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No Longer Possible to Turn Blind Eye to Human Trafficking, as World Wakes Up to Scope of Scourge, General Assembly Hears in Thematic Dialogue

13 May 2009
General AssemblyGA/10827
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Sixty-third General Assembly

Thematic Dialogue on Human

Trafficking (AM & PM)



Secretary-General Calls for Strong Laws, Broad Alliances, Concerted

Action, Zero Tolerance; Member States Weigh Need for Global Action Plan

Now that the world was aware of the vast extent of human trafficking, coordinated global action was needed to end the scourge, Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, President of the General Assembly, said in the opening address of a special meeting on the issue today.

“The world is waking up to the scope of the problem of human trafficking.  We see it in movies, novels and talk shows,” Mr. d’Escoto noted in a statement delivered by Maged Abdelaziz of Egypt, Vice-President of the Assembly at the start of the day-long event entitled the Interactive Thematic Dialogue on Taking Collective Action to End Human Trafficking.

Prior to a series of panels on improving coordination to end the trafficking of hundreds of thousands of persons yearly, mainly women and children, for sexual slavery and forced labour, Mr. Abdelaziz was joined by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and Néstor Arbito Chica, Minister of Justice and Human Rights of Ecuador.

Mr. d’Escoto said it was no longer possible for anyone to close their eyes to the crime, which takes place everywhere, even “a stone’s throw from United Nations Headquarters in New York”, he said.

“We must all take responsibility –- we must take collective action –- to combat and end it,” he stressed, urging all Member States that have not done so to become parties to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, along with the Protocol against Trafficking in Persons that supplements it.

National laws must not only be enacted but also enforced, he said, adding that today’s dialogue would include the identification of tools and strategies to be used by Governments, non-governmental organizations and individuals for that purpose.

He said companies should also clean up their labour practices to make sure they were not complicit with the crime, and the media, along with non-governmental organizations, and celebrities, must raise awareness to warn potential victims and sensitize the public.

Mr. Ban, in his statement, evoked the struggle against previous forms of slavery.  “In days of old, there was an underground railroad,” he said.  “Today, we want traffickers to see an oncoming train.  Strong laws.  Broad alliances.  Concerted action.  Zero tolerance.”

As an example of what he meant by action, Mr. Ban recounted the testimony given to the Security Council by a young Ugandan student who had been pressed into sexual slavery by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army.  He paid tribute to the headmistress of her school who followed the rebels into the forest and rescued more than 100 girls.  “If this seemingly powerless educator from Uganda could face down armed rebels, surely we in this room can stand up to this threat with bold and decisive action,” he said.

In addition to criminalizing human trafficking, prosecution of traffickers must be assured, demand must be reduced and victims must be protected, he added.

Introducing Mr. Ban’s background paper on the topic, Mr. Costa expressed disappointment that one-third of United Nations Members States had not yet ratified the Protocol to the organized crime Convention.

In addition, he said, many Member States lacked adequate anti-trafficking legislation and awareness campaigns, especially important now when the number of potential victims could greatly increase with the global economic crisis.  A full half of Member States had never convicted anyone of trafficking, with many legal systems not equipped to do so.  There was a deep lack of knowledge about the issue, along with justifications for why many older women were perpetrators, why victims often returned to their captors and why parents sold their children.

Nationally, he called for greater collaboration among law enforcement, businesses and non-governmental organizations, and globally, he urged greater networking among the States parties to the organized crime Convention.  He called for the creation of effective mechanisms for that purpose in time for the next review conference.

Ecuador had made human trafficking a national crime in 2005, Mr. Arbito Chica said, and in the following year, the country approved a national plan for combating it that included strengthening the criminal justice system and broadening the definition of the crime.

He said Ecuador had found that links between public and civil institutions were crucial, as was coordination between the national and provincial level and international and regional mechanisms.  He called on the United Nations to lead on all fronts in that complex issue, urging the creation of a global plan of action.


The first panel discussion, entitled“The state of play:  Where the United Nations stands on a global plan of action to end human trafficking”, was moderated by Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).  The five panellists were:  Valentin Rybakov, Assistant to the President, Republic of Belarus; Kyung-wha Kang, Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (OHCHR); Ndioro Ndiaye, Deputy Director-General, International Organization for Migration (IOM); Zohreh Tabatabai, Director of Communication, International Labour Organization (ILO); and Dan Rohrmann, Deputy Director, Programme Division, United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Mr. RYBAKOV said that only the well-coordinated collective efforts of the international community -- Member States, intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary organizations, civil society, the private sector, and mass media -- could put an end to human trafficking.  The adoption by the Assembly of a global plan of action against human trafficking would be an effective and practical answer to the challenges of today.  While there were many treaties and agreements on human trafficking, a global plan of action would be an important step towards forming a global partnership to end human trafficking.  He noted that more than one-third of Member States were not party to the Protocol against Trafficking in Persons that supplements the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which had law enforcement as its main thrust.

