News & Events

Print/PDF this page:

Print Friendly and PDF

Share this page:

"Snatched in Sudan, Captive In Khartoum"--A Commentary by Prof. Harold Koh


(This essay was originally published in the February 20, 2004 of the Times Higher Education Supplement.)

Snatched in Sudan, Captive In Khartoum
By Harold Hongju Koh, Dean Designate and Gerard C. and Bernice Latrobe Smith Professor of International Law

The US State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices identify at least 60 countries in which transborder trafficking of human beings takes place. That number, which is surely a conservative estimate, represents nearly one-third of the countries in the world.

Trafficking in human beings - dubbed "the underside of globalisation" by the International Labour Organisation - is the third-largest criminal industry in the world, trailing only drugs and small-arms trade. The United Nations estimates that it generates between $ 7 billion (Pounds 3.7 billion) and $ 10 billion a year.

That so many around the world regularly exploit the innocent for personal and monetary gain must be regarded as one of the most brutal forms of evil we confront today. It is a multibillion-dollar industry that flouts all governmental immigration policies and threatens to spread global disease, but first and foremost it is a human-rights problem.

It takes many forms, from forced prostitution to bonded domestic servitude, from coerced work in sweatshops to the pressing into service of child soldiers. Some 20,000 people a year are trafficked into the US, and every year the UK receives women from regions such as Eastern Europe, East Asia and West Africa primarily for domestic servitude and sexual exploitation.

Male labourers are also trafficked for sweatshop labour and agricultural work.

Recent documented examples include the trafficking of 100 women from remote villages in Brazil to London over a five-year period under debt-bondage, an operation out of which the trafficker made Pounds 5 million profit, and the importation of some 55 Russian women for prostitution into flats in central London under cover of a car import/export business. Most recently, the UK press has been filled with stories about the tragic deaths of some 20 Chinese cockle-pickers on the beach at Morecambe.

Practices vary from region to region but generally speaking, trafficking involves a vicious cycle in which victims are forced or lured from their home countries, shuttled across one or more international borders and enslaved, with human-rights violations occurring at every step along the way. The majority of victims are girls and women under the age of 25. Some respond to employment agencies fronting for traffickers, and some are sold to traffickers because their families cannot afford to take care of them. A few are tricked into travelling with a "family friend" or "uncle" to a large city to go shopping, only to discover that they have been kidnapped and ensnared by traffickers in a world of violence and slavery. In almost every situation, traffickers prey on the hopes and fears of their victims: in the case of the runaway, offering shelter and sympathy; in the case of the poor family, offering a way out of debt; in the case of those seeking passage abroad, offering the hope of a better life.

In many cases, victims are sent to "transit countries" where traffickers make clear that they have no choice but to accept prostitution, debt-bondage or some other form of involuntary servitude. Once a person is in the traffickers' hands, the traffickers regularly use any and all means to ensure their cooperation: typically, drugs, violence, sexual assault, threats to victims' families or threats to turn victims over to unsympathetic local authorities. If victims have identity papers, traffickers often seize or destroy them to ensure compliance. Where money has been exchanged, victims are often told that the cost of transport is greater than expected, and that they will have to work additional months or years to repay the traffickers.

Traffickers frequently will move victims from safe house to safe house, from city to city or from country to country. Once victims of trafficking arrive in "receiving countries", they are often kept in squalid conditions in a state of virtual house arrest. They face long hours of forced servitude - whether in a brothel as a prostitute, at gunpoint as a child soldier or at a sewing machine as a sweatshop worker. Traffickers commonly get their victims addicted to drugs to subdue and subjugate them. What little compensation comes the victim's way is usually a tiny percentage of actual earnings, with the balance claimed by the trafficker to cover so-called costs such as room, board and clothing, or to repay the original loan.

Healthcare is usually non-existent or provided only by fellow victims, leaving most victims at high risk of further health complications.

