Political Movie Review: The Whistleblower

Another student guest post, this one from a student who attended a recent on-campus screening of The Whistleblower.  This review raise some interesting questions, and the student author presents some controversial views that can be fun to debate!

If interested, go here to watch a clip of an interview with Kathryn Bolkovac that appeared on the BBC in January 2011.

Reaction to the Whistleblower

 The Whistleblower retells the experiences of a female police officer from Nebraska who signs a contract to work in the UN peacekeeping mission in Bosnia in exchange for a high pay-check (in the hopes that it will allow her to more easily move to be near her daughter).  Although things go well initially, (she makes friends, finds a new lover and delivers justice for a Muslim woman whose husband routinely abuses her), Kathryn Bolkovac soon meets a young girl prostitute named Raya who had been badly beaten.  Determined to find justice, Kathryn attempts to send her home and free the other girls from the bar Raya came from, only to find that the corruption in the Bosnian police force keeps the girls circling around between brothels.  In her new role as head of the gender department of the UN peacekeeping mission, Kathryn seeks to free the girls and remove the one corrupt individual among the UN peacekeepers that she believes is involved.  In doing so, Kathryn’s investigation uncovers a very large and very deep human trafficking operation that involves members of the UN peacekeeping mission up to the highest level.  In spite of her efforts, the girls remain enslaved, the operation continues, and Kathryn herself is threatened and fired from her post.  She reveals that the US State Department makes so much money on security contracts for countries like Bosnia, that it overrules the government’s consideration for human rights and the purpose of the peacekeeping missions.  Her resolution to aid these girls ultimately drives Kathryn to smuggle her case files out of the country and reveal them to the BBC in the hopes that a scandal and public humiliation will bring an end to the inhumanity.

I was struck by Kathryn’s experience as an American citizen hoping to do good out in the world and in the end being confronted by an evil so large that all she could do was return to a nation with freedom of speech and denounce the practice of human trafficking.  In many ways this movie reminded me of the film, The Last King of Scotland, which is also based on a true story.  Similarly, a young Scottish doctor who has just graduated medical school chooses to begin his career abroad in Uganda in hopes of doing good and having a grand adventure.  The horrors he encounters, such as mutilation, torture, and genocide, are commonplace in Uganda.  Ultimately, Ugandan official gives his own life so that the Scottish doctor can escape and tell the outside world about the horrors that humans do to one another.  In the case of both movies, I feel that they successfully communicated these tragedies but that little is done by the audiences which experience these films to change this sad status-quo.

I was originally caught off-guard by the high pay and low entry requirements that UN peacekeeping positions entail.  I browsed their recruitment website and this does not seem to have changed; applicants are required, at the minimum, to have a high school diploma and speak either English or French.  While this is understandable, as it is difficult to attract applicants to dangerous positions, I feel that this may be part of the reason that corruption and human trafficking persists in UN peacekeeping missions.  If one compares the entry requirements for the US military for example, it is actually much more difficult to enter the US military, as a clean criminal record, extensive background investigation, physicals, and physiological evaluations are required.  To be fair however, this would not screen out all potentially corrupt individuals.  I suspect that most, if not all, UN peacekeepers enter into missions without the intention of siphoning money.  It is likely that the ease of opportunity, potential for great profit, and diplomatic immunity are also responsible for tempting peacekeepers into participating in such illegal and immoral ventures.

The movie is based on Bolkovac's auto-biographical book.

I also found the scope of this particular human trafficking operation to be enormous.  When the flier for the movie announces that Kathryn uncovered a human trafficking ring within the UN peacekeeping mission, I assumed that it involved a few corrupt UN officials.  The fact that nearly the entire UN peacekeeping force and Democra, the private enterprise  charged with policing Bosnia, either knew and ignored, took bribes in exchange for covering up the operation, purchased the services of the trafficked women or was actively involved in trafficking these women was utterly shocking.  As a politics major, I was slightly less surprised to learn that the US State Department knew and preferred to do nothing-it would not be the first time the US government was involved in human rights violations abroad in the course of furthering its own interests.  However, I find it disgusting nonetheless that the profits from policing smaller conflicted nations like Bosnia also come from sources such as human trafficking.  Rather than protecting the people of Bosnia it seems that the United States in this case played the role of a large sweet-talking leech.  It was also sickening to learn that similar human trafficking through a UN peacekeeping mission has occurred in Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  I am sure that there are others that have not been exposed.

Sadly the sheer scope of the human trafficking problem presents a tricky puzzle in determining where to being.  Apparently, the current institutions, such as the UN, have not improved the situation.  At the very least, an examination of the structure and checks of UN peacekeeping missions should be examined.  Perhaps the recruitment requirements or training could also be revisited.  It might also be more difficult to set up organized crime rings if peace-keeping individuals do not stay for years at a time, as they currently have the option to.   However, all of these suggestions come with their own problems; the time it takes to adjust to a new culture along with the language barriers would be one such issue in having shorter tours of duty.  At the very least, spreading knowledge of such atrocities, as The Whistleblower seeks to do, must be done if there is to be any sort of popular call for the true end of slavery.  Clearly leaving this issue to governments alone does not work.


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