He said that the existing international anti-trafficking instruments sought to harmonize the relevant national laws, but they did not prescribe roles for the increasing number of non-State players emerging in the area of anti-trafficking activities, such as international organizations, civil society, the private sector and mass media.  He thus urged the Assembly President to initiate open consultations in the Assembly on a global action plan against human trafficking.

Ms. KYUNG-WHA KANG, noting that this panel’s task was to contribute to a broader discussion on the possible scope and implications of a global plan of action to eliminate trafficking in persons, said she understood that to mean a collective action against a threat that affected every country in every region of the world.  An effective collective action had to be based on the full consideration of the human rights of the victims caught up in that heinous crime.

She said that Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights had been promoting a response to trafficking based on law and human rights.  Developed in 2002, the agency’s “Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking” had informed its own work and the work of other entities within and outside the United Nations.  Any plan of action had to build on existing instruments and the rights and obligations that they contained.

An international plan of action against trafficking should be designed to implement the measures provided for in the Trafficking Protocol, to promote the prevention of trafficking, to facilitate its effective prosecution, and to ensure the protection of trafficking victims, she stressed.  It should also reflect the major policy shifts and practical development that had taken place over the past decade and broadly reflect significant developments at the national level.  A global plan of action could provide an important boost for national, regional and international efforts to end human trafficking for private profit and modern-day slavery, she said.

Ms. NDIAYE said little had been known about this modern-day form of slavery when the International Organization for Migration began working in the area in the mid-1990s.  The organization had extended modest pilot activities in south-eastern Europe to more than 100 countries and protected more than 20,000 victims of trafficking.  Yet, there was no reason to believe that there was less trafficking today than 10 years ago.  The organization was focusing on preventing trafficking by focusing on its root causes, strengthening protection for all migrants and strengthening research and evaluation.

She said the prevention of trafficking in persons required a sustained investment of time and resources.  Prevention was worth the investment; the alternative was reacting to its horrific consequences.  Directly addressing the root causes of trafficking was necessary to successfully prevent it.  A priority was to have a plan of action and continue improving cooperation in that fight.  Everyone had a role to play.  She favoured a global plan of action, one grounded in human rights, with a practical approach that supported and added value to regional action plans.  It should also take into account the expertise of United Nations agencies and international organizations that had long been active in that area.

Ms. TABATABAI said that the ILO believed that human trafficking was largely based on the need for labour.  Human trafficking, and the larger issue of forced labour, was the antithesis of decent work.  For the trafficked woman, man or child, there was no freedom.  That global human tragedy was clearly illustrated in a new ILO report published Tuesday by its Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour.  The report highlighted the cost of coercion, which was represented by the billions of dollars each year in unpaid wages to victims of trafficking.

She said the ILO was also increasingly worried by the potential impact of the global economic and financial crisis on trafficking, as the vulnerable suffered most during times of crisis.  The global report included a blueprint for future action and, among other things, a new model for operational indicators on human trafficking and a comprehensive handbook for employers and business.  It explained how the problems could penetrate businesses own supply chains, and recommended actions they could take.  It was necessary to go beyond the global alliance against forced labour now taking shape and enlist the assistance of the United Nations, which in turn needed the support of Member States, non-governmental organizations, the media and the public at large.

Mr. ROHRMANN said a critical element to ensure effective coordination in combating adult and child trafficking was to overcome misconceptions.  Those included looking at trafficking only as a transnational crime, committed only by organized criminal groups, and affecting only girls and women for the purpose of sexual exploitation.  It was now known that human trafficking also occurred within national borders, was not always undertaken by organized criminal groups and extended beyond girls and women.

One particular lesson learned form UNICEF’s work on protecting children was that without a protection system for all children, any advances would be highly constrained.  Child trafficking should be viewed in a comprehensive manner that looked at its interaction with migration and other child protection issues, such as abuse, exploitation, neglect and violence.  A critical gap in efforts to combat trafficking was the lack of integration of anti-trafficking work with overall national systems, whether in development, social welfare, or criminal justice.

In an interactive session, delegates discussed human trafficking, ongoing efforts on a national and international level to combat the scourge, and the merits of creating a global action plan.  While some delegates favoured the creation of such a plan to supplement the array of existing protocols and conventions, others questioned the value of creating another mechanism that could divert energy and resources from existing mechanisms and entities fighting human trafficking, such as UNODC.

