Human Trafficking: Prevention, Prosecution and Protection under International Law


Despite restrictions and obligations under international law, it is estimated that $31.6 billion is illegally profiteered each year from the human trafficking and forced labour of over 27 million people. Human trafficking or trafficking in persons is defined in the 2000 UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children (“The Palermo Protocol”) as “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring, or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” Supplementing the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime (Organized Crime Convention), the Palermo Protocol provides not only a clear definition but an expanded approach. Articulated in Article 2, the protocol’s purpose is “to prevent and combat trafficking in persons, paying particular attention to women and children”; “to protect and assist the victims of such trafficking, with full respect for their human rights”; and “to promote cooperation among States Parties in order to meet those objectives.”  It echoes the strategy commonly known as the three P’s: Protection, Prevention and Prosecution. State efforts are examined and measured through this strategic lens in the United States’ annual Trafficking in Persons Report.

Guest blog by Taylor Ackerman

Protection of human trafficking victims is a vital component to any approach addressing the issue. Article 6 of the Palermo Protocol calls for state parties to provide “assistance to and protection of victims.” More specifically, it calls for privacy, court and administrative assistance, measures for physical, social and psychological recovery, physical protections and avenues for victims to collect compensation or reparations.  Article 7 advocates the permission of the victim’s stay in the territory. Article 8 dealt with the matter of repatriation. However, more comprehensive protection obligations to protect can be found in The Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings (CAATH) and the EU Directive 2011/36/EU on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims. Deciding that states have obligations to protect victims of trafficking in Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia, the European Court of Human Rights (ECTHR) has also provided considerable development. As a result of international pressures and obligations, many state parties have initiated programs and policies for the assistance of victims. For example, in Germany, trafficking victims are given translators for court proceedings and third party counseling, and depending on the situation, temporary or permanent residence of victims is facilitated. However, their access to reparations has been shaky.

The duty of preventing human trafficking was also recognized in Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia. The Palermo Protocol emphasizes prevention through measures in article 9 via a focus on alleviating socio-economic and other “push” or “pull” factors, measures in article 11 for the improvement of border controls to identify and interception of trafficking and measures in article 12 that address the need for security of documents issued by the state party. In practice, countries are trying to implement many different prevention tools including awareness campaigns. In Denmark, tax and labour inspectors are trained to identify trafficking. In Canada, foreign workers, a vulnerable population, were given targeted information about human trafficking and how to seek help; this included a workshop given to domestic workers in diplomatic households. Additionally, more restrictions were put on the employment of domestic help.

In terms of increasing prosecution, Article 5 of the Palermo Protocol resolves for State Parties to pass legislation criminalizing human trafficking, including legislation targeting those “attempting to commit an offence”, “participating as an accomplice” and “organizing or directing”. Additionally, the necessity of comprehensive legislation to combat trafficking as a form of organized crime can be found in the Organized Crime Convention. Article 6 of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) holds that “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to suppress all forms of traffic in women and exploitation of prostitution of women.” As a result of the calls for legislation, many state parties have implemented domestic legislation that criminalizes all forms of human trafficking. For example, Malawi passed anti-trafficking legislation in February, 2015, creating a framework in which all forms of trafficking are criminalized with sentencing time of 14 years. Also, in the Republic of Korea, all forms of trafficking are criminalized, and the government used its legislation in 2014 to convict 40 owners of salt farms for the abuse of disabled men as laborers. In the Netherlands, police are given special training on trafficking, anti-trafficking police complete examinations, and judges and prosecutors are given trainings about anti-trafficking law and trafficking victims.

The new slave trade is a complex, global problem. Consequently, it requires not only a holistic approach, but international co-operation. Recognizing this need, article 10 of the Palermo Protocol elaborates on the necessity of information exchange, and article 13 calls for states to respond to other states’ inquiries about travel documents of suspected human trafficking victims. Indeed, there has been a fair amount of cooperation both at the global level and at the regional level.  A variety of international organizations and states have collaborated efforts, creating new institutions, programs and task forces like the UN Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN. GIFT). The CAATH, the 2011 EU Directive and the EU 2002 Framework decision on combatting trafficking human being work towards regional cooperation and a common commitment to the fight against human trafficking. The 1994 Inter-American Convention of International Traffic in Minors is also a regional document; although it protects a particular vulnerable population.

Other legal instruments developed the legal framework fighting human trafficking. Some ILO conventions are very pertinent. The 1930 ILO Convention concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour (no. 29), and the Protocol of 2014 to the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 provide a legal framework prohibiting forced labour. The 1957 ILO Convention concerning the Abolition of Forced Labour (no. 105) also builds upon this framework.  The 1998 Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour (no. 182) bans the trafficking of children to become child soldiers, forced labourers and prostitutes. The 2011 ILO Convention concerning decent work for domestic workers (no. 189) also provides a legal framework for a subsect of human trafficking. In addition to the ILO conventions, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography serve a purpose in addressing trafficking of a vulnerable population. The Geneva Convention on Slavery of 1926 and the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and practices similar to Slavery of 1956 are important documents in prohibiting the purported ownership and subsequent exploitation of human beings.  However, it is the Palermo Protocol, expanding across regions with an articulate definition that stands tall on the principles of protection, prevention and prosecution when addressing human trafficking.

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