Does the U.N. human trafficking protocol create a more just world?

Thursday, 22 April 2021 15:04 GMT

Flags are pictured in front of the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva February 17, 2014. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

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Many researchers question whether anti-trafficking interventions worldwide have been effective, while others say they are harmful

Joel Quirk is a Professor of Politics at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. His co-authors are Cameron Thibos, the Managing Editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery, and Neil Howard, who is a Prize Fellow at the University of Bath.

In November 2000 the UN General Assembly adopted a supplementary protocol to the Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime that aimed “to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children”. In the two plus decades that have followed, the influence of this protocol, also known as the Palermo Protocol after the city in which it was finalised, has been immense. By firmly positioning labour exploitation and irregular migration within the orbit of transnational organised crime it has encouraged governments to concentrate their energies upon a small number of ‘exceptional’ victims of human trafficking.

There is no doubt that the Palermo protocol has had an impact. Nearly every country in the world has signed on, and it has long been regarded as a touchstone for both official policies and popular anti-trafficking campaigns. It is by no means clear, however, whether its overall influence has been positive or negative. Despite all the cash that has been pumped into anti-trafficking efforts criminal prosecutions remain rare. Workers continue to be treated terribly. Migrants continue to be abused and deported. There are many researchers who question whether or not anti-trafficking interventions have been effective, while others worry that they have done outright damage.

Anniversaries are a good time to take stock. At openDemocracy, we recently asked prominent voices in the field to reflect on two key questions that twenty plus years of anti-trafficking work have yet to properly answer. First, where does exploitation begin and end? And second, do the practical and political benefits of taking up the cause of ending human trafficking outweigh the costs and complications which arise along the way? The Palermo Protocol avoids taking a position on the first of these questions, while the second raises deeply uncomfortable issues which people in the field regularly grapple with in private yet remain reluctant to speak about in public.  

What is exploitation?

The Palermo Protocol does a poor job of addressing this central question. While it establishes exploitation as integral to the definition of human trafficking it does not define what exploitation actually means. This has contributed to a widespread tendency among policymakers and activists to approach exploitation as they do pornography, where ‘you know it when you see it’. This lack of clarity has important political consequences, as governments and corporations have sought to reduce conversations about exploitation to the most extreme cases of individual suffering. Powerful corporations and fabulously wealthy individuals routinely use their market power to capture the vast majority of the economic value produced by precarious workers and vulnerable migrants, yet these exploitative systems do not figure prominently within conversations about human trafficking.

Are we better off on the inside?

Most experts with first-hand experience of anti-trafficking interventions are well aware that they can be ineffective or compromised by other agendas. However, this recognition tends to be accompanied with the strategic calculation that it is better to remain inside the tent, despite these problems, since this will maximise their chances of moving things forward over time. This frequently results in self-censorship, since speaking out too loudly or too often puts one at risk of losing access, influence, and funding. Organisation and individuals who oppose human trafficking and related problems must decide whether it is better to work towards modest gains that might actually be achievable in the short term, or to embrace more radical positions that might be harder to realise.

This echoes an older debate about reform or revolution. Anti-trafficking campaigners have calculated that its value as a tool for mobilisation outweighs any potential drawbacks and pitfalls, and that it is better to aim for incremental and achievable improvements than to swing for the stars and risk ending up with nothing. Their critics understand that their strong opposition to existing programmes are not going to be welcome, and that they therefore may end up having little to no effect upon the current status quo. However, they are much less confident that there are tangible benefits to staying inside the tent, since they are acutely aware that anti-trafficking is routinely used as a political tool to legitimise abuse migrants, punish sex workers, and deflect efforts to improve the conditions of precarious workers. Our current global order is deeply unjust and unequal. How should we respond, they ask, if anti-trafficking campaigns play a role in helping it stay that way? Does the Palermo Protocol provide a building block for a more just world or serve as a barrier to political transformation?

This article draws upon material from two recently published ebooks, What is exploitation? and Are we better off on the inside? Both are published by openDemocracy.

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