Human trafficking: A crime that shames us all

UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa

Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking, 13 February 2008


Ladies and Gentlemen, 

Violence, exploitation and slavery have been part of humanity since creation, or if you prefer, since our ancestors climbed down from trees. It has persisted over time and space, despite the compassionate message of religions, the aspiration to equality by revolutions and, since 60 years, the recognized supremacy of human rights advocated by the United Nations.  

In the past quarter century, the opening up of world markets has facilitated the movement of people, goods, capital and services - commerce has benefited, and so has illicit activity, including the trade of human beings. The ease of travel, the speed of the internet, and global competition have rendered the exploitation of humans by humans easier, broader and more efficient. 

In the past decade the moral imperative to stop human trafficking has found its way onto policy agendas -- following a perceived increase in the severity of the problem and a growing concern among humanitarian activists. The first global agreement was brokered by my Office and agreed right here, on this United Nations campus, in 2000. It came into force on Christmas Day three years later -it is the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons 

At the outset, efforts to put in place the UN Protocol have been disjointed; victims often prosecuted for their illegal status; interdiction operations limited; few arrests, with inadequate retribution. In other words, laws have been passed, but unevenly applied, the authorities inclined to speak loudly, but in fact showing benign neglect. I salute the few notable exceptions. 

Two hundred years after the end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, we have the obligation to fight a crime that has no place in the 21 st century. This Forum shows our determination. Your participation proves your commitment. Let us combine forces.    

The footprints of a monster

In order to fight this monster, we must know more about it. Lack of information, statistical and otherwise, have left us looking at foot prints of a creature whose shape, size and ferocity we can only guess. It lurks in the shadows. The profiles of its cronies and their networks are sketchy. Its victims are too afraid to run away and speak up, their number unknown. The monster takes different shapes, depending on the culture, time and the context, in collusion with other unlawful undertakings: illegal migration, forced labour, paedophilia, child exploitation, civil conflicts and coerced prostitution.

This monster is hard to detect because it defies categorization. Although the UN Protocol's definition of "trafficking in persons" is detailed, in popular parlance, the emphasis is placed on the acts of buying and selling victims, rather than their exploitation. And then there are misconceptions:  our girls are beautiful…it's only prostitution high ranking officials have told me. Ladies and gentlemen, let's call it what it is: modern slavery.

First and foremost, I say to Member States: honour international commitments. The UN Protocol is the law of the land and must be applied.

The Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) was designed to facilitate implementation of the Protocol. Since it was launched a year ago we have started to:  

-         collect scientific evidence about the extent of this crime;

-         build up profiles of traffickers and their networks;

-         enhance witness protection, to turn victims against their violators;

-         examine the causes of victims' vulnerability, to strengthen prevention;

-         recognize the damning role of demand in this perverse market;

-         understand what goes on in the minds of victims, scarred for life.

The evidence submitted at this Forum provides the foundation of our future work: the knowledge to plan, the means to act, and the recognition needed to guide common efforts. Over the past twelve months, we have exposed different forms of human trafficking around the world:

-           children in conflicts, in Africa and Asia: babes losing their innocence to drugs and arms, or abducted to become the combatants' sex slaves;

-           girls sold by their family into Asian brothels because of bad harvest or bad debt; 

-           women enslaved into sex parlours the world over, robbed of their bodies, dignity and freedom;

-           men in bondage, in southern plantations or northern sweat shops;

-           underage kids enslaved to beg in Europe and North America, or carrying out dangerous tasks with their nimble fingers to produce luxury goods.  

During the Forum, you will hear more about these uncomfortable truths. The resulting collage is sinister but revealing, enabling a targeted response.

 For sure, we are not meeting here just to talk about the problem: we must take action, on the basis of solid information. Having dissected the human trafficking drama by the type of exploitation, the age and gender of the victims, the profiles of perpetrators, and the source/transit/destination of human cargos, we will soon be able to describe the problem, its time trends and space patterns. The goal is to facilitate implementation of the Protocol's "3 Ps": prevention of the crime, prosecution of the traffickers, and protection of the victims.

Let's open our eyes

Everyone has a role to play.

Government officials, do ratify the anti-trafficking Protocol and then implement it. If you require assistance, UNODC can help.

Parliamentarians , I urge you to pass the laws needed to stop this crime. I was pleased to witness your commitment yesterday at the Parliamentary Forum.

Private companies , take exploitation out of your bottom line. There are plenty of companies at this Forum that are leading by example: make sure that the supply chain is not tainted by the blood, sweat and tears of modern slaves.

