. would prefer people not see the film. He also objected to a line in the story indicating that this was not the kind of film Ban had in mind when he traveled to Hollywood last year to urge filmmakers to make movies that document the U.N.’s good works. 

"You didn’t ask at the time, but I can tell you now that neither assertion is true. Far from it," Nesirky said.

"We welcome the fact that the film highlights issues that are high on the agenda of the United Nations, including the fight against human trafficking and violence against women," Nesirky added in a statement prepared for Turtle Bay. "We also welcome all efforts to draw attention to such human rights violations."

In fact, the U.N. top leadership had not decided how to respond to the film when Turtle Bay published its story on June 29. A confidential internal memo, dated July 7, from Ivan Simonovic, the U.N.’s top human rights official in New York, reveals that Ban’s cabinet was divided over the wisdom of embracing the new film.

A number of U.N. officials, including Bachelet, Pillay, Catherine Bragg, the U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Emergency Relief Operations, and Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, argued in favor of confronting the film’s harsh portrayal of the United Nations head on, according to the memo, which was leaked to Turtle Bay. Catherine Bragg, the assistant secretary general for emergency relief operations, recommended hosting a public screening of the film. Ban’s top advisors, including Vijay Nambiar, also supported a proactive approach.

But the U.N.’s top lawyer Patricia O’Brien and the chief of the U.N. Department of Public information, Kiyotaka Akasaka, proposed ignoring the film. According to Simonovic’s memo, Akasaka and O’Brien "thought that a proactive approach, and especially ASG [Assistant Secretary General] Bragg’s proposal of a public screening of the movie at the U.N., to be followed by frank discussion, is counterproductive and would contribute to the film’s impact. They preferred downplaying the film instead preparing answers on an if-asked basis."

Eventually, the United Nations split the difference, scheduling a discrete viewing for U.N. public relations and peacekeeping officials earlier this month. But Nesirky did not inform the press, saying he did not consider it a public "event," and refused a request from Turtle Bay to identify officials who organized or attended the screening.   

"A group of officials in DPI [the Department of Public Information] and DPKO [the Department of Peacekeeping Operations] watched the film last week ahead of a possible screening at the United Nations that would include a panel discussion on the issues depicted in the film," Nesirky said. "We felt it was responsible to see first how the events and issues were portrayed. Those who watched the film were familiar with events in the movie; peacekeeping as well as efforts to stamp out misconduct by U.N. personnel, including sexual exploitation and abuse."[*see note below]

Tuesday’s screening by Bachelet’s agency marked another concession to the officials who were advising a proactive approach. It also happened to coincide with a screening organized by the U.N. press corps.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

*Nesirky announced in a press briefing before this article was published that the U.N. welcomed the U.N. press clubs’ screening of the film and had decided "to organize a discussion or other events related to topics raised in the film" later this summer. However, the U.N. has not organized its own public screening. Turtle Bay regrets that in an earlier version it misspelled Ms. Kang’s name and mistakenly identifed Patricia O’Brien as Catherine. 



Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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