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RIGHTS: Few Govts Serious About Human Trafficking, U.N. Finds

Matthew Berger

UNITED NATIONS, May 14 2009 (IPS) - The U.N. General Assembly discussed ways of taking stronger collective action to end human trafficking on Wednesday, with delegates debating the need for and form of a “global plan of action” to end this form of modern slavery.

“National and regional efforts are not enough to cope with this global problem,” said Ecuadorian Minister of Justice and Human Rights Néstor Arbito Chica. “That’s why we call on the U.N. to take action.”

The starting point for the debate was whether the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children, passed in Palermo, Italy, in 2000, is enough to stop this global problem.

“The protocol is not a sufficient tool for stopping human trafficking, and more than one-third of U.N. member states are not a party to it,” said Valentin Rybakov, assistant to the president of Belarus. “The Palermo Protocol is, if you will, an aspirin which helps us to bring the fever down, but aspirin cannot cure us.”

The need for a new global plan of action was echoed by the majority of speakers and delegates. The United States, however, felt otherwise: “We believe that the U.N. is already effectively leading the fight against global trafficking.”

The U.S. representative’s concerns were that launching a global plan of action would strain the limited resources of the U.N. and, likewise, that the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) “financial and personnel resources would be severely stretched if it were to undertake such a plan of action.”

“Efforts undertaken at regional and national levels are clearly not enough,” Rybakov countered. “Adopting a global plan of action is not an end in itself to us, but this plan is a logical step.”

The U.N. has passed comprehensive plans of action before – for instance on terrorism, as pointed out by Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of UNODC.

The debate took place within a broader day-long dialogue discussing multiple aspects of this global problem.

“There’s not one single decision to be taken; there are a number of attributes to be debated,” he said. “This is a debate in which there is an internal debate about whether the U.N. should implement a global plan of action.”

Among these issues were the need for greater awareness of the actual scope of the problem – not just its size but its characteristics and the misconceptions about them.

“We are facing a newly-recognised crime,” Costa said. “We need to know what’s going on in the minds of the criminals and the clients – for example, women who victimise women, even women who are former victims themselves.”

Women offenders have a more prominent role in human trafficking than in most other forms of modern-day crime, according to a report released by the U.N. Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UNGIFT) in February.

Sexual exploitation accounts for 79 percent of human trafficking, it says, while forced labour makes up 18 percent. However, the exploitation of women and sexual exploitation tend also to be the more frequently documented. Consequently, forced labour, domestic servitude, organ removal, and the exploitation of children all tend to be under-reported.

“The Palermo Protocol requires governments to take action on all forms of human trafficking – sexual as well as labour exploitation,” noted Zohreh Tabatabai, the International Labour Organisation director of communications.

This potential statistical bias underscores many issues in human trafficking. The same report, for instance, goes on to say, “We must, but cannot, catalogue (for lack of data) the different types of slavery.”

Observations, however broad, rather than conclusions, were the emphasis throughout Wednesday’s dialogue.

“In 2006, the last year for which we have statistics, 22,000 victims were rescued, and we know the problem goes into the millions,” Costa said.

Global estimates of the number of people trafficked annually range from 600,000 to four million, and that range has remained largely unchanged over the past decade, according to International Organisation for Migration deputy director general Ndioro Ndiaye.

Most of the speakers and delegates also called on countries with weak records of criminalising human trafficking to take action.

“One out of three member states have not yet ratified the Palermo Protocol and almost half of member states have not convicted anybody, though we could say it is a problem in all countries,” Costa pointed out several times over the course of the day.

“In the process of our [February] report,” he continued, “we found that many countries do not collect information about this crime because in many countries it is not a crime since they did not ratify the protocol.”

However, Saisuree Chutikul of the U.N. Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women pointed out, “We have to not look just at the face-value; a lot of countries have gone on to modify domestic law. For many countries, especially in Asia, it takes a long time to ratify international protocols.”

Still, though progress has been made, it is clear that criminalisation lags behind where the U.N. would like it to be. In the February report, most countries in Africa, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan are listed as having no or limited specific criminal offence for human trafficking. Other countries, including China and Somalia, are “not covered” by the report, meaning those countries did not return the questionnaire.

Human trafficking is not always transnational and is not always conducted by organised crime. While a worldwide issue, the victims and clients often come from different regions.

The report says that Europe is where victims from the widest range of origins end up and victims from Asia end up in the widest range of destinations.

The Americas are both origin and destination. Suspects in a human trafficking around Tampa Bay, Florida, were arrested last week and the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs reported Wednesday they have an increase in the Caribbean human trafficking cases involving Filipinos.

At the panel session Wednesday, the Filipino representative said, “Human trafficking is far worse than any form of slavery.”

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