By Gloria Huangpu
As part of Penn for UNICEF’s annual Hunger Banquet last November, former UN worker and subject of the movie The Whistleblower, Kathryn Bolkovac, spoke about ending human trafficking and sexual violence against women and children. After telling the incredible story of her journey from local police officer to lone whistleblower, calling out UN officials for contributing to the sex trafficking industry abroad, Bolkovac asked the audience to join in her mission to end violence against women. In a final call to action, Bolkovac reminded her audience to pay attention to the side-effects which might arise from their own business conduct as they one day rise to the level of managers and business-owners.
Bolkovac left her career as a police officer in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1999 to work for the UN contractor in Bosnia, DymCorp. To her chagrin, she found UN peacekeeping forces visiting brothels, purchasing women to keep at home, and contributing to the Bosnian human trafficking industry. Uncertain of who to trust among the ranks of the UN, Bolkovac found only a handful of people supportive of her actions in shedding light to the illegal activity she witnessed. After trying to report what she saw to her superiors, Bolkovac was discredited, demoted, and ultimately fired for allegedly falsifying her timesheet, leading her to bring a case in Great Britain against DymCorp, a British company, which she eventually won. Since then, Bolkovac’s story has inspired a movie by Larysa Kondracki which has further helped spread awareness of covered-up human rights issues. She has also written a book documenting a factual account of her experiences.
In her talk at Penn, Bolkovac reported that government accountability for human rights violations by its workers has improved, but is still far from perfect. On September 25, 2012, she said, President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order strengthening the mandate against trafficking human persons, specifically with a “zero-tolerance policy regarding Government employees and contractor personnel engaging in any form of this criminal behavior.” However, Bolkovac said, having “zero-tolerance” is meaningless without investigations, which makes whistleblowers critical players in holding institutions accountable for policies about sexual violence – or other violations of basic rights. So, whistleblowers often are retaliated against, as Bolkovac was herself. Moreover, there is the problem of legal counsel for those who do bring cases on human trafficking, Bolkovac said. The Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act was first passed in 2000, but fewer than 10 cases have been brought since then because of the lack of competent legal counsel. Additionally, even though methods for reporting sexual violations and trafficking have been put in place by customs, immigration and the hotel industry, Bolkovac maintained that criminals know how to get through the gaps.
Though progress has been made, there are still immense problems in the world of sex trafficking that Bolkovac is working to make known. After making her way back to her hometown, Bolkovac has recently assisted in the creation of the first Child Advocacy Center in Lincoln, Nebraska that tries to reduce trauma suffered by children who are victims of sexual assault. Her work to end human trafficking in Bosnia and her persistence in fighting to clear her name in the case against DymCorp have certainly left an indelible impression on the minds of the attendees of the Penn for UNICEF Hunger Banquet.