UN Security Council Acts On Modern Slavery In Conflict

The failures of the UN Security Council remain a very real challenge for us today.
Atmeh, Syria: A Syrian woman and boy stand outside their shelter in the camp for displaced persons.
Atmeh, Syria: A Syrian woman and boy stand outside their shelter in the camp for displaced persons.

Co-authored by Dr Eleanor Tighe

In a world gone mad - children buried under rubble in Aleppo, war crimes being undertaken on all sides in the battle for Mosul - it is easy to lose hope, and particularly to lose faith in the key institution that was intended to ensure peace to the world, the UN Security Council. Is it any surprise that in Europe, one philanthropist has offered a $5 million prize to anyone who can come up with a new improved, system of global governance – a redesigned “UN 2.0”?

While the failings of the UN Security Council are many and real, it is heartening to see some achievements. This week, with strong leadership from the Government of Spain and many civil society organisations, including our partners the Freedom Fund and walkfree.org, the UN Security Council voted to adopt a resolution on human trafficking in conflict.

Some aspects of the Resolution seem fairly run of the mill and perhaps innocuous. For example, the Resolution calls on Members States that have not done so to ratify and implement UN Convention Transnational Organised Crime and Trafficking Protocol. This is something that 147 states have already done, including Syria.

Some aspects of the Resolution will have far more immediate consequences to people who are suffering and desperately seeking justice. The Resolution calls on Member States to prevent, criminalise, investigate, and ensure accountability for those who engage in human trafficking in armed conflict. The Resolution emphasises that evidence of such crimes must be collected and preserved so that investigations and prosecutions can occur.

The focus on documenting war crimes is critical. One of the hard-learnt lessons from the liberation of German concentration camps after World War II was the importance of collecting even rough stories, information, and testimonies from survivors, as soon as possible after camps were liberated. These accounts are rapidly lost as people move, memory becomes less reliable, victims die and any prospect of justice is lost.

The Resolution has profound implications for the identification and response to victims of human trafficking in conflict situations. The Resolution calls for the UN and States to implement robust victim identification to provide access to protection for victims - whether they are in refugee camps in Iraq or living in relative safety in Europe. The Resolution urges UN agencies involved in humanitarian crises to ensure risk of trafficking is considered in humanitarian needs assessments. This is an approach the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has long called for, on the basis of its experiences working with trafficking victims in times of crisis.

As IOM and others have highlighted, too often in emergency situations, there is a failure to see that responding to human trafficking is in fact lifesaving emergency aid. For the women who have escaped sexual enslavement at the hands of ISIS, responding to their situation is not an optional extra that can be dealt with later, after the basics of food, water and shelter have been administered.

The Resolution encourages partnerships between private sector and civil society to provide information, and calls for identification of “indicators of trafficking in persons in areas affected by armed conflict in supply chains”. With an increasing global focus on the ability of businesses to impact human rights, it is timely to ask - who is providing the weapons and other defence materiel that is sustaining the seemingly intractable conflicts we are witnessing? This may have implications for businesses who provide not just weapons but any materiel, including vehicles and heavy machinery.

From a migration perspective, the Resolution urges refugee-receiving countries to “provide information on the services available to victims of trafficking and sexual violence”, and “provide survivors with the option to document their cases for future legal action to hold traffickers accountable”. This has important implications for justice, as well as supporting identification of terrorist groups, cutting access to resources and preventing further forms of terrorist activity.

At the operational level, the resolution encourages Member States involved in peacekeeping to ensure training and operational readiness on this issue. This is critical - imagine you are a soldier providing security for a refugee camp, and a woman walks up to you and says “I want to report a war crime”. This is not fiction - this happens. Soldiers need to know what to do.

Finally, the UN Security Council has requested the Secretary General to take steps to improve the collection of data, monitoring and analysis of trafficking in persons in context of armed conflict. We already know there is a strong link between conflict and modern slavery but collecting the data is rarely prioritised. Stronger data means more informed responses - this is needed, ideally linked to collection of testimonies and war crimes.

The failures of the UN Security Council remain a very real challenge for us today, and we must collectively find solutions. This should not stop us recognising critical, life-saving progress that is being made along the way.