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Address by Ms. Navanethem Pillay, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Seminar on: “Human rights should form the foundation for any action to end human trafficking”

OHCHR Seminar on
A Human Rights Approach to Combating Human Trafficking:
Challenges and Opportunities

  Implementing the Recommended Principles and Guidelines
on Human Rights and Human Trafficking

27 May 2010  

Madame Chair,
Mr. President,
Excellencies,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me first start by welcoming you all to this OHCHR Seminar that focuses on the opportunities and challenges in the development of rights-based responses to trafficking in persons. This meeting is taking place in the context of Human Rights Council's resolution 11/3 of June 2009, which I very much welcome.

As we mark the 10 th anniversary of the adoption by the UN General Assembly of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, known as the Palermo protocol , I am pleased to see the issue of human trafficking sitting firmly on the agenda of the Human Rights Council.

The Protocol was key in highlighting the human rights dimension of trafficking and in providing the impetus and framework for the development of a web of contemporary legal and policy instruments to tackle trafficking in human beings. Two features of this protocol are particularly relevant to our discussion today.

  • The first is that the objective of the Protocol is to protect and assist the victims of trafficking in persons with full respect for their human rights.
  • The second is that this is the first global legally binding instrument with an agreed definition on trafficking in persons.

This agreed definition should facilitate the establishment of domestic criminal offences that would support efficient international cooperation in investigating and prosecuting trafficking in persons cases. While the Protocol entered into force on 25 December 2003, today 137 States are party to it. I take this opportunity to call on all States who did not do so to immediately join this important legal tool.

So it is fitting that my Office and the United Nations human rights system have been at the forefront of the battle against trafficking and related exploitation. In 2002, my Office developed the Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking in order to provide the framework for a human rights approach this issue. These Principles and Guidelines are recognized in Human Rights Council's resolution 11/3 . The Commission on Human Rights also established the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons and I particularly welcome the current Special Rapporteur, Ms. Joy Ezeilo, who is with us here today.

The link between trafficking and human rights could not be clearer. Human rights law has battled the demons of discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, and sex; it has established key rights for aliens; it has decried and outlawed arbitrary detention, forced labour, debt bondage, forced marriage, slavery-like practices 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. There can indeed be no doubt that the spirit of international human rights law, and of the United Nations human rights system, rejects, absolutely, the practices and results that are integral to the human trafficking process.

Human rights are also implicated in the response to trafficking. By using human rights as our point of reference we come to understand that trafficking is not just a problem of migration, of public order or of organized crime. Trafficking is tied up in the discrimination and inequality that is behind so many human rights violations. When we view trafficking through the lens of human rights, we become conscious of the fact that preventing trafficking requires attention to vulnerabilities created through a failure to protect rights, particularly of the most vulnerable including women, children and migrants. Placing human rights at the centre of our work against trafficking means seeing trafficking as a violation of human rights.

A human rights approach to trafficking also opens our eyes to the fact that measures taken in the name of addressing trafficking and related exploitation can sometimes have a negative impact on individual rights and freedoms, compounding the harm to victims. The detention of trafficked persons in immigration or shelter facilities and the prosecution of trafficked persons for status-related offenses such as illegal entry or illegal work are two examples. The Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons has reported other cases: forced repatriation of victims in danger of reprisals or re-trafficking; conditional provision of support and assistance; and denial of a right to a remedy. While such responses give us justifiable cause for concern, they also underscore the strong relationship between trafficking and human rights, and the fundamental importance of the international human rights system using the full range of tools at its disposal to clarify obligations and to protect rights.

This brings me back to the rights-based approach to trafficking. I am pleased that the resolution points to the 2002 Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking . In the eight years since their development, the Principles and Guidelines have become an important resource for States, intergovernmental organizations and civil society. They have been integrated into numerous policy documents and interpretive texts attached to international and regional treaties including the Council of Europe's Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and they have informed national legislation in many countries . They have been extensively cited by international human rights bodies and adopted by the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons as a major point of reference for the work of that mandate. Many non-governmental organizations have used the Principles and Guidelines in their efforts to advocate a stronger and more rights-protective response to trafficking. Many States have taken inspiration from the Principles and Guidelines in developing strong and rights-based criminal justice responses to trafficking; in prioritizing the rights of victims; and in developing prevention strategies that directly address trafficking-related vulnerabilities.

It is these very positive responses that paved the way for starting the collection of lessons learnt and best practices that will feed into the preparation of a commentary to the Principles and Guidelines in light of both general principles of international law and the specific rules that relate directly to trafficking. OHCHR receives repeated requests from those working in this area for a more precise explanation of the international law in relation to human trafficking. We are eager to assist in enhancing the understanding of the rights to which trafficked persons are entitled and the extent and limits of States' legal obligations.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Principles and Guidelines provide a framework that is undoubtedly helpful to all those committed to preventing trafficking, securing justice for those who have been trafficked and ending impunity for those who benefit from the criminal exploitation of their fellow human beings. I am confident that the discussions during these two days and the sharing of experiences – both good practice and challenges - from different countries and regions around the world, will enrich our work, including the preparation of the commentary.

But beyond legal frameworks and tools, we should end where we started in paying special and respectful attention to the views and insights of the victims and survivors of trafficking. This is why I believe it is impetrative that we bring the voices of survivors into the discussions. Last year, my Office organized a panel discussion in the context of the General Assembly discussion and now here at the Human Rights Council. Next week on 2 June, several brave individuals who had survived trafficking will address the Human Rights Council and offer their suggestions to you on how we can move forward together. Let us all listen carefully to their words and most importantly – act without delay.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This seminar provides us with a unique opportunity to review the progress until today and to speak frankly about the many difficult challenges that remain. It also gives us the chance to consider the practical implications of a human rights-based approach to trafficking and the place of the Principles and Guidelines in shaping such an approach.

Your task ahead is an important one. I am proud to be a part of this event and very much look forward to the discussions that lie ahead.

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