Tools Against Corruption and Human Trafficking

Human trafficking, also known as trafficking in persons (TIP), is a multibillion-dollar criminal industry surpassed only by drug trafficking and arms sales. The 2017 data by the International Labor Organization (ILO) revealed that there are more than 40 million victims of human trafficking worldwide. Under federal and international law, TIP is considered a crime, but there have been many challenges in enforcing this. Ambassador Luis C.deBaca (retired), a Robina Fellow of Modern Slavery at Yale’s Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, shared with VantagePoints his thoughts about public policy mechanisms and the different tools to fight human trafficking and corruption.

How did you start as an advocate for combatting trafficking in persons?

Having grown up on a ranch, I was looking at rural communities both in the United States (U.S.) and around the world on how to empower vulnerable people. When I got out of law school, I was able to work at the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department. The ability to work on behalf of those whose constitutional rights were being violated gave me a chance to use the power of the federal government to help communities that are vulnerable to being enslaved, or to being subjected to police violence or other intimidation because of their race or ethnicity.

On a global level, combatting human trafficking (HT) became relevant to many with the globalization of the 1990s and the collapse of the Soviet empire, which created a lot of people with vulnerabilities traveling for work and being abused (whether for sex or labor) in the places to which they were going. The frame that I was coming in with from the Civil Rights Division was based on the enslavement of the person rather than on them having traveled in international commerce.  This approach allowed us to keep the focus on the people’s rights and the violation of their rights, as opposed to simply regulating migration or administering travel policies for the sake of border security.

Since you started working on this issue up to the present, can you give us a picture on where are we now in terms of combatting it?

We’re seeing more victims identified and more traffickers caught, but that does not necessarily mean that there’s more trafficking going on.  Rather, it likely means there are more enforcement and a better understanding of reaching these issues. Part of it comes from having modern tools.  That puts everyone in a different place compared to 20 or 10 years ago.  Now, almost every country now is a signatory to the “Palermo” protocol adopted by the United Nations (UN) to supplement the 2000 Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.

The Palermo Protocol is still exciting eighteen years later because it was the first time that we’ve been able to get an international treaty that actually put the protection of the victims and prevention of this particular type of human rights offense at the same level as the prosecution of crimes. With three key frameworks – prevention, protection, and prosecution – underpinning Palermo-compliant legislation that countries have then adopted, the Protocol has become a global standard. I think that’s where the big change has come. The numbers will flow and are flowing from that. However, we cannot say that there are any real good, big impact numbers that we can count on, especially if you’re looking at the figures published through the Global Slavery Index estimations.

In the 2018 Global Slavery Index, they are looking at more than 40 million people enslaved and then another 15 million people in forced marriage.  If we are going to look at the impact we have to compare that to 50,000 to 60,000 victims being identified and 10,000 to 15,000 prosecutions reported by governments. We still have a long way to go before we’re able to catch up to the number of people who are being hurt around the world.

What are some of the major policies and/or programs that you see are very important in the fight against human trafficking?

There are a few best practices, and each one has its own successes and limitations based on the circumstance and capacity of the country. For instance, Brazil’s Department of Labor has a big program that looks at slave labor across the sectors. They have been successful in getting people out of forced labor – from charcoal and kilns in the Amazon to garment factories with fairly reputable brands like Zara in the cities. They are willing to put companies on a “dirty list” of bad actors, so the people will know that these companies have not made a commitment to pay their laborers as they should.

Another good program is  Nigeria’s National Agency for the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (NAPTIP), an inter-ministerial cross-cutting Action Group that provides a forum in which they cut through the different silos and have seen a number of victims being helped as a result.  Finally, in Thailand, slavery and child prostitution was a huge problem for much of the last 20 years.  Many people were working on it but were so focused on the sex industry that they were missing the endemic exploitation in fishing and seafood processing plants.  The country has tried to address these issues and in the last few years, it has seen better police training, cases being done, and a better relationship between the government and non-government organizations doing this work.  Even companies who once fought hard against any claim that there was exploitation in their supply chains are now engaging on this issue in Thailand.

In the global arena, have there been instances of collaboration between the policy and the grassroots levels to include voices of victims, workers, and advocacy community in decision-making?

One of the exciting things that are happening in the U.S. is survivor advocacy, such as the President’s Advisory Commission on Human Trafficking. It doesn’t just prove the wisdom of listening to survivors and other communities, but it also demonstrates the bipartisanship of this issue.  While many initiatives started under President Barack Obama were not continued under the new Administration,  anti-trafficking advocacy is one of the things that has continued.   It is so inspiring.   You have people who, five or ten years ago, were enslaved in the U.S. wondering if anybody would ever see them alive or if they would ever get out of their situation. Now they are coming to the White House, issuing reports, and doing policy work that directly informs what the U.S. ends up doing in this area. I think that this type of survivor advisory council is certainly a global best practice. We’d love to see other countries take that on as well.

