Human Rights and the Fight Against Trafficking

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Co-Authored by Suzanne B. Seltzer, Principal of The Seltzer Firm, PLLC, and founding Steering Committee member of the NY Anti-Trafficking Network.

Human Rights Day
is December 10. It's a day to commemorate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and, rest assured, people who work on the pressing issues of the moment will be pumping new energy into efforts to protect the human rights of people in the most vulnerable situations around the world. As lawyers and advocates who've represented survivors of trafficking and advocated for policy change for over a decade, we've learned a lot about what it means to respond with the human rights of victims and survivors in mind.

Human rights are the notion that all people have rights, simply by virtue of their humanity. They represent both a set of values and a system of laws and enforcement mechanisms. Human rights embody the values of dignity, fairness, equality, and opportunity that are central in a just society and for empowered people.

Trafficking in persons clearly involves human rights concerns, based on the coercion, threats, or violence victims and survivors face. But the ways we as a community respond to human trafficking also involve very important human rights issues. A response to trafficking in persons rooted in human rights respects the dignity and self-determination of the person who is thought to be a victim or survivor. This means creating an environment where the person at risk is able to make his or her own decisions about the steps he or she wants to take in addressing the situation.

A human rights approach should follow a basic tenet: "Do no harm." That includes doing the due diligence to investigate whether a situation involves coercion and trafficking, or not, before taking action.

Unfortunately, a well-meaning but misguided trend in anti-trafficking efforts hasn't proven to help, but it has the potential to backfire and harm countless victims, survivors, and bystanders: Using sex offender registries as an anti-trafficking tool. Sex offender registries have their place in law enforcement, but human rights advocates and policymakers have been warning that over-use has been dangerous, both because they rarely protect potential victims, and they overload law enforcement agencies.

For example, anti-trafficking campaigns in New York State, California, and Michigan require a person convicted of paying for sexual services or other prostitution-related conduct to register as a sex offender, even if the activity does not involve force, fraud, or coercion -- the very definition of trafficking. It may seem harmless to add these names to the registries, but doing so does nothing to help in identifying victims of trafficking, protecting survivors, or preventing others from being trafficked. People at the edges of prostitution-related activity, like drivers or people who handle the phones, who might be potential witnesses or be in a position to help a victim of trafficking safely leave his or her situation are less likely to come forward because these registries add another layer of risk. And by overloading law enforcement with long lists, a deluge of names actually makes it harder for them to do the job we need them to do in investigating and monitoring potential threats.

Sexual abuse, particularly of children, is monstrous, and we've seen the devastating effects firsthand, but putting prostitution-related offenses on the registry won't protect our kids. In fact, engaging in commercial sex acts that don't even involve trafficking can land someone on a sex offender registry, so it dilutes the purpose entirely. If the sex offender registry has names of people who haven't committed any violence or abuse and who don't pose a safety risk, how effective can the registry be in helping to determine who does represent an actual threat?

Public sex offender registries work off the idea that any of us can look them up and become aware of predators within our community, those who pose a significant safety risk to ourselves and our children. And of course, trafficking is certainly predatory in nature. But so many victims and survivors of trafficking are young people, immigrants, or people who work in informal labor sectors such as sex work, restaurants, or agriculture. They are afraid to come forward and deal with the authorities or law enforcement at all. And they (and their families) are not likely to actually take a look at registries, so as a means of prevention, they fall short.

Those exploited and abused by traffickers are better served by policies and actions that address the causes and conditions of trafficking. One-size-fits-all solutions don't work on a problem this complex. As we think about protecting human rights for all, we should be putting our energy into policies that help to identify victims and survivors of trafficking, give them the help they need to reclaim their lives, and prevent trafficking in the first place. For ideas of solutions that work, see this list of things you can do to help in the fight against trafficking.