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Statement by Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, at the High-level meeting of the General Assembly on the appraisal of the United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons (Panel II: The Global Plan of Action and effective partnerships for the protection of and assistance to victims), New York, 27 September 2017


At a time when human rights are under increasing attack in many parts of the world, we should at least acknowledge when there is some progress. And the growth of awareness of this ghastly scourge of human trafficking is certainly something to be welcomed.

We have a Sustainable Development Goal target (8.7) that is focused on this. And just last week in this building we had the high-level Call for Action on forced labour, modern slavery and human trafficking, which called on the UN to make this a priority across its three pillars: security, human rights, and development. It also called for increased cooperation on measures that reduce the drivers of slavery and trafficking. And it asked to ensure that victims get support.

Today’s meeting is also highly welcome. This morning, the Secretary-General pointed out how conflict and economic insecurity force people to head for safety, and as they do that they find themselves at the “mercy of merciless people”. Also how traffickers operate with impunity and receive far less attention than drug traffickers get.

There was a time, not that long ago, when human trafficking seemed to be approached from an entirely criminal and public order perspective. The Palermo Protocol of 2000 helped changed that. Since 2002 the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights has been at the forefront of promoting a human rights based approach for human trafficking. This human rights based approach helps identify and redress the discriminatory practices and root causes that underlie trafficking, that maintain impunity for traffickers, and that deny justice for the victims.

The human rights approach also means that we should complement criminal procedures with human rights analysis and responses. We believe this means building the capacity, by training, of a whole range of people from police, border guards, immigration officials and others.

One innovative area where we have started working is alongside the International Civil Aviation Authority to train airline cabin crews to identify victims of trafficking. A very moving story was brought to my attention a few weeks ago, of how an airline stewardess noticed from the terrified face of a girl on a plane sitting next to a strange man that something was wrong. She managed to get a signal to the girl, who left a message the washroom – the suspicions of the stewardess were confirmed, and a message was sent to the police to the airport of destination. I think it is very important that airline crew members are trained to spot traffickers and victims of human trafficking, and I am happy that this is one area where we are working. But there are many other areas where collectively we can do a great deal more.

This morning the Secretary General stressed the need to strengthen support to victims, as well as awareness campaigns. Both are crucial.

For victims, it is important that measures adopted by states should be non-discriminatory. Within some states, protection and support are only available to certain categories of human trafficking. And this may exclude some categories of people who are the most vulnerable, such as girls who might be forced into sex work by traffickers. And secondly, measures for rehabilitation of victims should take into account the special vulnerabilities of certain categories. For example, children might need registration documents that have either have been falsified or do not exist at all.

This morning, the Secretary-General mentioned the UN Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Trafficking, and we are fortunate to have heard just now a great presentation by the other panelists. There is also a Trust Fund on Contemporary Forms of Slavery which has been operational since 1991. It is managed by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, and provides support for 10,000 victims. There is quite some overlap between trafficking and slavery, of course, and maybe some thought should be given to consolidating these funds.

In any case, these trust funds have vital work to do. They provide life-saving support to desperate victims of what are a truly appalling set of practices. It is now 210 years since the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, and now the modern-day equivalents of the slave trade richly deserve a similar extinction. Until that time, millions of victims of human trafficking need all our support.

Thank you.