The representative of Sudan, speaking on behalf of the Africa Group, said there was a paramount need for a United Nations global plan of action.  Such a plan would help coordinate existing international instruments and fill in gaps.  A global plan could also help incorporate the work of the multiple players now on the scene to fight trafficking.  And it would give United Nations entities a vehicle to coordinate their efforts and incorporate the views of many countries.

Kazakhstan’s speaker said that human trafficking -- worsened by inadequate public understanding that led to greater victimization and impunity, non-harmonized policy and practical enforcement measures, as well as lack of basic statistical data -- jeopardized the rule of law and profited criminal groups worldwide.  In conditions of silent non-action or inadequate prevention, human trafficking could expand its scope to that of the drug trafficking plague, which so quickly infected all parts of the world.  To end impunity for trafficking in humans with greater internationally-agreed responses and coordination, Kazakhstan re-confirmed its position on the need to elaborate and adopt the global plan of action.  Prosecuting traffickers and protecting and assisting their victims required the immediate improvement in coherence among Member States.

On the other hand, the representative of the Czech Republic, speaking on behalf of the European Union, said the Union’s primary concern was that a new instrument might duplicate or divert energy from the implementation of international obligations and agreements laid out in extensively-negotiated mechanisms, such as the Convention.  The Union believed that what was missing was a strong commitment of the international community to establish more stringent monitoring of both the ratification and implementation of the crime Convention and the Protocol.  Before initiating a new United Nations strategy or global action plan, the international community should aim to avoid duplication and focus on strengthening existing instruments and filling in any gaps.

Colombia’s representative worried that, despite some progress against trafficking, the international response had been partial and insufficient.  She said United Nations resources and actions should focus on achieving universal adherence and effective implementation of the Protocol, which had been ratified by two-thirds of the Member States.  The instrument provided a broad enough framework to combat the crime.   Colombia, to renew the commitment of Member States to prevent and combat human trafficking, would be willing to discuss a general document on trafficking.  But while diverting the scarce resources of the Organization, the negotiation of a global plan of action could also open the window to step back from the progress made in the context of the Palermo Convention and its Protocol.

While stressing the need for rigorous action against human trafficking, the representative of Canada said a global action plan would not necessarily provide the international community with added value as there were already many protocols, conventions, intergovernmental efforts and United Nations initiatives in that area.  A new plan would take time and resources that could be better used within existing mechanisms to strengthen the international community’s work, he said.

Several delegates said they failed to understand how a global action plan would divert from existing instruments.  Others favouring a global action plan said national efforts needed international support, especially in an era of globalization.

Panel II

The second panel, entitled “Articulating a global plan of action:  Drawing upon practice at the national and regional level”, included the following panellists:  Shaikh Abdul-Aziz bin Mubarak Al Khalifa, Assistant Under-Secretary, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain and head of the Bahrain National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking; Joy Ngozi Ezeilo, United Nations Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children; Ruchira Gupta, President of Apne Aap Women Worldwide of India; and Saisuree Chutikul, member (from Thailand) of the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.  The moderator was Aleya Hammad of the Susan Mubarak Women’s International Peace Movement and the “End Human Trafficking Now” initiative.

Mr. ABDUL-AZIZ said that trafficking existed because there was both a supply of desperate, vulnerable people, ripe for exploitation, and a demand in so much of the world for the cheap labour that trafficking appeared to provide.  Thus, both supply and demand sides of the equation must be addressed.

International cooperation was essential, he said, but there were also measures that countries should take individually.  Trafficking in Bahrain primarily consisted of the exploitation of workers who had legitimately entered the country.  Legislation had been enacted in January 2008 to define and criminalize trafficking, along with a national committee to combat it, involving both the Government and non-governmental organizations.  Shelters for victims had been established, and awareness-raising programmes had been instituted for lay people and those involved in the criminal justice system.  Most significantly, the Government had announced that the sponsorship system, tying workers to their employers and a source of much abuse, would be abolished, starting on 1 August.

In his country, he said, it had been found, however, that Government action alone was not sufficient, and foreign embassies, non-governmental organizations and the business community had to be engaged.  Above all, awareness was the key.  To strengthen regional and international cooperation, Bahrain had hosted an international forum on the topic, with participation from his country at the highest level.  The outcome, known as the Manama Declaration, stressed the need for action at both national and international levels, in both the Government and private sectors, and made clear the role of awareness.  He expressed hope it would become a cornerstone of international efforts against human trafficking.

