UN Human Rights Council: A Focus on Human Trafficking

While the Human Rights Council has focused only on a small number of States where human rights are abused – basically the Israel-Palestine conflict, the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, and Darfur, Sudan – the Council has played a key role in building awareness of the growing flow, world wide, of human trafficking. 

It is never fully clear how issues appear, disappear and re-appear on the agenda of the United Nations.  "White Slavery" was an important issue for the League of Nations, and the first treaties against international prostitution were negotiated within the League of Nations. 

However, for the UN, trafficking and illegal migration were not topics high on the world agenda until after the end of the Cold War and the start of trafficking from the former Soviet Union and the former Yugoslavia to Western Europe.  The wars and violence in former Yugoslavia, the wide use of rape as a technique of war, the related conflict in Kosovo followed by Kosovo’s economic stagnation and uncertain  political status have drawn attention to the close tie between conflict, economic disorder, violence against women, and the flow of migrants toward richer and calmer lands. 

Public awareness is slowly growing in the countries of origin, transit and destination about the extent and nature of human trafficking.  People are deprived of their liberty, and duped or coerced into forced labor.  There needs to be better information on trafficking routes, on the profile of traffickers and the pool of victims. Trafficking in persons is closely tied to trafficking in drugs and trafficking in guns.  Some gangs deal in all three; in other cases the "markets" are divided. 

While in Western Europe, mainly women and children have been trafficked for sexual exploitation and pornography, human trafficking is world wide as people are exploited as domestic servants, on construction sites, in agriculture and plantations, in restaurants and mines. Where people are vulnerable because of ignorance, need, desperation, misinformation or marginalization, they are at high risk of falling into the hands of those who wish to exploit them. 

Trafficking is also related to the desire to migrate for social and economic betterment.  There are numerous people who are willing to risk their lives to earn money for themselves and their families elsewhere.  The traffickers and their accomplices are there to take advantage to exploit.  By definition, it is difficult to estimate the rewards of trafficking and the transit of illegal migrant workers.  The UN’s International Labor Organization estimates that worldwide about 2.5 million people are victims of trafficking with profits to traffickers of $ 32 billion. 

In the trafficking chain, there are points at which people are subjected to force or coercion: it may happen when they are recruited, during transportation and during work.  Traffickers and their accomplices usually make a hefty profit, taking a cut of the money paid for the work performed, taking a cut out of the ‘services’ they provide arranging travel, accommodation and reception.  In addition to physical violence, there can be restraints which are less overt, such as confiscation of papers, non-payment of wages, induced indebtedness or threats to denounce irregular migrant workers to the authorities. 

The UN Commission on Human Rights continued by the Human Rights Council created a system of Special Rapporteurs, largely in response to the advocacy of non-governmental organizations (NGOs).  There was no over all plan in creating the Special Rapporteurs.  Nearly always, they were created in response to reports presented by NGOs indicating serious and wide-spread abuses of particular human rights.  For each Special Rapporteur, there is a small UN Secretariat staff which carries on the day-to-day work.  The Special Rapporteurs are paid only for the days that they are in Geneva or on missions to countries.  Most are academics, usually law professors.  Special Rapporteurs are also often invited by governments or NGOs to conferences on their topic of expertise and so can provide a degree of leadership on an issue. Originally, each Special Rapporteur worked independently.  Now as the number of Special Rapporteurs has grown, and their areas of concern overlap, they tend to work together and send jointly communications to governments.  Thus, the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in persons works closely with the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children and child prostitution, the Special  Rapporteur on violence against women, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, and the Special Rapporteur on Torture. 

By and large, the only tool that Special Rapporteurs have is the ability to send a "communication" – that is, a letter sent to the Ambassador representing a State at the UN in Geneva.  Geneva is the headquarters for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and all the human rights secretariat.  Information on human rights abuses can be sent to a Special Rapporteur by a State, an NGO, or an individual victim.  Nearly always, the information is sent by an NGO.  Governments do not criticize each other as they could be attacked in return, and victims rarely know ‘how the system works’.  Thus information to Special Rapporteurs is nearly always sent by the representatives of international NGOs who have members or local contacts in the countries in question. 

On the basis of the information sent, the Special Rapporteur writes to the Ambassador indicating that information has been sent to the UN Secretariat.  The Special Rapporteur makes no evaluation of the information sent.  The major purpose for an NGO to use the system of  UN Special Rapporteurs is to indicate to the government that the NGO knows what is going on and that there is no part of the country so far removed that NGOs can not have information on events.  Thus my repeated letters to the Special Rapporteur on Religious Liberty concerning events in Tibet – at the time still far off ‘the beaten track’. 

Many governments do not reply to communications; some reply briefly justifying their actions; a few governments do carry out serious investigations, sometimes not being aware of the situation before.  Thus, the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking, Ms Sigma Huda of Bangladesh, in 2006 sent 27 communications; all co-signed by some other Special Rapporteurs and received 14 replies.  Some of the communications concerned an individual case, usually a woman trafficked into prostitution and later helped by a local association which sent the information to an international NGO.  Other cases concerned a much larger number of persons such as the trafficking of women from Nepal to India, Central Asia to the Gulf States, or children from Benin to Nigeria.  In all these cases, the government is aware of the situation.  In the best of events, some police authorities act against an individual trafficker – very rarely against a whole gang. The problem is that police authorities are rarely concerned with the socio-economic or the psychological conditions of the victims.  The victim is usually deported to the country of origin. 

In addition to the tool of sending communications, the Special Rapporteur can visit a country – on invitation of the government – to talk to government authorities and, depending on the country, with NGOs and other associations.  The Special Rapporteur is accompanied by one or more members of the UN secretariat.  Thus in 2006, Sigma Huda was able to visit Bahrain, Oman and Qatar for two weeks. Such a trip is not an independent investigation, but it is a sign to the governments that there is concern about the manifestations of trafficking and an encouragement to the local groups that their work is appreciated.  Recommendations are made to the governments and a report of the visit is made public. 

The impact of the UN Special Rapporteurs depends on close, if informal, cooperation with NGOs.  Without the NGOs, there would be no information coming into the system and without NGOs there would be no follow up.  The resources of NGOs are limited, even if some such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have fairly large staffs.  Most NGOs are much smaller or have a number of issues other than human rights – such as the World Council of Churches.  The strength of NGOs is their ability to cooperate and a range of personal contacts in the UN system.  The most difficult task for NGO representatives at the UN is to keep lines of communication open to local members and to evaluate the information sent to us by local groups.  As the impact of NGOs grows, efforts to manipulate NGO representatives by giving false or incomplete information also grows. It is difficult to check out information and difficult to put events into a socio-cultural context.  Yet, we often have to move quickly to try to prevent a situation from getting worse.  We would all wish for a more effective system for the protection of human rights and more resources to use the avenues for action that we have.  Yet we must not underestimate the tools that have been created by repeated and patient efforts.  


For more information see UN Human Rights Council: One Year’s Record, Lights and Shadows by Rene Wadlow

Rene Wadlow is the Editor of www.transnational-persdpectives.org and an NGO representative to the United Nations, Geneva.