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View the documentGender Mainstreaming and Human Rights of Women: OHCHR Policy Statement
View the documentTrafficking and the Global Sex Industry: A Human Rights Framework
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Trafficking and the Global Sex Industry: A Human Rights Framework

The following is an edited extract from an address delivered by the High Commissioner to an NGO/IGO Consultation on trafficking, Geneva, June 21 1999

Everywhere I travel I see evidence of the growing problem of trafficking and its links to the global sex industry. Invariably, the picture presented by the victims of trafficking is of money being made at the expense of human dignity and freedom. During a visit to Cambodia in January 1998 I heard first-hand accounts of the brutality inflicted on women and girls who had been trafficked into prostitution. When I went to the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and neighbouring States in May of this year I found that the growing problem of trafficking was adding to the miseries of the refugee population in that part of the world. I have just returned from Russia where I heard stories of huge numbers of Russian and Ukrainian women being tricked or coerced into situations of danger and exploitation. Poverty, inequality and discrimination seem to be the unifying factors in each of these sad situations.

The sheer scope of the worldwide trade in human beings and the misery it generates can appear overwhelming. In the face of such odds. I am encouraged by the energy and determination that I have witnessed in the nongovernmental community. That is what struck me while visiting the makeshift women's shelter in Cambodia. It is largely thanks to the nongovernmental community - particularly those working so tirelessly in the field - that trafficking is on the international political agenda. We must continue the fight in order to ensure that this attention results in the kind of policy and attitudinal changes that are so necessary.

While congratulating ourselves on certain successes we must remain aware of the fact that ideological and conceptual differences have prevented significant progress. I refer in particular to the debate over prostitution which has both energized and polarized the anti-trafficking community. We must accept the fact that opinions will differ on certain key issues. Differences of opinion are to be expected and can even be a positive force. Such differences should not, however, be allowed to take over. The resulting paralysis does a great disservice to the women, children and men who most need our help. I encourage all those engaged in the fight against trafficking to identify the many commonalities that should allow us all to work productively together.

My own position and that of my Office is based on two fundamental principles:

- First: that human rights must be at the core of any credible anti-trafficking strategy; and
- Second: that we must work from the perspective of those who most need their human rights protected and promoted.

These two principles are, of course, interrelated. By placing human rights at the centre of our analysis, we are forced to consider the needs of the trafficked person - and thereby to confront the poverty, inequality and discrimination which is at the root of this phenomenon. What does it mean to make human rights the core of our anti-trafficking work? For me it means first and foremost, acknowledging that trafficking and related practices such as debt bondage and forced prostitution and false marriage are themselves a violation of the basic human rights to which all persons are entitled. The right to life; the right to dignity and security; the right to just and favourable conditions of work; the right to health; the right to be recognized as a person before the law. These are rights which we all possess - irrespective of our sex, our nationality, our social status, our occupation or any other difference.

A human rights approach also demands that we acknowledge the responsibility of governments to protect and promote the rights of all persons within their jurisdiction. This responsibility translates into a legal obligation on governments to work towards eliminating trafficking and related exploitation. Passivity and inaction are insufficient. Tolerance or complicity are inexcusable.

Finally, for me, as High Commissioner, a human rights approach to trafficking means that all parts of the United Nations, not just my Office, should integrate human rights into their analysis of the problem and into their responses. This is the only way to retain a focus on the trafficked person: to ensure that trafficking is not simply reduced to a problem of migration, a problem of public order; or a problem of organized crime.

That brings me to the work of my Office. Very soon after my appointment I decided that trafficking must become a priority area of our work. The recent allocation of financial and human resources has enabled me to set up a modest Anti-Trafficking Programme. The basic objective of the Programme is to work towards the integration of human rights into international, regional and national anti-trafficking initiatives. Our emphasis is on legal and policy development. We do not aim to undertake large-scale projects or to otherwise duplicate the excellent initiatives that are being undertaken elsewhere. Instead, as far as possible, we try to act as a catalyst and a support for the work of others. In the following paragraphs I will give some examples of our work.

At the international level my Office has been closely following the development of two important Protocols to the draft Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. One of these protocols concerns illegal migration. The other deals with trafficking of persons. We have analysed both draft instruments from a human rights perspective and submitted this analysis - together with specific recommendations to the Ad-Hoc Working Group responsible for the drafting process. I need not remind those working in the trafficking field that this process represents the first legislative consideration of the trafficking issue in over half a century. It is very important to ensure that the end result represents a step forward in eliminating trafficking and securing the rights of trafficked persons. At a very minimum we must ensure that there is no retreat from earlier legal commitments.

It is equally important for us to make the link between illegal migration on the one hand, and trafficking in persons on the other. These are rightly being considered as two separate issues. However, the crossover potential is enormous. Today's illegal migrant may well be yesterday's - or tomorrow's - trafficking victim. Both situations present a grave threat to the protection of human rights and both therefore deserve our closest attention.

My Office is increasingly directing its anti-trafficking activities to the regional and sub-regional levels. In Central and Eastern Europe we are cooperating with the Council of Europe and IOM on a project which initially targeted refugees from Kosovo and is now more broadly focused on trafficking trouble-spots of Central and Southern Europe. Our Office in Sarajevo is also undertaking significant preventive and assistance work throughout the territory of the Former Yugoslavia.

In the Asian region our attention is focusing on the draft Convention on Trafficking in Women and Girls which is being elaborated under the auspices of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation. My concerns here are identical to those I expressed earlier in connection with the Vienna Protocols. The SAARC Governments are to be congratulated for taking up this complex and problematic issue. At the same time it is essential that all efforts be made to ensure that the end result represents an advance for trafficked persons and their human rights.

In Nepal, my Office is currently developing a project, along with the local UNDP Office, that will pilot a rights-based approach to the trafficking problem. The pilot will initially be implemented in two districts in Nepal. We are relying very heavily on the local NGO community to ensure the success of this important endeavour. Other activities in Asia include a dialogue between my office and ASEAN States on the issue of trafficking and transnational organized crime. We are also working closely with the National Human Rights Commissions of the Asia-Pacific region in order to assist them in taking up the issue of trafficking.

Finally, but importantly, recent and significant contributions to the UN Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery have enabled us to provide a number of travel and project grants to NGOs working on behalf of victims of trafficking.

We all agree on the enormity of the problem at hand and on the difficulty of developing credible solutions. We should not allow differences of emphasis to turn into divisions that prevent us from realizing our common goal - to stand up for the rights of victims of trafficking wherever and whoever they are. We will only succeed if we harness our collective endeavours. I urge you to work together in a constructive, cooperative spirit. I urge you to take up the tools of human rights in your fight against trafficking and to focus on the needs of trafficked persons. That is the way forward and I am proud to be part of this journey.