The links between human rights and the fight against trafficking are well established. From its earliest days to the present, human rights law has unequivocally proclaimed the fundamental immorality and unlawfulness of one person appropriating the legal personality, labour or humanity of another.

Human rights law has prohibited discrimination on the basis of race and sex; it has demanded equal or at least certain key rights for non-citizens; it has decried and outlawed arbitrary detention, forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, and the sexual exploitation of children and women; and it has championed freedom of movement and the right to leave and return to one’s own country.

Human rights most relevant to trafficking

  • The prohibition of discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status
  • The right to life
  • The right to liberty and security
  • The right not to be submitted to slavery, servitude, forced labour or bonded labour
  • The right not to be subjected to torture and/or cruel, inhuman, degrading treatment or punishment
  • The right to be free from gendered violence
  • The right to freedom of association
  • The right to freedom of movement
  • The right to the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health
  • The right to just and favourable conditions of work
  • The right to an adequate standard of living
  • The right to social security
  • The right of children to special protection

Different human rights will be relevant at different points in the trafficking cycle. Some will be especially relevant to the causes of trafficking (for example, the right to an adequate standard of living); others to the actual process of trafficking (for example, the right to be free from slavery); and still others to the response to trafficking (for example, the right of suspects to a fair trial). Some rights are broadly applicable to each of these aspects.

  1. Trafficking as a violation of human rights

As noted above, many of the practices associated with modern-day trafficking are clearly prohibited under international human rights law. For instance, human rights law forbids debt bondage: the pledging of personal services as security for a debt where the value of those services is not applied towards the liquidation of the debt or their length or nature is not limited and defined. Many trafficked

persons who enter into a debt with their exploiters (relating to, for example, placement or transport fees) find themselves in a situation of debt bondage; the debt is used as a means of controlling and exploiting them. Human rights law also prohibits forced labour, defined by Convention No. 29 concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour of the International Labour Organization (ILO) as: “all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself [herself] voluntarily”. Slavery, servitude, child sexual exploitation, forced marriage, servile forms of marriage, child marriage, enforced prostitution and the exploitation of prostitution are also trafficking-related practices that are prohibited under international human rights law.

Does international human rights law actually prohibit “trafficking in persons”—as opposed to “practices associated with trafficking” such as those listed above? This is an important question because it can have an impact on the nature of a State’s obligations and responsibilities. Only two of the major human rights treaties—the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (art. 6) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (art.35)—contain substantive reference to trafficking. However, over the past decade a general agreement has emerged within the international community that trafficking itself is a serious violation of human rights. For example, both the Council of Europe’s Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and the European Union Directive on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims identify trafficking as a violation of human rights. The United Nations General Assembly and the Human Rights Council have repeatedly affirmed that trafficking violates and impairs fundamental human rights, as have many of the international human rights mechanisms.

 Next Issue: The human rights of trafficked persons (part 2)