Widening Our Lens: Incorporating Essential Perspectives in the Fight against Human Trafficking

In 2000, the international community formally launched the modern movement to combat human trafficking with the United Nations’ adoption of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, Supplementing the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (Trafficking Protocol). With the Trafficking Protocol, the international community created a new cornerstone upon which to build a global initiative to combat this modem form of slavery. As the first major international treaty on human trafficking in half a century, the Trafficking Protocol represented a significant step forward. One hundred forty-seven countries are now party to the treaty. Since the Trafficking Protocol’s adoption, governments around the world have sought to implement its mandate. As more than a decade has passed, this Symposium presents an important opportunity to assess progress made and to identify gaps and shortcomings in the global response to human trafficking. While recognizing that it is difficult to collect accurate data on human trafficking, a review of efforts to date reveals that although government and civil society have taken important steps, their efforts appear to have had very limited impact overall in terms of reducing the incidence of human trafficking. One initial reaction to such shortcomings might be to lay blame on weaknesses in international law’s enforcement mechanisms. After all, many states that ratify human rights treaties are well short of compliance. Some scholars might suggest that implementation is the stage at which international law has failed in the trafficking arena as well, and certainly there are shortcomings in this regard. I submit, however, that a central failing in international law’s response to human trafficking has occurred at the design stage. The Trafficking Protocol grew out of a criminal law framework rooted primarily in concern for combating transnational organized crime syndicates rather than an independent assessment of what is needed to prevent human trafficking. As a result, the international community not only developed a narrow response focused primarily on criminal law measures, but its anchoring of antitrafficking law in criminal law concepts subsequently served to marginalize other vital perspectives. This failure to draw upon a broad range of perspectives to address the root causes of human trafficking underlies many of the shortcomings in the international community’s response to the issue. It also likely means that even if compliance with international human trafficking law continues to improve, human trafficking is unlikely to decline significantly. As a result, we need to rethink our approach to the problem and redesign international law’s response.