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Human Trafficking: When Peacekeepers Become the Problem

November 21, 2012

Last week, Madeleine Rees, Barbro Svedberg and I packed our suitcases and headed for London. WILPF had organized a two-day conference there where we moderated and led some complex discussions. The conference was a follow-up of a previous seminar held in May this year, both focusing on human trafficking and sexual violence in the post-conflict context.

The Whistleblower: An Agent of Change

The conference was held against the backdrop of the popular film, ‘The Whistleblower’ starring Rachel Weisz, which created quite the furore amongst all those who watched it.

Screenshot of Vanessa Redgrave and Rachel Weisz in 'The Whistleblower'For WILPF, this film carries special significance, as it is based on events that happened to our very own Secretary-General, Madeleine Rees (played in the film by Vanessa Redgrave).

The movie shows how UN peacekeepers were involved in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the widespread trafficking of women for sexual exploitation.

The fact that no peacekeepers or States, organisations and companies they worked for were ever effectively prosecuted or punished in any way was especially devastating, and demanded action.

Addressing the Problem

Attempts made by the UN and others since then to address this situation have fallen short. Though a step in the right direction, measures such as the adoption of a UN zero tolerance policy and the creation of conduct and disciplinary units do not bring about the fundamental change needed in the culture of peacekeeping.

A major hurdle in addressing this issue is the complicated legal environment these questions lie in. There is simply no straightforward legal regime that directly covers human trafficking and sexual violence in post-conflict areas by peacekeepers. The fact these peacekeepers are sometimes UN staff, sometimes troops sent by States, and sometimes private military actors hired by the UN, States or even third parties complicates things even further.

WILPF therefore organised this conference to join forces with several leading experts in various legal fields, with the aim to develop an improved UN policy based on international law and obligation, as opposed to an administrative process based on morality.

Intellectual Tour de Force

So, what happened when we put ten litres of coffee, one really good cake, twenty women, one man, and a whole lot of brainpower in one room? Well, this is when things really started to heat up! We came up with a comprehensive new approach to create accountability in the system.

Patricia Sellers, an international criminal prosecutor, for example, gave us insights on how human trafficking could be prosecuted at the International Criminal Court, under its slavery provisions.

Lisa Davis, who is currently part of the national lawyers’ Guild Group on Haiti, also told us about the growing trend of peacekeepers being used in disaster areas like Haiti, so we can keep account of these situations in our proposal as well.

Other guests included our experts on international law of armed conflict, Vera Gowlland-Debbas, who explained everything! Louise Arimatsu and Ben Clarke, who explained to the group the way in which military tribunals works, and of course, we could not have done it without the experts on human rights, Lisa Gormley, Patricia Schulz of CEDAW and Christine Chinkin…who has been the secret legal brain behind many of our SG’s activities for many years!

The Results Are In…

The conclusions reached at the conference are complex and clearly encompass a wide range of issues, yet a main approach that ran through the entire conference can be discerned.

It consists of holding States, and the private military companies they hire, accountable for the actions of their troops while on peacekeeping missions, through strict UN policy on troop-contributions.

With a stringent UN framework of standards and conditions all troop-contributing States need to meet before they are permitted to contribute troops, the right leverage can finally be found to change attitudes. Like Louise Arimatsu noted, “it is about finding the right buttons to push”, meaning finding ways to incentivise States to change their behaviours.

Shelley Walden, who protects whistle-blowers with the Government Accountability Project, proposed measures for States to implement, like extensive vetting processes for the private military companies they hire and even creating blacklists for those with the worst human rights records.

Most importantly, the UN should not just simply adopt this policy as a matter of morality, or even common sense, but as a matter of international law. Troop-contributing States, if not the UN itself, have a legal obligation to prevent, prosecute and punish these crimes. The UN should therefore play its part in this process too, not in the least to protect the aims and goals of its own peacekeeping missions in the first place.

The results of our work in London will be published in an extensive outcome document, covering all our discussions and conclusions. It will then be sent to Ban-Ki Moon and all other relevant stakeholders in an attempt to bring about a real difference.

Keep an eye on our website and Facebook page, where we will be posting the outcome document and all other relevant materials.

By Emma Bürgisser

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