International Law on Trafficking in Women
last updated September 1, 2005

The United Nations obligates States to refrain from committing human rights violations and also to take positive steps to ensure that individuals are able to enjoy their human rights.  A State's legal obligations are articulated in human rights instruments, such as treaties and conventions.  The UN also drafts politically-binding documents that do not have the force of law, such as declarations and resolutions, but which nevertheless represent important guidelines on States' obligations.  More information about the United Nations system, human rights documents and enforcement mechanisms can be accessed from the International Law section of this site.

The United Nations addresses trafficking in women from various directions.  First, the UN human rights instruments apply to women and men equally, and are relevant to the kinds of abuses that women suffer in cases of trafficking.  In addition, the UN international standards on the treatment of crime victims also obligate States to protect victims of trafficking.  

Second, of the types of violence against women addressed by this site, trafficking in women was perhaps the first to receive the attention of the UN as a transnational crime.  This section, therefore, includes a historical overview of the UN conceptualization of trafficking, prior to the emergence of an international women's human rights movement. 

Third, the UN treaties and resolutions that articulate the rights of women are applicable to the situation of trafficking and define trafficking as a form of gender-based violence.  Since the early 1990's, all major UN instruments on States' commitment to ensure women the full enjoyment of their human rights and their protection from violence have included specific obligations to combat trafficking in women. 

Fourth, the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime entered into force in September 2003.  The accompanying Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children received its 40th ratification in September 2003 and entered into force on December 25, 2003.  The Trafficking Protocol contains the international consensus definition of trafficking and sets forth State obligations to prevent trafficking, to protect victims and to prosecute perpetrators of trafficking. For more information on the Trafficking Protocol, please see the section entitled The Trafficking Protocol and Recent Initiatives.

Finally, at its 60th session in April of 2004 the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNHCHR) appointed a Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children for the explicit purpose of focusing on the human rights of victims of trafficking from a global perspective. The Special Rapporteur’s mandate is to take action on violations committed against trafficked persons, to undertake country visits to understand specific situations and make recommendations to prevent and combat trafficking, and to submit annual reports to the Commission on his/her activities as special rapporteur. To do so, the rapporteur’s job is to gather and exchange information from governments, non-governmental organizations and victims of trafficking in order to propose appropriate measures to prevent and remedy trafficking violations.  Working within the major international instruments and definitions of trafficking, the Special Rapporteur publishes reports and take up cases where individual or widespread rights abuses have occurred.

So far, the Special Rapporteur, Ms. Sigma Huda, has released two reports. One, entitled “Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective,” challenges that trafficking continues to be treated as a “law and order problem” and examines the human rights implications of trafficking. The other reports on a mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina.