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UN in combat with human trafficking

Suhas Chakma

At its ongoing 60th session, the United Nations Commission on Human Rights is all set for a special rapporteur on trafficking to combat the evil. Though a few existing special procedures such as the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery and the Special Rapporteur on the Sale of Children deal with trafficking in persons, a new Special Rapporteur on Trafficking is unlikely to meet any opposition from the member-states.

International law relating to trafficking has been slow to grasp the dimensions of the problem. In1904, the first binding international legal instrument in this area - the International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Trade - was adopted. Historically, anti-trafficking movements have been driven by perceived threats to the "purity" or chastity of certain populations, notably White women. The treaty, which focused on the protection of victims rather than punishing the perpetrators, proved ineffective. Consequently, in 1910, the International Convention for the Suppression of White Slave Traffic, was adopted to punish procurers.

Under the auspices of the League of Nations, both the 1921 Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children and the 1933 International Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women of Full Age, were concluded. After the formation of the United Nations, the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of Prostitution of Others was adopted. But, it has failed to address the problem. As the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women in its report to the Commission on Human Rights in 2000 stated, "The 1949 Convention has proved ineffective in protecting the rights of the trafficked women and combating trafficking. The Convention does not take a human rights approach. It does not regard women as independent actors endowed with rights and reason. Rather, the Convention views them as vulnerable beings in need of protection from the evils of prostitution."

In November 2000 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime and two optional Protocols supplementing it.

No country, irrespective of its geographical situation, political systems, religious moorings or cultural practices, is immune to trafficking. The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women in its 2000 report claimed that four million women are trafficked each year. The 2003 Annual Report on Trafficking in Persons by the US State Department shows that between 800,000 to 900,000 women, children, and men are trafficked across international borders every year. Victims of trafficking are also victims of serious human rights violations both at the hands of the traffickers and the law enforcement personnel.

A large number of national, bilateral and multilateral organisations have adopted programmes of action to combat trafficking in persons. Most programmes with the exception of the United States' Comprehensive Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 1999 despite its flaws remains adhoc and episodic. Most programmes focus on activities such as awareness building, information exchanges, rescue and rehabilitation efforts, training and capacity-building programmes. While the root causes must be addressed, the critical issue of law enforcement is often ignored. Impunity contributes to further trafficking.

The Special Rapporteur on trafficking is likely to be given a generic mandate to gather, request, receive and exchange information and communications from all relevant sources, including governments, victims of trafficking themselves and organisations, on violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms; formulate recommendations and proposals on appropriate measures and activities to prevent and remedy violations of the human rights and fundamental freedoms of victims; and work in close relation with other special rapporteurs, special representatives, working groups and independent experts of the Commission on Human Rights and of the Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights.

Yet, a special rapporteur on trafficking may go beyond the generic mandate in playing a pivotal role not only with regard to reporting to the Commission on Human Rights but also to provide expertise and guidance to the UN agencies and other national and regional agencies to streamline their programmes in combating trafficking of persons more effectively.

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