Madeline Rees speaks out against human trafficking abuses within the UN system

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On January 24, Madeline Rees, former U.N. high commissioner for human rights in Bosnia and secretary general for the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, spoke at the second installment of the Sanela Diana Jenkins International Speaker Series. Rees, has been working with the CDDRL Program on Human Rights to promote research on human trafficking, posed an interesting question: can extraterritorial jurisdiction — the legal ability of a government to exercise authority beyond its borders — be a tool for improving accountability for human rights abuse during peacekeeping operations?

Rees was referring to a situation that she experienced in Bosnia where peacekeepers reportedly abused, tortured and actively trafficked women and girls. She noted, however, that there have been similar situations and accusations of sexual exploitation and abuse, including sex trafficking, in U.N. missions ranging from Cambodia to Haiti to Congo since the 1990s. Rees argued that these abuses and the involvement of peacekeepers in human trafficking in particular, result from a combination of factors, which include:

  • The perception of immunity (based on UN peacekeepers status)
  • Impunity that results from the lack of specific legislation and enforcement mechanisms
  • Lack of formal training
  • Peer pressure
  • Patriarchic militarized model of peacekeeping

There has been some slow progress. Rees recalled that when she first brought up the issue of human trafficking to the U.N., laughter was a common response. Her struggle, portrayed in part in the recent film The Whistleblower, has enabled an open discussion within the U.N. In 2007, the U.N. created the Department of Field Support and made some structural changes, but these reforms have not yet addressed the heart of the problem. In part, Rees believes, this is because the U.N. has lacked the political will to hold peacekeepers accountable for their actions.