Ghada Waly

Director-General/Executive Director


Women, Peace and Security: Human Rights-Based Responses to Human Trafficking in the Context of Terrorism and Conflict

  22 October 2021



Ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to address you today at this event on responses to human trafficking in the context of terrorism and conflict.

Every victim of trafficking in persons has lived through profound violations of their basic human rights.

When they are trapped in conflicts or targeted by terrorists, people are more exposed to those violations than ever.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed millions into poverty and unemployment, creating conditions that lead to instability and exploitation.

In conflict settings, those vulnerabilities only deepen.

Forms of trafficking that affect women, children, and minorities are closely associated with conflict, including sexual exploitation by armed groups and trafficking for use as child soldiers.

Those who are looking to flee the fighting also find themselves at great risk, as refugees are left exposed and desperate.

Terrorist groups are among the first to take advantage of conflict, instability, and suffering.

Research conducted by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime revealed that armed and terrorist groups systematically engage in trafficking in areas under their control.

They claim women and girls as trophies and use them as tools of war, denying them their basic humanity. They buy and sell human beings to raise funds, and they enslave people as a tactic.

In Syria, ISIL used the conflict to exploit and abuse members of ethnic minorities.

In different parts of Africa, women and girls are coerced into marriages and sexual slavery while children are forced to work; in West Africa by Boko Haram, in North Africa by Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb, in West Africa by Al-Shabab.

Now, the situation in Afghanistan threatens to throw even more people into the vicious cycle of trafficking in persons, as the crisis threatens to trigger a collapse of the rule of law and massive outflows of people at risk.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In conflicts, terrorists and human traffickers deprive people of their safety, their dignity, and their opportunity to be agents of peace and positive change.

We can protect those people by being ready, on the ground, to respond to their immediate needs and to pursue justice; by building systems that will stand up for them; and by empowering those who can best understand their experiences.

This is the approach that guides us at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, and it is the approach we are advocating for today. A victim-centered approach and a focus on capacity-building.

To help victims, seek justice, and avoid impunity in conflict settings, we must start by preparing those on the frontlines of this fight against trafficking.

This year, UNODC has continued to work with the UN Mission in Mali to train UN police deployed in the country, who went on to support several investigations for trafficking in persons cases.

We are looking to expand this work to other relevant UN field missions.

We are also supporting law enforcement agencies in several countries to detect and respond to trafficking in persons in refugee camps.

In Malawi for example, we are helping protect the largest refugee camp in the country, the Dzeleka camp, from trafficking networks.

In Lebanon and Jordan, we are working with authorities and civil society to identify trafficking victims among Syrian refugees, and to provide them with the support they need.

Providing victims of trafficking with the support they need also means understanding what they have been through.

The theme for this year’s global day against trafficking in persons was ‘victims voices lead the way’. It is a call to listen to the stories of each victim, and to help them help others.

In conflict settings, those at risk and those who have suffered have a profound contribution to make in shaping solutions, in the spirit of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda.

We look to be guided by victims’ experiences at UNODC, and I believe that all of those who are working against trafficking in persons should be informed by those experiences.

Compassion and understanding must also be inherent in the criminal justice systems that deal with victims of trafficking in persons, and very much so in cases where those victims were trafficked by terrorists or in conflicts.

Victims should never be punished for crimes they were forced to commit.

In Iraq for example, UNODC worked with judges to amend legislation and develop guidance, aiming to protect children who were recruited as combatants, or forced into prostitution, from being prosecuted.

All responses need to be gender-sensitive. Our Office has developed guidance on the gender dimensions of addressing trafficking in persons by terrorist groups.

This guidance has gone on to inform work on the ground, including in Nigeria where authorities are now revising legislation and actively working to prosecute cases of sexual violence committed by Boko Haram.

Inclusion is another cornerstone of sensitive and effective responses, and is very relevant in conflict zones, where gender-sensitive responses are vital. I am a vocal advocate for having more women in the justice, security, and law enforcement sectors.

More women in justice means more protection for everyone.

Our Office is supporting countries to empower women in these sectors; earlier this year, UNODC worked with the Yemen Coast Guard to re-prioritize the integration of women in the force and provide female officers with training.

Excellencies, colleagues,

When people in difficult conditions are abused and trafficked, it is easy for them to feel like they have no resort. We must be their resort.

I would like to express my gratitude to Special Rapporteur Mullaly for her efforts to stand with victims, and to Ireland for its commitment to this issue.

Presently, Member States are appraising the Global Plan of Action against Trafficking in Persons.

It is an opportunity to shed light on the plight of victims of trafficking in different contexts, and to strive together towards more effective, sensitive, inclusive, and human rights-based responses.

Let us take a stand with those who have been exploited in conflict and by terrorists. Empowered, they can lead the way to peace and security.

Thank you.