Historical Overview of the UN Perspective on Trafficking
last updated September 1, 2005
U.N. efforts to address trafficking in women over the last hundred years have culminated in the entry into force of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children on December 25, 2003.  The Trafficking Protocol supplements the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime and largely supplants the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others discussed below. The Trafficking Protocol addresses trafficking in women within the context of transnational organized crime activities, such money laundering, corruption, trafficking in firearms and the smuggling of migrants. 

In the early twentieth century, the international community responded to the issue of trafficking in women with a number of treaties that addressed the "white slave trade.  Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women from 1994 to July 2003, explains that "[h]istorically, anti-trafficking movements have been driven by perceived threats to the "purity" or chastity of certain populations of women, notably white women" and that early treaties focused on the protection of victims and not the punishment of perpetrators and, ultimately, proved to be ineffective.  The League of Nations concluded two treaties on the suppression of traffic in women.  The latter treaty, the 1933 International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women of Full Age, is notable for provisions that punish traffickers, without regard to whether the victim in some way gave consent.  In 1949, the United Nations consolidated the earlier treaties into the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.  


The 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others is problematic for a number of reasons.  First, the convention does not elaborate a definition of trafficking, but rather simply equates trafficking with the exploitation of prostitution.  The Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women describes the negative consequences of such a narrow definition: by confining the definition of trafficking to trafficking for prostitution, the 1949 Convention excludes vast numbers of women from its protection.  Documentation shows that trafficking is undertaken for a myriad of purposes, including but not limited to prostitution or other sex work, domestic, manual or industrial labor, and marriage, adoptive or other intimate relationships.  The difficulties in connecting trafficking and commercial sex work are discussed in the Explore the Issue section of Trafficking. 


Second, the treaty focuses on criminalizing acts associated with prostitution rather than on the protection of trafficking victims.  Thus, the Convention does not prohibit the prosecution of commercial sex workers themselves.  And while the Convention sets forth obligations to State parties to take and encourage "health, social, economic and other related services, measures for the prevention of prostitution and for the rehabilitation and social adjustment of the victims of prostitution," it does not address the underlying factors that contribute to trafficking, such as women's lower economic status, demand for women's sexual services, organized crime and internal conflict.   According to the Special Rapporteur, Radhika Coomaraswamy,


The Convention does not take a human rights approach.  It does not regard women as independent actors endowed with rights and reason; rather, the Convention views them as vulnerable beings in need of protection from the "evils of prostitution".  As such, the 1949 Convention does very little to protect women from and provide remedies for the human rights violations committed in the course of trafficking, thereby increasing trafficked women's marginalization and vulnerability to human rights violations. 


Finally, the 1949 Convention contains provisions for the repatriation of trafficking victims but also anticipates that trafficking victims may be deported in accordance with national immigration laws. Repatriation with appropriate support services is acknowledged to be more beneficial to victims of trafficking than deportation, a process that does not take into account the risk of returning a woman to her country of origin and does not consider possible hardship inherent in the situation she was originally seeking to leave.


The Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women on trafficking in women, women's migration and violence against women, submitted in to the UN Commission on Human Rights, E/CN.4/2000/68, 29 February 2000, includes an overview of the United Nations law on trafficking in women and a critique of the 1949 Convention.


Thus, as the 1949 Convention became inadequate to combat trafficking, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children was created to supplement the United Nations’ Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in 2000.  And although this represented an important re-conceptualization of the complex problem of trafficking in humans, the Protocol was seen mainly as a law enforcement document whose human rights provisions for victims of trafficking were weak. 


Later in 2002, the Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking was created by the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Economic and Social Council to establish the primacy of human rights in states’ dealings with trafficking in human beings.  The first guideline states that “Violations of human rights are both a cause and a consequence of trafficking in persons.  Accordingly, it is essential to place the protection of all human rights at the center of any measures taken to prevent and end trafficking.”


Additionally, a Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, was established in 2004 at the 60th Session of the UN Commission on Human Rights.  The Special Rapporteur is mandated to focus specifically on the human rights aspects of the victims of human trafficking and the first Special Rapporteur, Ms. Sigma Huda, stressed in her first report that “human rights shall be at the centre of all efforts to combat trafficking.”  For more information, see the Trafficking Protocol section of this website and the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children section. 

While a number of UN declarations and conference reports on the broad issue of women's human rights made mention of the issue of trafficking in women, the UN legal framework for describing the phenomenon of trafficking in women changed little before the early 1990's.  Since then, as the issue has become more prominent in the international community, more has been done to combat and prevent trafficking in human beings.