Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa

Slavery: a shame in our backyard

United Nations Day for the Abolition of Slavery  

at New York University

30 November 2006

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The slave trade was not abolished in the nineteenth century by the British Parliament or by the 13 th amendment to the US Constitution.  Slavery is not part of history. It is with us and thrives in our backyard.

Slavery is a booming international trade, less obvious than two hundred years ago for sure, but all around us, even in this well-off neighbourhood.

Of course we know the roots of the problem. Poverty makes people vulnerable.  Then evil people exploit their dreams of a better life using deception, coercion and inevitably, violence. Victims end up in sweatshops, in mines or on farms, doing dirty, dodgy or dangerous manual work, or in the sex trade - enslaved and indebted to their masters, afraid or unable to escape.  There is no money, no identity, no dignity, and no future in this heart of darkness.

The economy of human trafficking is significant.  Since the world woke up to this terrible reality (about 10 years ago), the mass of people trafficked and exploited would populate a state like Kansas, producing an income equivalent also to that of Kansas, or Montana.  And yet we don't see this tragedy in our own backyard?

Perhaps we do not want to see this very real and competitive state, as so many middle class, god-fearing, law-abiding citizens buy the products and the services produced on the cheap by slaves. 

At the United Nations we talk a lot about failed states.  Well, what can we do to make this state fail? As we cannot send blue-helmeted peacekeepers, we may like to volunteer ourselves as freedom fighters, and free the slaves.

We can count on effective weapons.

The first weapon is public awareness - yes, there is now plenty of that, thanks to committed activists and politicians (many of whom are in this room),  NGOs like Vital Voices, journalists like Nicholas Kristof, concerned business people like Marilyn Carlson Nelson, and champions like our UNODC Goodwill Ambassador Julia Ormond. 

The second weapon is curbing demand.  Moral outrage is not going to stop the traffickers. Consideration of supply and demand, costs and benefits are the traffickers' primary motives. We therefore need to change the balance of their risks and returns, lowering their incentives to trade and increasing the threat of retribution. That means less demand for the products and services of exploited people: no cheap labour-intensive goods, no sex holidays, no conflict diamonds or pearls, no free toxic waste disposal, no inexpensive home services and the like.  As long as there is demand, criminals will always find a way to supply what the market wants.

How do we reduce the demand for forced labour output?  It is a matter of education and public awareness, more than law enforcement.  Most people have moral standards and common sense:  knowing what's behind a product or a service they purchase would lower their desire to acquire it.  Look at the splendid results produced by naming and shaming multinationals selling products manufactured by minors, in slave-like conditions.  We can similarly bankrupt the brothel in our neighbourhood, whether legal or illegal - or the tourist company promising exotic sex on distant shores;  or the diamond companies thriving on children working in their mines.

The third weapon in our arsenal is political action - to implement international laws against human trafficking.   As of today 117 States have signed the UN Protocol and 110 have ratified it -- but the Protocol is only a well-meaning piece of paper unless it is implemented.  We, at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, brokered this agreement half a dozen years ago.  Now, as its custodian, we make States mindful of the commitments they have signed up to. Let me remind you of these engagements and of what you can do to help.

Let me start with the obvious, first point: prevention .  According to our Protocol,

1.                 States should establish policies to prevent and combat human trafficking and to protect the victims.

2.                 They should undertake measures to warn potential victims of the dangers of trafficking and alleviate the vulnerability of people.

3.                 They should exchange information on trafficking routes, traffickers profiles and victims identification. 

          I see so many people from so many countries in the audience:  have your governments done what they have signed up to?  Help us do our job by signalling negligence:  we will send our freedom-fighters.

Second, prosecution .  The UN Protocol obliges parties to make human trafficking a criminal offence with an adequate system of penalties.  I know of well off and well meaning countries where convicted traffickers got out with a slap on the wrist.  Again I ask:  have your governments established adequate penalties? 

Concerning protection , States are committed to cater for the physical, psychological and social recovery of victims, offering housing, visas and assistance in their language, keeping in mind especially the needs of women and children.

The evidence in my possession, regarding so many Member States, points to a flat NO, not enough has been done - certainly not fast enough.

This is not a wish list. It is international law. 

Global momentum against trafficking in persons is building, spurring people and governments to act.  Before closing, I have two specific requests.

First:  next March a Global Conference will take place in Abu Dhabi.  I know what some of you will think:  people are raped, exploited and victimized and all this guy does is to invite us to a luxurious conference.  Well, not exactly.  There have been conferences that have changed the world's views on development assistance, the conditions of women, or the danger of the AIDS pandemic.  So I urge you to attend and propose concrete initiatives to make the Abu Dhabi meeting the anti-slavery counterpart of these successful events.

Second:  I also urge you to help us improve ways and means of measuring the extent of human trafficking, with internationally comparable data, in order to ensure that policy is evidence-based.  At the moment we all are in a statistical fog.   

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Ladies and Gentlemen, I hope that in the near future we will commemorate UN International Day for the Abolition of Slavery as an anniversary rather than a call to action to end a problem still with us. Let's work together to make slavery history, so that everyone can live in freedom and dignity.