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August 01, 2017

Human Rights Event Explores Transnational Organized Crime and Trafficking in Persons

According to the U.S. Department of State’s 2016 “Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report,” TIP is estimated to be a $150 billion enterprise, and exists in virtually every part of the world, whether as a source, destination or transit country. These profit-seeking networks — ranging from amateur to very sophisticated transnational criminal organizations — claim children, men and women as victims by the millions.

(From left to right) Mary Greer, poses a question to panelists, Ambassador Mark P. Lagon, Charles Davidson and Mike Jobbins, at a human rights forum on transnational organized crime and trafficking in persons.

On June 6, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) hosted an event on human rights responses to transnational organized crime and TIP. This event was part of the Human Rights Support Mechanism Learning Forum, a series of discussions on specific issues in the field of democracy, human rights and governance. ABA ROLI hosted this discussion in its capacity as a member of the “Protecting Global Rights through Sustainable Solutions” Consortium, which implements the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Democracy, Human Rights and Governance strategy.

Mary Greer, senior criminal law advisor at ABA ROLI, moderated a discussion with panelists Ambassador Mark P. Lagon, chief policy officer at Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, centennial fellow and distinguished senior scholar in the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University; Charles Davidson, executive director of the Kleptocracy Initiative; and Mike Jobbins, director of global affairs at Search for Common Ground.

The discussion explored themes such as tensions between vigorously prosecuting perpetrators and safeguarding human rights and rule of law, underlying structural problems, such as corruption and the role of illicit financial flows in the fight against transnational organized crime, and the need to build broader, more inclusive coalitions in communities to combat trafficking in persons. The panelists shared examples from their work around the world and highlighted the need for cooperation and effective partnership between civil society, governments and the private sector.

“If justice actors are not independent, protected in their jobs from political influence and interference, if they are not well resourced or well-trained, then human rights and due process protections suffer,” said Greer, in her opening remarks. Greer also highlighted the dangerous default of grouping and arresting individuals and forcing confessions out of them instead of putting together credible investigations with an overarching prosecution strategy.

Lagon touched on various tensions which arise when attempting to grapple with TIP as a matter of law enforcement and rule of law with human rights implications. One of these tensions is between the various laws on TIP, including the Palermo Protocol and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which tend to “more heavily” focus on law enforcement, prosecutions and convictions, whereas more attention needs to be devoted to survivors and survivor services. Another tension Lagon noted is the disproportionate focus on sex trafficking, even though labor trafficking is reportedly more prevalent.

"Sex trafficking is about one quarter of the problem around the world and labor-related trafficking is about three quarters,” Lagon said.

Davidson spoke to some of the corruption and financial crimes which contribute to human trafficking. The movement, concealment and safekeeping of perpetrators’ illicit assets needs to be addressed if countries are to effect substantial change, he argued. Many of these assets are stored and protected in the U.S. and across Europe, along with the tax havens controlled by good governance, low regulation, rule of law and strong property rights.

“The ultimate protection is not only to have your assets protected here, but also to launder your reputation,” Davidson said. "The ultimate victory of the human trafficker is to become a respectable member of our society.”

Jobbins explained how many people who end up victims of trafficking are already living at the margins of society within their home countries, where their needs are not met and they have weak relationships with social services, police and prevention services. The dire circumstances of these individuals lead them to place themselves in situations where they take on the risk of being trafficked. However, due to misinformation, such individuals may underestimate the real risks they face.

Panelists finished the conversation by discussing possible next steps in the anti-trafficking community. They underscored the necessity of engaging allies such as religious leaders, media and the business sector to take collective action, rather than focusing solely on criminal justice actors in responses to TIP. They also said society needs to counter the phenomenon of the bystander effect and the undervaluation of human lives, particularly the lives of people in vulnerable populations.

"In the mines where we (Search for Common Ground) work in (the Democratic Republic of the) Congo, it is very visible that these are children who are not from there who are working in the mines, but the question is, whose job is that?” Jobbins said. “If I am living in the community, if I am an adult working in the mines, is it my job to talk to the boss? The challenge is, what is an appropriate way of catalyzing collective action to do something (about trafficking in persons)?”

To learn more about our work on trafficking in persons, please contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at [email protected]

To view the video of the event, please visit: