Two West Midlands lawyers whose fight to expose a United Nations cover-up of the Bosnian sex trade was turned into a film have said it highlights the importance of pro-bono work which goes on in the region.
Madeleine Rees and Karen Bailey, who first met at Birmingham law firm Tyndallwoods, worked to help former police officer Kathryn Bolkovac, who exposed sex trafficking in the aftermath of the war and later won a £110,000 payout for unfair dismissal.
Ms Bolkovac reported UN employees and DynCorp colleagues for paying for prostitutes and participating in trafficking, and was the inspiration for the movie The Whistleblower.
Ms Rees and Ms Bailey attended a screening of the film at the Electric Cinema in Birmingham, and said the part played by the city's legal community in exposing a human rights issue is evidence of the value of work that goes on every day in the city.
Ms Rees, who now works in Geneva as secretary general of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and Ms Bailey, who heads up city firm Bailey Wright Solicitors, are also calling for more action on the issue of sex trafficking.
Ms Bailey said: “From a Birmingham perspective, there are lots of people and lawyers in the city who are working on issues of equal significance to the particular clients.
“I think this highlights the significance of the type of work that a lot of us are doing.
“From a trafficking perspective and in terms of what has gone on in the international community, it is significant to look at what has gone on at a local level, because this shows what lawyers can do.”
Ms Bolkovac is portrayed by Rachel Weisz in the film, which shows the former Nebraska police officer take on a role in post-war Bosnia with government services firm DynCorp International, and go on to uncover prostitution rackets.
In 2001, she exposed colleagues for buying sex slaves and was later sacked for allegedly falsifying a timesheet.
Ms Rees, who is portrayed by Vanessa Redgrave in the film, was then head of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Bosnia and helped and encouraged her to act.
She told the Birmingham Post: “Trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation still goes on in most western countries – including here. It manifests differently in a post-conflict country like Bosnia because it can be characterised by extreme violence, and it is very obvious.
“This has happened on pretty much every peace-keeping mission. There have been issues of trafficking in numerous places – like Kosovo, East Timor and Cote d’Ivoire – and what the UN says it is doing isn’t enough. That is why this film is so important.”
Ms Rees, who previously lived in Walsall but now resides in France, said director Larysa Kondracki had been a major force in bringing the issue of human trafficking to the fore. She also paid tribute to the work of Ms Bailey, who worked alongside barrister Stephanie Harrison to win a payout after the dismissal.
She said: “We have really now got to make even more attempts to deal with this.
“Larysa has done more by making the film than the likes of Karen and I have ever done. And she got them to screen the film in the UN, and I was allowed to go and speak about the subject. It got the message out in a way that we hadn’t been able to do. Everyone who sees this film will know it is true and they should force the UN to make an apology.
“Without Karen and Stephanie Harrison this might not have happened because they were prepared to keep going on a pro-bono basis. You can see how a local interest in human rights can put a global human rights issue into the public light.”
A spokesperson for the UN said its Secretary General had openly welcomed the film and taken steps to address the allegations.
He said: “As a result of the cases on which this film is based on and others, the UN has taken drastic actions to address allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse by all UN peacekeeping personnel.”