My thanks go to religious leaders. Your message penetrates deep into our conscience. Keep reaching out to vulnerable people, motivate your congregations, and prod governments to act. 

By shining the spotlight on human trafficking, the media can raise awareness and even expose trafficking rings. Recent high profile investigative reporting has pushed public opinion to act, has called for greater government attention, and it has chastised companies for the way they make money. I salute your work.

Actors and entertainers like Emma Thompson, Ricky Martin, Julia Ormond, Ruslana, Joan Rivers and Amitabh Bachchan have given their support: your popularity is a powerful megaphone against modern slavery. Your songs, films and plays have much greater impact on society than our speeches and UN resolutions.

Civil society is raising awareness and protecting victims. I pay tribute to these angels of humanity, who provide genuine comfort and hope to the victims.

And then, of course, there is society at large, in its complexity, motivations and desire to help. I am overwhelmed by offers of support from ordinary people who take to heart the fact that human trafficking is a crime that shames us all

A women named Sara, emailed me a few days ago: "I saw the story on your website about the vulnerability of children to human trafficking. I wonder what a disabled retired woman, on a small fixed income, may do to help" 

Ladies and Gentlemen, we owe Sara and others like her a good answer. This week there will be people coming out of our Film Forum, or walking through Emma Thompson's exhibition (the Journey): they too will wonder how they can help. The criminal gangs preying on other humans can only be fought by solidarity of intent and commonality of action among all people - in this Hall and outside.

One way to help is by channelling contributions to the cause. The generous support by the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi has allowed us to start an Initiative that is evolving into technical assistance. Contributions to our tax-deductible UN account to fight human trafficking are welcome. I was happy to learn yesterday from a former colleague, and a friend, of his major contribution to anti-trafficking efforts in West Africa. This is leading by example. 

Moving Forward

Money and goodwill are not enough. We need concrete actions that will reduce vulnerability and make this crime a riskier business. A major challenge for this Forum is to launch a number of innovative, practical measures, like: 

-         tracking and blocking internet payments for human trafficking transactions . This program is building on the excellent track record of the Centre against Child Exploitation in the United States, whose sterling work I salute;

-         innovative technology to pinpoint, monitor and disrupt human trafficking routes . This program is building on creative work to interdict arms smuggling in the Balkans; 

-         we have been discussing codes of conduct to curb sex tourism, in association with travel organizations, hotel chains and the airline industry. A system of detection and early warning, resulting in naming and shaming, will slow down demand for perverted services;

-         help lines to report suspected child prostitution or sex slavery . The dissemination of toll-free phone numbers connected to volunteer organizations has turned concerned citizens into anti-trafficking activists;

-         social services to put an end to large scale street begging by children and handicapped people , organized by human traffickers. We will be showcasing a promising program developed right here by the Vienna municipality that has saved so many lives;

-         controls on supply chain management, and corporate self-certification of what we wear, eat, drink or the services we acquire. Public pressure has shrunk the market for blood diamonds and illegally cut timber. Not so, for the goods and the services supplied by modern slaves. It's time to put the people handlers out of business.  

During this week, you will hear more about these ideas: advise us how to develop them further. Some are still embryonic, for example how to stop the forced removal and trade of human organs - a theme promoted by Arab countries. 

Also embryonic, but promising is the concept of focusing on human trafficking clusters - regions where this crime is especially acute, ranging from South-East Asian cities, to Africa's Lake Volta basin, to Balkan villages, or resort areas in Central America and the Caribbean.  

Policy discussions in Vienna and UNODC technical assistance will launch concrete operations. But the place for political debate and global awareness is New York: we are therefore pleased that the President of the General Assembly has called for a thematic debate against human trafficking, in May. It will impart momentum for an Action Plan in support of the Protocol.

I hope further dynamics will come later this year, during the Conference of Parties to the UN Convention against Organized Crime. It has been seven years since the Protocol was agreed, and Member States have still not established a mechanism to review implementation. Therefore we have no means of tracking the monster. This must change if we are serious about fighting this crime.

I wish the Forum conclusions on Friday to be as concrete as possible, to provide direction for UN.GIFT.

One thing is certain: the next steps we take will be taken together. Under a common banner, we have a better chance of controlling this crime, reaching those who are vulnerable, those who are still suffering, those few who have survived, and all those who want to help. Our message should be: you are not alone.

Thank you for your attention.