Bhutan: Adoption of the Bhutan Penal Code (Amendment) Act 2021 strengthens national capacity to prevent and counter Trafficking in Persons

06 April 2021/Thimphu, Bhutan: Giving a major impetus to efforts against Trafficking in Persons (TIP), the Royal Government of Bhutan adopted the landmark Bhutan Penal Code (Amendment Act) 2021 in February. The amendment, which has come into force w.e.f. 17 February, strengthens national capacity to effectively prevent and counter TIP, and protect and assist victims in line with the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children.

Section 154 of the Penal Code (Amendment) Act of Bhutan 2011 is amended as: “A defendant shall be guilty of an offence of trafficking in persons if the defendant recruits, transports, transfers, harbours or receives a person by means of the threat or use of force, or any other form of coercion, abduction, fraud or deception, the abuse of power, the abuse of the position of vulnerability, or the giving or receiving of payments or other benefit to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person for the purpose of exploitation. For the purpose of this Code, ‘exploitation’ includes, but not limited to, sexual exploitation, involuntary domestic servitude, forced labour, child labour and trafficking of human organs.” At the same time, Section 227 on trafficking of a child has been repealed.

UNODC welcomes this significant legislation and extends to the Government of Bhutan the highest assurances of its commitment to provide evidence-based technical assistance to prevent and counter TIP, support victims and empower frontline responders to end this heinous crime.

Over the last several years, UNODC has been at the forefront to enhance multi-stakeholder responses to TIP with a range of impact-oriented activities and initiatives.

In July 2014, UNODC, with support from the US Department of State, launched its first  project titled “Enhance Government and Civil Society Responses to Counter TIP in Bhutan”. Besides capacity building, the project involved local stakeholders to carry out a comprehensive legal and policy review to assess the gaps in the national responses to combat TIP.

The review was the first of its kind to be undertaken in Bhutan and had made several key recommendations to strengthen the national responses to address trafficking in persons.

Based on the recommendations from the legal and policy review report, the Department of Law and Order (DLO), Government of Bhutan—which is the lead agency for TIP-related matters in the country-- submitted an official request to the Office of the Attorney General to consider the revision of the penal code definition of trafficking.                

The project worked on intensifying public awareness campaigns, training law enforcement officials and bringing the judges and local leaders onboard to prevent and counter TIP. At the same time, UNODC continued its efforts to advocate for the amendment in Section 154 of the Bhutan Penal Code with the various committees of the National Assembly and the National Council.

UNODC also supported the preparation of a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to facilitate multi-sectoral responses to TIP in Bhutan, which was endorsed in 2019 and is currently being implemented. The SOP outlines the specific roles of the identified stakeholders and the procedures to be followed upon identification of potential TIP victims. As per the SOP, a Special Task Force was formed to ensure efficient and effective coordination among the identified stakeholders. 

As part of these efforts, trainings have been conducted in 7 Dzongkhags in Bhutan, reaching more than 120 frontline responders. The training programs in the Dzongkhags focus on local leaders and volunteers, while separate workshops are conducted for stakeholders in the ministries and agencies. 

So far, UNODC--in collaboration with the National Commission For Women And Children (NCWC) and DLO--have conducted around 32 “in-person” awareness campaigns on TIP reaching more than 4361 vulnerable individuals, and trained more than  653 officials from the police, immigration, labour ministry, NCWC, local governments, Judiciary, media, education, health, foreign affairs and civil society.

In addition, three special video clips produced for public awareness are being aired on the National TV since February 2020. Responding to COVID-19, UNODC also contributed over 1000 litres of Hand Sanitizers, face masks and post cards to support the Royal Government of Bhutan’s efforts to prevent and contain the pandemic. In collaboration with the DLO, a range of informative post-cards, with special messages on staying at home, and preventing cybercrime, trafficking in persons under the Blue Heart Campaign and domestic violence, were also publicly distributed.

In July, UNODC, in collaboration with Bhutan’s Department of Law and Order, leveraged the “Druk Super Star”, the country’s most popular entertainment show, to promote awareness on countering trafficking in persons, especially through the Blue Heart campaign. The activity attracted strong support with film stars lending their support on the live broadcast and social media. This mega initiative also found mention in the UN’s Innovation Newsletter of September 2020.

In March 2021, a capacity building workshop was held for the first batch of 21 Bhutanese judiciary officials, following the launch of the training manual by Her Royal Highness, Princess Sonam Dechan Wangchuck, the founder and President of the Bhutan National Legal Institute. The training was developed with an objective of enhancing the capability and skills of judges to effectively detect TIP cases and implement anti-trafficking legislation. The second training is scheduled for 7-8 April for judiciary officials from eastern Bhutan.

The National Prevention and Response Strategy has also been prepared and work is in progress for the development of the National Action Plan (NAP) to prevent and counter TIP in Bhutan. The NAP is being drafted by the Special Task Force on TIP and will be aligned with the Twelfth Five-Year Plan activities of various government stakeholders to ensure that such activities are sustainable and ownership is taken by the relevant agencies.

(UNODC’s efforts to counter Trafficking in Persons in Bhutan have been made possible with the generous funding support of the US Department of State.)