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Human Trafficking: When Peacekeepers Become the Problem

21 November 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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Melissa Torres


Prior to being elected Vice-President, Melissa Torres was the WILPF US International Board Member from 2015 to 2018. Melissa joined WILPF in 2011 when she was selected as a Delegate to the Commission on the Status of Women as part of the WILPF US’ Practicum in Advocacy Programme at the United Nations, which she later led. She holds a PhD in Social Work and is a professor and Global Health Scholar at Baylor College of Medicine and research lead at BCM Anti-Human Trafficking Program. Of Mexican descent and a native of the US/Mexico border, Melissa is mostly concerned with the protection of displaced Latinxs in the Americas. Her work includes training, research, and service provision with the American Red Cross, the National Human Trafficking Training and Technical Assistance Centre, and refugee resettlement programs in the U.S. Some of her goals as Vice-President are to highlight intersectionality and increase diversity by fostering inclusive spaces for mentorship and leadership. She also contributes to WILPF’s emerging work on the topic of displacement and migration.

Jamila Afghani


Jamila Afghani is the President of WILPF Afghanistan which she started in 2015. She is also an active member and founder of several organisations including the Noor Educational and Capacity Development Organisation (NECDO). Elected in 2018 as South Asia Regional Representative to WILPF’s International Board, WILPF benefits from Jamila’s work experience in education, migration, gender, including gender-based violence and democratic governance in post-conflict and transitional countries.

Sylvie Jacqueline Ndongmo


Sylvie Jacqueline NDONGMO is a human rights and peace leader with over 27 years experience including ten within WILPF. She has a multi-disciplinary background with a track record of multiple socio-economic development projects implemented to improve policies, practices and peace-oriented actions. Sylvie is the founder of WILPF Cameroon and was the Section’s president until 2022. She co-coordinated the African Working Group before her election as Africa Representative to WILPF’s International Board in 2018. A teacher by profession and an African Union Trainer in peace support operations, Sylvie has extensive experience advocating for the political and social rights of women in Africa and worldwide.

WILPF Afghanistan

In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

IPB Congress Barcelona

WILPF Germany (+Young WILPF network), WILPF Spain and MENA Regional Representative

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WILPF uses feminist analysis to argue that militarisation is a counter-productive and ill-conceived response to establishing security in the world. The more society becomes militarised, the more violence and injustice are likely to grow locally and worldwide.

Sixteen states are believed to have supplied weapons to Afghanistan from 2001 to 2020 with the US supplying 74 % of weapons, followed by Russia. Much of this equipment was left behind by the US military and is being used to inflate Taliban’s arsenal. WILPF is calling for better oversight on arms movement, for compensating affected Afghan people and for an end to all militarised systems.

Militarised masculinity

Mobilising men and boys around feminist peace has been one way of deconstructing and redefining masculinities. WILPF shares a feminist analysis on the links between militarism, masculinities, peace and security. We explore opportunities for strengthening activists’ action to build equal partnerships among women and men for gender equality.

WILPF has been working on challenging the prevailing notion of masculinity based on men’s physical and social superiority to, and dominance of, women in Afghanistan. It recognizes that these notions are not representative of all Afghan men, contrary to the publicly prevailing notion.

Feminist peace​

In WILPF’s view, any process towards establishing peace that has not been partly designed by women remains deficient. Beyond bringing perspectives that encapsulate the views of half of the society and unlike the men only designed processes, women’s true and meaningful participation allows the situation to improve.

In Afghanistan, WILPF has been demanding that women occupy the front seats at the negotiating tables. The experience of the past 20 has shown that women’s presence produces more sustainable solutions when they are empowered and enabled to play a role.

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