Protecting the Innocent:

Reducing Vulnerability to Human Trafficking in West and Central Africa

Abidjan, 26 November 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by thanking the Government of Cote d'Ivoire for its support for this high-level expert meeting. This is the latest in a series of regional events that have been held in the past few months - in Uganda, Brazil, Thailand, South Africa, and India - as part of the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking also known as UN.GIFT.

This is not a Conference for talk. It is a call to action - to fight a crime that shames us all. You are here, not to be made aware of a problem, but to actually do something about it.

Innocence Lost

Human trafficking is a global problem. But Western Africa is particularly hard hit.

  • Children - drugged, coerced, and forced to carry guns almost as big as themselves - become killers, child soldiers on the frontlines of savage conflicts (for example in Congo, Liberia, or Sierra Leone);
  • Boys, with stones tied around their ankles, are forced to dive into dangerous waters to untangle nets (like on Lake Volta);
  • Girls, caught up in conflict, are forced into sex slavery;
  • Children, who should be at school, are working long hours in coco fields or in mines (even here in Cote d'Ivoire) doing back-breaking work for almost nothing.

This has an impact far beyond the trauma suffered by these children. For how can West Africa build a peaceful and prosperous future if its youth is being exploited, recycled, and scarred for life?

Will tomorrow ever come for children trapped in a cycle of poverty and violence - and if it does, will they be able to put their damaged childhood behind them? Or will the child soldiers of today become adult soldiers of tomorrow, and child slaves grow up to join the ranks of what Paul Collier has described as the "bottom billion"?

To ensure that we can answer "No" to both these questions, more must be done to reduce the vulnerability of Africa's children to human trafficking.

Reducing Vulnerability to Human Trafficking

To start with, let us ask why West and Central Africa are so vulnerable to this crime?

One of the greatest tragedies is that there is a large pool of lost children - orphans of disease, conflict, and broken homes, children with little education, living in poverty and fear.

One group that gets a lot of attention is child soldiers - machine-gun wielding kids who are the foot soldiers of West Africa's civil wars. Children are particularly vulnerable in conflict and post-conflict situations, especially when separated from the rest of their family. Boys submit to warlords in order to survive - and then become trapped in a cycle of violence, moving from victim to warrior.

Part of their initiation is to take drugs. This makes them even more dependent on their masters, and blunts their fear and pain - transforming innocent children into drug-crazed killers.

Recall the horrible scene from the best-selling memoirs of a child solider, Ishmael Beah, in his book A Long Way Gone: "We opened fire until the last living being in the other group fell to the ground. We walked toward the dead bodies, giving each other high fives. The group had also consisted of young boys like us, but we didn't care about them. We took their ammunition, sat on their bodies, and started eating the cooked food that they had been carrying. All around us, fresh blood leaked from the bullet holes in their bodies".

Can disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration wash away these stains? Time will tell. But I submit to you that these children who have been coerced into conflict need rehabilitation, not incarceration.

Therefore drug treatment must be an integral part of post-conflict rehabilitation. Children who, on drugs and carrying weapons, think they are invincible realize, without them, how vulnerable they are. I salute all those medical and social workers whose patience and loving care help bring these children back from hell. Their work is vital in rebuilding shattered lives and societies.

For some reason girls who are caught up in violence receive less attention, yet they are usually twice as vulnerable: first, as victims of rape and sexual harassment perpetrated by armed groups; and second because they are seldom involved in DDR processes, nor are they provided with special rehabilitation programmes. This misery is compounded by HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases contracted as a result of being victims of human trafficking. This leads to further stigmatization, trauma, and disease. Let us not abandon those who need help the most.>

>More must be done to provide support and rehabilitation to girls victimized by conflict, including resolute efforts to redress injustices committed against them in times of war. We must deepen the knowledge base on the plight of girls in conflict situations to ensure that prevention and intervention become more effective. Let's make sure that victims of conflict do not become victims of trafficking.

And instead of treating victims as criminals - which is too often the case - governments should go after the real villains, the thugs who recruit children into conflict and commit gender based crimes against women and children, like rape and other forms of sexual abuse. Human trafficking should be high on the list of crimes for which Africa's warlords are held accountable.

Internally displaced people and refugees are highly vulnerable. Extra efforts should be made to ensure that safe havens should not become recruiting grounds for traffickers. I urge aid agencies to be on the look out for predators, and host countries to provide sufficient security. I also urge greater awareness and intervention in peacekeeping and peace-building operations to prevent and detect trafficking. It goes without saying that peacekeepers themselves should abstain from becoming part of the problem.The UN must show zero-tolerance for peacekeepers involved in sexual abuse and exploitation.

Another cause of vulnerability is poverty. As long as young people are desperate for a brighter future at any cost, unscrupulous criminals will seek to exploit them. More must be done to raise awareness among young people about the dangers of human trafficking. Recruitment and transportation companies should also make their staff aware of the warning signs of potential victims.

Young people need to be given the skills and opportunities - including safe labour migration - to find a decent job. I urge the business community to pay special attention to the needs of trafficking victims in order to prevent re-victimization.

Corporate responsibility applies to all companies doing business in Africa. I appeal to you to check your supply chains and employment practices to ensure that you are not supporting human trafficking. Be warned. The reputation of your company is at stake.

Consumers should use their purchasing power more forcefully. Do you really want to eat chocolate, drive on tires, or wear diamonds dripping with the blood and sweat of slave labour?

Another reason why West and Central Africa are vulnerable to human trafficking is because of the low risks involved. There is little threat of law enforcement, especially in countries weakened by conflict or corruption. In some countries, anti-trafficking legislation is weak or non-existent. For example, the fact that Chad has not yet ratified the UN anti-trafficking Protocol, and has no child trafficking law in place, will hamper efforts to prosecute recent alleged trafficking cases.

Furthermore, across West and Central Africa few preventive measures are in place, for example to deal with fake adoptions. Police lack the investigative tools to catch the criminals and to collect the evidence needed to bring them to justice. Indeed, in much of West Africa criminals cooperate more efficiently across borders than the police.

Africa - protect your children!

Protect Your Children

The blueprints exist, starting with the UN anti-trafficking Protocol. If you haven't signed up already, it's high time.

There are good regional action plans, including the ECOWAS/ECAS plan and the Ouagadougou Action Plan.

We have enough plans, now we need action. Governments must do more to implement their good intentions. If you need legal assistance, UNODC can help. If you need technical assistance, we can help too. If you need financial support, we can provide that as well, thanks to the UN.GIFT.

Start by criminalizing human trafficking - that would cover the recruitment of child soldiers, sexual slavery and forced labour.

Raise awareness to warn people - particularly at risk groups - about this crime, and how to prevent it. Here civil society and the media can help.

Strengthen the justice system to put traffickers behind bars.

Protect witnesses so that they will come forward with valuable information.

Help victims recover and reintegrate into society, and receive compensation.

Improve regional cooperation to fight this trans-national crime.

Strengthen the monitoring and review mechanism based on UN Security Council Resolution 1612 (of 2005) on Children in Conflict.

I also urge you to more rigorously collect data on trafficking cases and trends so that policy is evidence-based.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Through national and regional action plans, and the global momentum generated by UN.GIFT, we have an historic opportunity to strengthen societies defences against a crime that has no place in the 21 st century.

This meeting will be judged by its outcome - on how we actually improve the lives of vulnerable children. I therefore urge you to focus on practical steps that can prevent present and future generations of children in West and Central Africa from suffering the abuse, exploitation, injury and death that have destroyed so many innocent lives in this part of the world.

Thank you for your commitment to this cause and for your attention.