How does the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda help address the issue of human trafficking?

There is a lot of overlap, and at its best, the structures can be complementary.   Of course, the UN has a lot of different silos in which different things are dealt with.  Human trafficking has shown up in a lot of different offices and agencies because it is such a multifaceted issue. For instance, the people who work on conflict resolution and peacekeeping end up on human trafficking as well, because of child soldiers and the women who are enslaved to cook and clean and accompany the troops, perhaps even in prostitution. The ILO, because of the forced labor mandate going back to the 1920s conventions, takes into account trafficking issues, as does the International Organization for Migration (IOM), an entity within the UN system. And so too with UN Women and women’s offices in national governments, where we’ve seen some overlap in bringing together different actors and issues so that you can end up having folks talk across these things.

Frankly, though, we’re seeing the more overt discussions of trafficking take place, not in the formal women, peace, and security dialogues, but in the processes around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially as people are trying to give life to  Goal 8, which promotes decent work and economic growth and includes trafficking and forced labor in its mandate. There is a lot of overlap in personnel, with many of the same people and NGOs working on but WPS and HT, but attending different fora and being involved in different frameworks and processes on each topic.  It is frustrating, because victims of this type of exploitation, whether it takes place in a conflict setting or the economy of a country that is at peace, shouldn’t have to wait for the international community to work through this kind of silo-ing.

According to the 2017 ILO Report, the majority of TIP victims are entrapped and controlled by criminal networks operating together with corrupt public officials. What are the critical challenges in combatting human trafficking and corruption?

I think some of the problems that we have with combating human trafficking and corruption involve the disconnect inherent in the international system.  Diplomats in Geneva or in New York make agreements and then kind of leave it to hope that national legislature will pass modern anti-slavery laws.  Maybe some policymakers in the country are serious and move their government into at least into paper compliance with these international obligations.  But, in the meantime, nothing gets done, because the local police commander or the law enforcers are taking bribes or Cabinet Ministers ends up owning a lot of the plantations where people are abused. In other words, corruption can come in and undo all of the good that gets done in the policy space. However, it’s not always just corruption. It could also be racism or xenophobia, where a policymaker or an official might not want to enforce these laws because of their own prejudice or that of the society in which they are situated.  Similarly, that police commander might also think that people from a particular group shouldn’t have these types of protections under the law and so then they use their discretion not to protect them. It’s always easy to look at something not working and immediately jump to corruption as the reason, when it could also be evasion for reasons of national pride, existing economic and social structures, or lack of political will in domestic agencies.  It could even be lack of training or resources, not because they are corrupt or uncaring, but they don’t have what they need to enforce the modern laws.  We do need to look closely at this because we’ve seen corruption as a problem in human trafficking, but we also have to make sure that we’re not ignoring the other reasons why actors at various levels might not end up enforcing the laws.

What most concerns you about the world today? What gives you hope?

The thing that gives me pause is that, as more people want to get involved with fighting human trafficking,  they need to be willing to work on behalf of all the different types of human trafficking victims, not just the ones who are “comfortable” to care about. There is a tendency in the discourse right now for newly-engaged actors to focus so much on the most compelling cases, and that’s usually child sexual exploitation and child prostitution. And that’s a big problem that needs to be addressed head-on; we have to be able to respond to those cases vigorously and also undercut the demand that creates a market for children to be offered for sale.  But simultaneously, we have to protect the less-favored or less-sympathetic victims.  For instance, the people who came illegally to a country only to be trapped in some type of involuntary servitude or unpopular groups within society. The women who chose to be in prostitution but then get abused.  The people working in drug cultivation or other unsavory activities.   Whether we are protecting the victims who are outside of our comfort zone should be the measure of the anti-trafficking movement.

As far as what makes me feel hopeful for the future, I think that the fact that under the modern framework we have now had 15 or 20 year’s worth of working on these things together.  We now have the ability to have the former victims involved in the fight as survivors, and not simply so they can tell us their story and we can be emotionally moved by their suffering.  Rather, we now have the opportunity for them to be at the policy table and actually help make decisions.  They have insights that only somebody who’s been through this would be able to bring, and if we are going to claim to be fighting for their freedom, we need to be willing to work with them as colleagues as well.  It is exciting to see the energy that they and new actors are bringing into the field today.


Luis C.deBaca served as Ambassador at Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons under President Barack Obama.  Previously a trial lawyer in the Civil Rights Division, he led policy efforts as well as litigating slavery and trafficking cases, leading to the development of the modern “victim-centered approach” and the promulgation of the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the United Nation’s anti-trafficking Protocol.  Ambassador C.deBaca is currently an Open Society Fellow, for which he is examining the intersection of human rights, security, international organizations, and business, and serves as Robina Fellow in Modern Slavery at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition, of Yale University’s MacMillan Center, where he will be teaching on the now-global reach of the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution through the modern anti-trafficking movement.   



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