USHRN Board Chair on Special Rapporteur Visit

UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking Recommends that the U.S. Adopt a Stronger Focus on Labor Exploitation and Cease Prostitution Arrests

Cynthia Soohoo

In what may be the last official UN human rights expert visit to the U.S. for a long time, last Friday, Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking, concluded her 10-day visit to the U.S.  In an official statement issued on Monday, she encouraged the U.S. to adopt a more proactive and systemic effort to address forced labor and labor exploitation.  She also questioned the focus and impact of the U.S.’s current anti-trafficking strategies, which rely heavily on prostitution arrests.

U.N. human rights experts must be “invited” before conducting official country missions.  The Obama administration has been fairly open to visits from UN Special Rapporteurs and expert Working Groups.  Since 2009, at least 13 official visits were conducted prior to Giammarinaro’s visit. However, the U.S. has been widely criticized for refusing to invite Juan Mendez, the former U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, despite repeated requests for in an invitation over Mendez’s 6 year term.

Special Rapporteur and Working Group visits can provide important opportunities to raise the visibility of current rights violations and pressure government reform.  For instance, following visits this past summer and fall, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention urged the U.S. to cease mandatory detention of all migrants and specifically called for the end of detention of families and unaccompanied minors, and the Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and Association criticized U.S. security forces for using excessive force against the protesters at Standing Rock. 

Visits can also challenge current policy assumptions and provide opportunities to encourage human rights based solutions.  Preparation for visits often brings activists working on different issues and in different locations together providing unique opportunities to collaborate. This is especially important on issues like trafficking where there is widespread public and political attention, but where current policies may be ineffective or have an adverse impact on victims of abuse and exploitation.

In her official statement the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking praised the U.S.’s commitment to address trafficking and its “impressive number of laws and initiatives,” but she noted that many anti-trafficking initiatives can have “an adverse impact on trafficked persons.”  In particular, laws and policies that focus on arrest of people engaged in sex work result in fear of law enforcement that make it more difficult for trafficking victims to come forward.  Further, criminal convictions make it difficult for victims to gain stability and independence by imposing substantial barriers to obtaining housing, education and employment.

The Special Rapporteur recommended that the U.S. adopt “a human rights based approach to trafficking which includes the de-criminalization of those who engage in prostitution” and “encourage[d] law enforcement officials to use their discretion to avoid arresting sex workers as they can be potential victims of sex trafficking.”  Her recommendations are consistent with international human rights principles that emphasize that victims of trafficking should not be prosecuted for violations they were forced to commit as a result of their trafficking situation.

The Special Rapporteur urged the U.S. to adopt a preventative approach to trafficking and explore root causes that make people vulnerable to trafficking including “[s]ocial and economic inequalities, humanitarian and economic situation in neighborhood countries, [and] increasing stigmatization of migrants.”  She also encouraged the U.S. to reconsider immigration and labor policies that make workers vulnerable to traffickers, specifically criticizing work visas that tie workers to employers because “they are prevented from denouncing exploitation for fear of losing their job or their residence status.”

The Special Rapporteur’s recommendations will become all the more urgent in the coming months as the Trump administration considers whether to adopt even more restrictive immigration policies. “Walls, fences and laws criminalizing irregular migration do not prevent human trafficking,” she warned.  “On the contrary, they increase the vulnerabilities of people fleeing conflict, persecution, crisis situations and extreme poverty, who can fall easy prey to traffickers and exploiters.” 

cross posted on the Bringing Human Rights Home blog.