Tragically, this ensures that many children born to trafficking victims will themselves be trafficked through adoption rings. To break this vicious cycle we need to:

* Understand the problem's global nature

* Create civil society networks

* Develop norms and recruit people willing to promote them

* Create a global law-declaring forum that can develop an international norm against trafficking and build a broader interpretive community that can construe that norm

* Ensure that this norm is enshrined in the domestic statutes, executive practices and judicial systems of all countries.

Part of our ignorance of the nature of slave-trading is due to the fact that victims rarely denounce their traffickers. Trafficked persons are usually far from home, lack official documents, and are threatened into silence by their keepers. Their families, usually from the lowest economic strata, have little political or economic ability to pressure public authorities. Many countries deflect responsibility by claiming that all prostitution is consensual sex for money. Some are simply embarrassed to acknowledge the existence of sexual exploitation and trafficking, and other governments avoid the subject so as not to embarrass friendly countries where the practice is widely tolerated.

However, the global slave trade is now back on the international radar due to the work of non-governmental organisations and the governmental sponsors with whom they have been networking. Their work has been taken up by the media, and the internet has greatly magnified the media voice.

At the legislative level, we now have a new UN convention on transnational organised crime signed by 147 nations. Regional multilateral efforts to crack down on traffickers are also beginning to bear fruit, and the UN and intergovernmental agencies have created a contact group on trafficking that includes the NGO caucus on trafficking. The next step is to get these international norms enshrined in domestic law.

Four approaches have been proposed - prohibition, decriminalisation, sanctions and an integrated approach that focuses on preventing trafficking, protecting victims and prosecuting those who profit from the slave trade. Prohibition has proved ineffectual, decriminalisation ignores the non-consensual nature of trafficking, and sanctions could discourage international cooperation from the poorest countries. An integrated strategy, however, would attack the root causes of trafficking worldwide by fighting poverty and social inequality that leave populations vulnerable to traffickers, and educate potential victims so that they do not fall victim to traffickers' schemes.

It would also offer protection to trafficking victims, not just freeing them but providing them with shelter, health services and resettlement options and ensuring that they are not punished for what their captors have done. This would also mean legal reform by, for example, revising immigration laws that permit some countries summarily to deport or incarcerate trafficking victims. In Pakistan, discriminatory laws that criminalise extramarital sex discourage victims from coming forward.

Finally, protection means ensuring that local NGO workers who dare to confront trafficking enterprises are not punished for their work. In recent years, members of an anti-traffick group called La Strada-Ukraine and an Israeli sex-workers' rights organisation called We are Worthy received death threats simply for naming companies that had fronted for trafficking operations. Trafficking should also face prosecution, and local prosecutors, police and immigration officials should be given training to enforce anti-trafficking laws.

But a focus on law enforcement should not drive out a rights-based approach. Successful prosecutions require trafficking victims to take huge risks to testify against their captors. Government-funded witness protection and victim services programmes are therefore vital.

Perhaps most critical in all the attempts to tackle the slavery problem have been the efforts of non-governmental anti-trafficking activists. In eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, the La Strada Network has provided services for victims of trafficking, including psychological counselling, hotlines, medical care and shelter. To recount just one of many compelling stories, a trafficked Ukrainian woman found herself imprisoned in an Italian brothel with no idea of where she was. Borrowing an inebriated customer's mobile phone, she called her mother in Ukraine, who called La Strada, which in turn called the Italian police. When the police reached the woman by phone, she described the numbers on a bus going by her window. Using that information, police found the brothel and freed the woman.

Trafficking may be the underside of globalisation, but the tools of globalisation are equally available to combat it. Thanks to the internet, satellite, mobile phones and faxes, we have the tools to reach out to almost every place on earth. We can now participate in the formation of transnational networks of people and institutions, governments, businesses and NGOs that can and do unite around issues with unprecedented speed to bring international pressure to bear on government policies. No nation can stop the information revolution nor keep the human rights message from their people.


Harold Hongju Koh is a professor at Yale Law School and was assistant secretary for democracy, human rights and labour in the Clinton administration. This is an edited version of his Oxford Amnesty lecture.