Ms. EZEILO said that in her survey of national plans to combat human trafficking, there were several good models, including that of the United Kingdom, but there were gaps in many others.  Some addressed mainly sexual exploitation while ignoring labour exploitation.  Others were weak in adopting a human-rights centred approach in favour of trafficking victims.  International, regional and national strategies for combating trafficking should rest on five “Ps” and three “Rs”.  Those principles included protection, prosecution, punishment, prevention and promotion of international cooperation; victims required redress, rehabilitation and reintegration into a constructive role in society. 

Root causes should be addressed, while innovative approaches must be sought to tackle that complex problem, she continued.  Those approaches must recognize the human rights factors inherent in the topic and must focus equally on the victim by recognizing and redressing the violations suffered, empowering the victim to speak out without being doubly victimized, jeopardized or stigmatized.

She pledged her willingness to devote time and energy to developing, in partnership with key stakeholders, a global plan of action.  Such a plan, with quantifiable and time-bound targets, had become imperative to galvanize political and economic will.  It would also ensure accountability for both States parties and non-parties to the trafficking Protocol to the crime Convention.

Ms. GUPTA, who said she worked with survivors of trafficking, welcomed efforts to create a plan of action, as long it did not dilute the Protocol, but offered concrete strategies for its implementation.  She stressed that buyers of trafficked persons, including those who had bought trafficked persons or sex from them –- as well as the sellers -- should face criminal justice.  Victims wanted no ambiguities in laws and international instruments criminalizing trafficking and addressing demand.  Traffickers must be brought to book and illegal assets gained through trafficking must be confiscated.  Traffickers and buyers must compensate victims for the damage they have caused. 

In addition, she stressed, sexual exploitation must not be thought of as inevitable.  Unfortunately, public health funds in some countries were being spent solely on the supposed protection of sex buyers from AIDS and not at all on the protection of women and children from sex buyers.  That had created a vested interest in preserving brothels in some parts of the world.  The women and children of Apne Aap, she said, were asking that their slavery not be accepted as inevitable by making it safer for those who exploited them.  They wanted a world in which it was unacceptable to buy or sell another human being and to imagine an economy in which one was not forced to sell oneself.

Ms. CHUTIKUL shared experiences in fighting human trafficking from the South-East Asia region, in particular the Mekong area of Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam.  She said that a crucial element in cooperation against the crime was the genuine desire to come together.  It was also important to have support from the international community and the United Nations system.  In the case of the Mekong initiative, known as COMMIT, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) provided secretariat support.  All actors and stakeholders must be included in the effort, including all international and bilateral development partners.

Regional arrangements must be underpinned by a memorandum of understanding, and to put that document into operation, a plan of action was needed, she said.  In addition, all countries involved must have full ownership of the process and agree to share information and learn from each other.  The regional plan of action must also have measurable indicators.  Critically, that regional plan must not devolve into merely a series of national and bilateral activities; the cooperation must be integral and ongoing.  Coordinating mechanisms must be flexible enough to last over time and incorporate new issues and problems.

During the discussion that followed, many speakers shared national and regional arrangements to combat human trafficking.  Australia’s representative put forward the Bali process on people smuggling in the Asia-Pacific Region as an effective model for a regional arrangement that covered a wide geographical area.  In terms of national experience, the representative of the Republic of Korea said that strengthened and coordinated efforts were needed to support the country’s domestic efforts.  Pakistan’s speaker described an anti-trafficking ordinance in effect in her country, urging the shift from a development perspective to a human-rights perspective in international anti-trafficking efforts.

Some speakers, continuing consideration of the desirability of a new global action plan, continued to express doubt about whether that mechanism was needed.   Peru’s representative said that it was important to determine whether certain conditions had already been met, including a willingness to adopt effective measures against the scourge.  The fact that many countries had not yet adopted the existing Protocol cast doubt on that condition. 

To such comments, Ms. Ezeilo responded that perhaps a target for universal accession to the organized crime Convention and the Protocol should be part of a future action plan.  Strongly defending the need for such a plan, other panellists suggested that to make implementation of a plan more efficient, consideration of trafficking could be combined with similar global and national efforts in women’s empowerment, as well as other efforts.  Monitoring, collection of data and sharing of best practices could also be boosted by a global action plan, they suggested.

