INTERVIEW: Some observations on the anti-trafficking field

In addition, there is another issue here concerning the relationship between child trafficking and the ‘sale of children’. At around the time that the Palermo Protocol was being…

In addition, there is another issue here concerning the relationship between child trafficking and the ‘sale of children’. At around the time that the Palermo Protocol was being drafted, lawmakers were also working on an Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (OPSC). And given how closely related these documents were, insufficient attention was given to the complementarity between them.

The OPSC addresses situations of sexual exploitation of children. It focuses on ownership-like control by adults for remuneration, which may include situations of child abuse shared as pictures or video clips, illegal practices in the context of child adoption, and prostitution. Clearly, there are overlaps between these situations and those typically discussed in a trafficking context. Yet the conceptual starting points for the sale of children and child trafficking are different. Child trafficking aims at the exploitation of the services of the child, while the sale of children focusses rather on the transfer of control for remuneration, irrespective of what happens next to the child. Not every case of illegal child adoption, for example, is a child trafficking case, but the ‘sale’ of a child (however problematic that term) may be one of the ‘means’ used in a child trafficking case. In practice, there is often confusion about these concepts, especially in relation to adoption and more recently also in discussions about surrogacy.

Neil: Complicated and challenging stuff. But, without wishing to trivialise, surely from a victim perspective this is splitting hairs?

Helmut: Sure, from a ‘victim’ perspective, all such narrow categorisation is irrelevant. And it would be unnecessary if we were to follow a comprehensive, human rights-based approach to organising our societies. We’d all enjoy the rights to life, integrity, liberty, adequate standards of living, health, education, work, and so on. In fact, in many respects this is the key issue – anti-trafficking has to a large extent focused only on the perpetrator side of things due to the initial framing of trafficking as a criminal offence. Perhaps the biggest challenge for discourse and practice is therefore (still!) the turnaround to adopt a more holistic rights-based approach.

In my view, if we are to achieve that, it could be helpful to look at the related issue of domestic violence. Over the last decades, huge progress has been made globally in establishing violence against women and children as issues that are not solely the concern of the private sphere. They are in fact matters of state concern and responsibility, with clear human rights obligations to protect victims, prevent abuse, investigate and provide redress. Although the situation is still far from ideal, public and political discourse has shifted significantly. That leads me to ask what lessons the anti-trafficking field can learn from that shift. How can we be sure that trafficking is seen as a structural issue, one that is really about exploitation? And how can we be sure that people recognise the ubiquity of this exploitation in the way we now do with domestic violence?

This post was originally published on Radio Free.

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