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Protecting Whistleblowers since 1977

Is the Experience of “The Whistleblower” Typical? Yes.

Shelley Walden, September 13, 2011

As mentioned in a previous blog entry, GAP has been anxiously awaiting the release of "The Whistleblower," a movie that details the true story of the United Nations' complicity in the sex-trafficking industry in Bosnia. I recently had the opportunity to see this film and was blown away by the importance of whistleblower Kathryn Bolkovac's disclosures. As a critic for The New York Times wrote: "This earnest film may not be as dramatically coherent or as gripping as SerpicoAll the President's MenErin Brockovich and Silkwood, ... But its revelations are, if anything, more devastating and far more immediate than the dirty deeds uncovered in those predecessors."

When Bolkovac stumbles upon a Bosnian club in which kidnapped girls are forced to work as sex slaves, she discovers photographs of customers –including UN peacekeepers – abusing the girls. As she attempts to gather enough evidence to free the women and prosecute the wrongdoers, personnel from the United Nations and contractor DynCorp International (changed to the pseudonym "Democra Security" in the movie) continually block her and turn a blind eye to the wrongdoing.

GAP believes that the movie accurately portrayed the six stages (see minute 17) of the whistleblowing process. These stages, as depicted in the film, include:

  1. Discovery: Whistleblowers are usually excellent employees who, in the course of doing their jobs, stumble upon evidence of wrongdoing and feel compelled to address it. In Bolkovac's case, while employed as a U.N. International Police Force monitor in Bosnia (under contract with DynCorp International) she discovered that Eastern European women were being sex-trafficked into the country. She proceeded to unravel the complicity of the UN diplomatic corps and peacekeeping troops in rape, kidnapping and torture. As Bolkovac says in the movie: "I don't want a scandal. I'm just doing my job."
  2. Disclosure: Whistleblowers then take their disclosures to third parties (organization higher-ups, the media, regulatory agencies) who are in the position to do something to address the problem. Typically, whistleblowers go through internal channels first. Bolkovac tried numerous internal channels, including sending an email to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
  3. Isolation: Whistleblowers often find themselves isolated from their colleagues, who suddenly want nothing to do with them. The film illustrates how Bolkovac's roommate refuses to help her, and several colleagues betray her. At one point even the trafficked girls (understandably) abandon her, as they risk physical assault, sexual abuse or worse for speaking up against the traffickers. One colleague informs Bolkavac "you're on your own."
  4. Retaliation: Often managers react to disclosures by attacking the whistleblower, rather than addressing the problem. In the movie, Bolkovac is terminated and ordered out of the mission soon after she blows the whistle to the UN Secretary-General. She is denied access to her office, which contains crucial case files, and escorted off the premises. Her reputation and mothering skills are questioned. Her home phone is bugged and she receives an anonymous phone call in which a man warns that "we're watching you and you better shut your mouth."
  5. Solidarity: But doom need not be a whistleblower's destiny. Successful whistleblowers find support with family and friends. Their concerns can become the cause of advocacy groups, reporters, Congressional representatives, and others who can help them. This turns the tables, putting the bad guys on the defensive. The film shows how Bolkovac recruited allies, including Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights gender expert Madeleine Rees (played by Vanessa Redgrave), and the BBC, to help her speak truth to power.
  6. Vindication: Hopefully, all of the wrongdoing and corruption exposed by the whistleblower is eventually recognized by the public. Bolkovac did receive some vindication: in 2002 she won her lawsuit for unfair dismissal in retaliation for her whistleblowing in a unanimous decision against DynCorp's British subsidiary. The United Nations subsequently took some actions – though not enough – to curb sexual exploitation and abuse in peacekeeping operations, and DynCorp fired several employees. Bolkovac was able to raise awareness about her disclosure through the media, a book and this movie.

But Bolkovac's story doesn't have a Hollywood ending – those involved in the sex trafficking, rape and murder portrayed in the film escaped prosecution, and DynCorp was subsequently awarded U.S. government contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq, where it allegedly misused millions of dollars. And now, Bolkovac is working as an auctioneer, after repeatedly being turned down for police and security company jobs.

Overall, The Whistleblower does an excellent job of showcasing the basic stages that whistleblowers commonly navigate. The ending also illustrates the all too common fate for many whistleblowers who find themselves blacklisted for years. This is because most whistleblower protections are inadequate or not enforced.

Now, a decade after the events portrayed in the movie, UN whistleblowers still face retaliation for raising concerns about misconduct and corruption, despite the fact that former Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a whistleblower protection policy in 2005. Current UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recentlyinformed the film's director that "due protections are firmly in place for those who 'blow the whistle.'" But these protections are rarely enforced, as described in my previous blog post. Fortunately, a bill has recently been introduced by U.S. Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen that would require the United Nations to uphold its whistleblower policy and establish an "effective" ethics office. If the bill passes, the United Nations could lose a portion of U.S. funding contributions if it fails to meet these standards.

The Whistleblower will be screened at UN headquarters in October, in conjunction with a panel discussion addressing sex trafficking. I hope that the United Nations will also take this opportunity to discuss its treatment of whistleblowers and how it could better protect them from retaliation and act on their disclosures. The United Nations cannot afford to ignore these critical issues.

 

Shelley Walden is International Reform Officer at the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.