Sunday, November 8, 2009

Slavery & the trafficking of women

(Many thanks to IntLawGrrls for inviting me to contribute this guest post on trafficking of women, based on my recent article in the International Criminal Law Review)

The international legal framework for the prosecution of trafficking of women needs to be revisited if this crime is to be combated more effectively. The current treatment of trafficking -- below the threshold of a crime against humanity, as a transnational rather than an international wrong -- denies its essence as a crime that offends the conscience of humankind. This failure is symptomatic of an international legal order that prioritises and affords greater protection to abuses of the human rights of men than it does to the human rights of women.
In A Crime that Offends the Conscience of Humanity: A Proposal to Reclassify Trafficking in Women as an International Crime, I propose that in order to combat trafficking of women and to elevate its political profile it should be reclassified as an international crime. The most effective way to do this would be to resurrect the link between trafficking and slavery, the international crime to which it is often linked.
Under the 1926 Slavery Convention, slavery is not limited to the traditional treatment of a person as chattel, nor does it require the destruction of the juridical personality.
It is clear that modalities of trafficking that result in the denial of an individual’s autonomy will amount to slavery pursuant to the Convention. Such autonomy is the basis of freedom, and its denial is the essence of slavery. Underlying the current reluctance to reclassify trafficking as the international crime of slavery are racial and gender assumptions within the term "slavery" itself.
Such a reclassification would not only significantly raise the public profile of the offence, but would also have direct legal consequences:
► It would serve a symbolic purpose reflecting the fact that it is a crime which is an attack upon international order.
► It would also have a practical effect by imposing obligations on states to tackle it and extending the jurisdictional reach of the courts via the applicability of universal jurisdiction, which is critical to tackle the extensive official complicity in trafficking.
► Perhaps most importantly, it would raise the political temperature surrounding this crime. At present there is an insufficient level of outrage about trafficking due to the cultural acceptance of treating women as commodities. It is arguable that a society that endorses a culture where women’s bodies can be bought and sold, whether or not with women’s consent, explains the apathy towards trafficking of women. With slavery, there is no such apathy or tacit acceptance. It is seen as gross exploitation of an individual’s human rights for which there is no justification.
The term "trafficking" itself obscures the gravity of the crime. Whilst trafficking often involves, as its end product, the exploitation of women as slaves, the term does not communicate this. Rather, it suggests that women are being moved consensually, like vehicular traffic. By contrast, the term "slavery" focuses on the reality of the exploitation suffered by the individual, and thus accurately reflects the nature of the crime.
Additionally, there is the problem of the current association of trafficking with prostitution. This association moves the focus from the exploitative nature of the work and the abusive methods to the type of work, and further ignores trafficking for purposes other than prostitution. Decoupling of this linkage would be another positive result of the reclassification of trafficking as slavery.

1 comment:

Brandi said...


Strangely enough, I'm actually a student in Professor d'Estree's class (who commented on your biographical writeup on this blog), and stumbled upon your post while looking up some of this info for an annotated bibliography I'm doing for a paper in his class.

I want to thank you directly, as my paper specifically speaks to sensationalism within the trafficking movement, and the use of the term "slavery," along with many others, and how they paint a certain picture of those involved. Loved reading your article, and think it opens up important debate on language that needs to be addressed even further within the movement.

Sincere gratitude!