U.N.’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons on July 30
Trafficking of weak and gullible human being, and their subsequent exploitation as slaves, prostitutes, child labor have long been the subject of intense debate, introspection, and agitation to stop it. However, the malaise persists, because geopolitical factors and government apathy have aggravated it. On July 30 every year, we observe the U.N.’s World Day Against Trafficking in Persons to take stock of the progress made and ponder our way forward.
The situation is far from encouraging despite two decades of international coordinated effort to rid the world of this scourge. One thing is painfully clear. Many governments have enacted legislations to stop human trafficking, but their follow-through has been lackluster. As a result of such indifference, the number of trafficked human beings has soared to 40.3 million today. Almost a quarter of this figure are children, who, most likely can’t break free of this curse all their life. There are women who have fallen prey to sex trafficking, and forced marriages. The trafficked persons, young and old, are made to work in brick kilns, factories, farms, eateries, and in small businesses. Sadly, we tend to not treat the plight of such labor with any seriousness.
Human trafficking has been spurred by a combination of factors, such as political unrest, natural calamities, endemic poverty, droughts and floods, and the existence of international gang who devise ingenuous ways to cheat the border controls.
Apart from the above-mentioned causes behind human trafficking, there is another insidious factor that is poorly understood. That is the existence of authoritarian governments in many parts of the world. Despots, dictators, and rulers in totalitarian states don’t face elections, and have the least regard for human rights and social well-being. Under such dispensation, large sections of the population get pushed to the brink where traffickers prey on them with impunity.
The U.S. State Department compiles a report of the performance of different nations in the area of curbing human trafficking. It’s report card having four categories. The best-performing countries are put in Tier 1, the next best in Tier 2. The countries showing disturbing lack of effort are put in Tier 2 Watch List. The nations with the most abominable record are classified as Tier 3.
To merit a place in Tier 1, a country has to have a really proactive and vigorous record of curbing human trafficking through prosecution of offenders, offering protection to victims, and a genuine vigor to stop further trafficking. The governments must have collaborated with civil society groups to put in place more hurdles for the traffickers.
The U.N. report was published in June, and a scrutiny of the countries in the Tier 1 category shows that almost 96% of the countries are democracies. In contrast, only 6% of the authoritarian states make it to the Tier 1 list. Nine out of ten countries listed in Tier 3 are authoritarian, and just one is democratic. Such is the propensity of authoritarian states to look the other way with regard to human trafficking.
Quite clearly, authoritarian governments either abate human trafficking, or remain passive towards this social evil. A study by the Human Rights Foundation corroborates this link. Quite puzzlingly, this factor somehow does not attract the attention of the anti-trafficking activists’ community worldwide. The report pertaining to 2019 urges governments to seriously look into their internal legal and policing mechanisms to spot remaining flaws that can be fixed with new measures. This is a suggestion that had not been put across strongly in earlier years. Governments must ensure higher degree of transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. Unfettered airing of opinion, discussion in public platforms raises public awareness and prods the authorities to do more. So, the governments must allow well-intentioned debates and airing of views, even if these are critical of the establishment. How far the authoritarian regimes will heed this advice is a big question.
It’s difficult to understand why the U.S. State Department’s report avoids explicit mention of the words ‘democracy’ and ‘authoritarianism’. The State Department, in the report of earlier years, had avoided to highlight this co-relation between authoritarianism and human trafficking.
The State Department has a paradox when it comes to Thailand which is put under Tier 2 category. Other member countries that appear along with Thailand in Tier 2 are Germany and Denmark, along with authoritarian states like Zimbabwe and Tajikistan. Thailand, no doubt, has tightened anti-trafficking measures, but its military has clamped down heavily on Islamic organization in the south, and political dissidents. Their voices have been muted by closing down their broadcasting facilities. So, Thailand’s record as a democracy is mixed.
The Thai case needs to be examined in more detail. In an atmosphere where fear is pervasive, and activists are shut behind doors, anti-trafficking reforms lose the sting. Only the top echelons of the government implement the measures with no support or feedback from the ground level. Inevitably, all the inefficiencies of a bureaucratic set-up creep in weakening the otherwise well-intentioned measures. As the recourse to legal redress becomes unavailable or available in a muted way, Thailand’s number of investigations and prosecution of human traffickers has declined. In recent months, Thailand has seen mass arrests, and foisting of criminal charges against political opponents. Under such trampling of civil liberties, anti-human trafficking efforts have taken a back seat both at the level of police and courts.
The Thailand government faced international outrage after The Guardian published a damning report about the slavery-like practices adopted by Thai fishing industry. Since then, the global community has pressured Thai government to implement reforms to curb such exploitation. The Thais have responded to international pressure in a positive spirit. Courts were set up for speedy trial of trafficking and forced labour cases. For lasting impact of such ameliorating measures, deeper institutional changes are needed.
Thailand’s long history of political turmoil, and coups have enfeebled the police administration, and the judiciary. They have either been de-motivated or compromised. Thailand needs to emphatically reestablish the rule of law, and inject the sense of social responsibility to its broken political system. Purposeful engagement with civil liberty group will help to bring back the focus to the urgency of anti-human trafficking campaigns.
Separating development from democracy is a fraught concept, but it somehow goes unnoticed among political scientists. The U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals makes no mention of the need to strengthen democracy to achieve growth. Freedom of expression and regard for human rights are the bedrock of sustainable development. In a land that wants to develop sustainably, human trafficking should never exist. We have seen many instances where authoritarianism has triggered many global development crises.
According to the Human Rights Foundation’s research, refugee crisis, shortage of drinking water, starvation deaths are all endemic in authoritarian states. So, promoting democracy in such countries should be the top agenda for the global community.
July 30 every year must be the day of deep retrospection and honest deliberation. Not only should we assess the progress we have made, but also the areas where we have faltered or failed. It is apparent that we are not able to rein in the problem of trafficking and its attendant ills. The misery of the victims must always be at the back of our mind, as we go abour our daily lives. Let’s remember, as members of the privileged class, we owe it to our conscience to ensure we do not enjoy the fruits of forced labour. More than prosecution, promotion of democracy should be the panacea for this problem.
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