A Crime of Shame

In Addressing the Crisis in Human Trafficking World Wide, A Huge Abyss Still Lies Between Words and Actions

News | Nayeli Urquiza | March 2008

Actress Emma Thompson‘s exhibit, The Journey, showed the suffering of trafficked women (Photo: UNGIFT)

Despite all the good intentions, the Forum against Human Trafficking held in Vienna Feb. 13-15 was a frustrating event. After three days of papers, panels and discussion, the only thing that was clear was how little we know.

With the legislative framework still in its infancy and an affected population that, by definition, goes unrecorded in any census, the problem is nearly impossible to measure with any accuracy. We know it’s there, but it is like a predator looming close to us but with only a few of matches in our hands that flare up quickly and burn out, we can only see the dimmest outline of what’s haunting us. The only thing most have agreed on is that there is much more of it than most of us dare imagine.

But for just this reason, the conference was much better than nothing: The goal, in part, was simply to put all forms of human trafficking in the spotlight.

"Human trafficking today is a form of modern slavery, in the words of Antonio Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office against Drugs and Crime (UNODC). This is "a crime that shames us all" – a powerful statement that was chosen as the catch phrase of the conference.

A key emphasis of the effort is to make people aware of the extent to which everyone is potentially involved in this system – an illegal enterprise that cashes in about $32 billion dollars every year -- everyone from the people who buy clothes produced by child labor and the customer that buys porn made with women forced into prostitution, to the technology company that has the tools to investigate these crimes but does not share them with the authorities.

One difficulty is that the anti-human trafficking legislative framework is still in its infancy. The Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) was enacted only five years ago. By comparison, the comparable international frameworks for anti-drug trafficking have been around for more than 40 years since the first convention, the Single Convention against Narcotic Drugs of 1961. And even with this framework, illegal drug use continues to be the top-of-the top in illegal businesses.

The problem of trafficked human beings is much more elusive: people are not tagged and regulated like ephedrine, a precursor for making methamphetamines, and remain very difficult to track. For example, women can be forced into prostitution in a country where prostitution itself is legal, and while there are conceptual indicators as to how to differentiate who’s who, it can be nearly impossible to prove or enforce on the ground level.

So what tools does the UNTOC have to quantify human trafficking? None so far. Each national agency provides data according to its own parameters for victim identification, national legal definitions of human trafficking, lack of recognition of different forms of exploitation, etc. So process is likely to be slow. First, a greater number of countries have to sign or ratify the convention. Then, they have to adapt their national legislation to the provisions of the convention. Much more has to be done after that, including setting up specialized or centralized agencies that will register cases of human trafficking, protocols for sharing information across borders, and training security personnel to be sensitive in assisting and protecting trafficked people.

Here and there, governments have refined their laws and started pilot projects, action plans, etc. But an immense abyss still lies in between words and actions throughout the international community. It’s a colossal project, and so far, we only have a draft of the blueprints and a couple of stones for the foundation. Trial and error will be the rule for the people involved in the fight, and a looming security threat, to those who turn the blind eye to human trafficking, after drugs, the second most lucrative illegal market in the world.

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