Panel III

The third panel, entitled “Scaling up:  Why coordination needs to be global and how to do it”, was moderated by Ms. Tabatabai, Director of Communication for the International Labour Organization, who replaced Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of UNODC.  Joining him on the panel were Abdullah Salim Al-Harthy, Permanent Observer for the Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf; and Anders Johnsson, Secretary-General, Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Mr. Al-Harthy stressed the urgent need for global coordination against human trafficking and said the Gulf Cooperation Council had paid great attention to the need to combat human trafficking.  The Gulf Cooperation Council Ministers of Justice, for example, had met in December 2006 and had created laws, which were then endorsed by the Supreme Council of Cooperation Council’s Heads of State.  Gaps in those laws would be filled when the laws were renewed in 2010.  In addition, all Gulf States had signed the crime Convention’s Protocol on trafficking and joined the Convention to Eliminate All Forms of Discrimination against Women.  Gulf Cooperation Council States were known for their general cooperation and serious intent to suppress human trafficking, in order to ensure the highest levels of justice in line with international law, conventions and other legal instruments.

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries had moved to draft legislation to protect children and women and to build contemporary societies, he said.  Gulf Cooperation Council States had attracted large segments of labour from the region and the world.  They realized that solving the trafficking issue would be achieved through sustainable international cooperation; one country alone could not succeed in the battle.  The Gulf Cooperation Council States had also drawn up laws with labour-exporting countries and offered rewarding labour conditions for migrant workers worldwide.

He said the problem was an economic and social phenomena that resulted from the inability of development programmes to offer job opportunities.  He again stressed that Gulf Cooperation member States believed the problem was a global one that required international cooperation.

Mr. Johnsson said the politicians would like to see more action on the issue of human trafficking in women and children, which had been on their agendas for the last five years.  Global meetings, reports and regional seminars had indicated their interest in the issue, which was of growing importance for them and their constituents.  The issue required regional, national and international cooperation, but attention should be paid to all the factors surrounding human trafficking, including the root causes, such as inequality and exploitation.

Parliamentarians were trying to harmonize laws, but solving the human trafficking problem required more than simply adopting laws.  A holistic approach that involved civil society and the media would go a long way towards raising global support for action on the issue, he added.

Delegates then debated the issue, which the representative of Armenia termed the “shameful crime of the twenty-first century”.  They discussed measures, such as the creation of safe houses, to help the victims of human trafficking, as well as measures to punish the perpetrators of those crimes.  Many delegates advocated the strengthening of existing frameworks before new mechanisms were created.  The representative of the United Kingdom, for example, said the necessary instruments were already in place and the next step was to identify the areas where implementation was difficult for countries or regions.  A global plan of action would divert energy and resources from that endeavour.

Member States also stressed the need for global cooperation that corrected the root causes of human trafficking, such as political instability created by wars or foreign occupation.  Foreign networks exploited that political instability, and local authorities were often unable to cope with those situations.  Regional cooperative efforts could help, as could improving the quality of data and correcting social and economic situations that created the demand for victims and made that modern form of slavery profitable, delegates said.

Ms. Tabatabai thanked the delegates for their remarks.  She felt that the question of creating a global action plan to combat human trafficking needed more discussion.

Closing Remarks

Mr. ABDELAZIZ ( Egypt), Assembly Vice-President, speaking once again on behalf of Assembly President, Mr. d’Escoto, thanked participants for their contributions and said that it was important to demonstrate that the United Nations system had heard the appeal for a coordinated, action-oriented and rights-based approach to end the heinous crime of human trafficking.  Efforts to date had not been adequate, with only 22,000 rescued out of the millions of women, men, girls and boys caught up in the sinister web. 

More light must be shed on the problem, he stressed, by supporting the global media campaign agreed at last March’s meeting, organized by Bahrain, as well as last night’s launch of an arts campaign by UNODC, in partnership with the International Criminal Court Trust Fund for Victims. 

He said many national justice systems belittled the seriousness of the crime, reinforcing the notion that the human trafficking crisis reflected a widespread moral bankruptcy, which could well be exacerbated by the deepening financial crisis.  The report released only yesterday by the ILO should be a wake-up call for everyone on the need to take prompt and effective action.

It was time to implement last December’s Assembly resolution that demanded better coordination of efforts against human trafficking and the protection of victims, he said.  He heard today that Member States were concerned that a global plan of action might weaken the United Nations Protocol and its mechanisms, or overburden the UNODC.  However, he also heard the assurances of numerous panellists who demonstrated that the action plan would build upon the Protocol and provide coherence to national, regional and global efforts, thus reinforcing the existing international normative framework. 

He pledged to work hard with Member States on the plan, because just such a blueprint for global action on the ground was still lacking, particularly one that brought together the punitive and restorative measures and joined the development, justice and security dimensions into a common endeavour.

Only if the reserves of moral courage were tapped would the international community be able to carry out the changes needed to ensure freedom for all men and women, he concluded.  “The partnerships that have been cultivated and energized here today would be in the forefront of this campaign,” he said.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.