Historical Overview of the UN Perspective on Trafficking
last updated Septebmer 2014

In the early twentieth century, the international community responded to the issue of trafficking in women with treaties that addressed the “white slave trade.”[1]  Radhika Coomaraswamy, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women explained 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. Ultimately, these treaties proved to be ineffective.[2] 


The League of Nations later concluded two treaties on the suppression of traffic in women. The 1921 Convention for the Suppression of Traffic in Women and Children included provisions relating to prosecution of those who traffic in children, licensing of employment agencies, and protection for women and children who emigrate or immigrate.[3] 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.[4]  In 1949, the newly created United Nations consolidated these earlier treaties into the Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others.[5] 


As outlined in the 2000 Report, "Integration of the Human Rights of Women and the Gender Perspective" submitted to the UN Human Rights Commission by former UN Special Rapporteur Coomaraswamy, the 1949 Convention was problematic for a number of reasons.[6]  First, the Convention did not define trafficking in persons, but rather equated trafficking with exploitation for prostitution.[7]  The Special Rapporteur described the negative consequences of such a narrow definition, stating that, “by confining the definition of trafficking to trafficking for prostitution, the 1949 Convention excluded vast numbers of women from its protection.”[8]  Women are trafficked for many reasons, including “prostitution or other sex work; domestic, manual or industrial labor; and marriage, adoptive or other intimate relationships.”[9]


Second, the Convention focused on criminalizing acts associated with prostitution rather than helping trafficked women whose rights had been violated.  The Convention did not prohibit the prosecution of commercial sex workers themselves.[10]  And while the Convention set forth obligations to State parties to create 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 did 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.[11]  According to the Special Rapporteur:


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.[12]


Finally, while the Convention contained provisions for the repatriation of trafficking victims, these provisions did not protect women who lacked legal residency in countries where they were trafficked.[13] The Convention allowed states to detain trafficked women and deport them.[14] Repatriation with appropriate support services is now 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.[15]


In an effort to address the limitations of the Convention and combat the growth of modern human trafficking, the Palermo Protocol was negotiated to supplement the United Nations’ Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.[16] By defining trafficking as a crime against persons that takes many different forms, this treaty represented an important re-conceptualization of the complex problem of trafficking in humans.[17] Specifically, the Palermo Protocol, unlike the Convention, contains a comprehensive definition of trafficking in persons, including non-sexual exploitation such as forced labor, and directs State parties to criminalize all aspects of trafficking.[18]

However, much of the language in the Palermo Protocol governing assistance and protection for trafficked persons, e.g., immunity from prosecution, compensation for harms suffered, and comprehensive rehabilitation and support services, is suggestive rather than mandatory, thus allowing wide variation in actual practice from country to country in addressing victims’ human rights.[19] The discretionary nature of the human rights provisions in the Palermo Protocol is attributed to widespread disagreements among State parties as to how victims should be treated, particularly whether they deserved protection beyond their value as witnesses for the prosecution of traffickers.[20]

In an attempt to address this weakness in the Palermo Protocol, the High Commissioner for Human Rights to the Economic and Social Council adopted Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking in 2002 to establish the primacy of human rights in States’ anti-trafficking efforts.[21]  These guidelines are non-binding, but serve to inform the work of governments and other organizations in combatting and preventing human trafficking.[22] The first guideline states:

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.[23]


Additionally, in 2004, the UN Commission on Human Rights established a Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children.[24] The Special Rapporteur’s mandate is to focus specifically on the human rights aspects of human trafficking. The first Special Rapporteur, Ms. Sigma Huda, stressed in her opening report to the UN Human Rights Commission, that “the human rights of trafficked persons shall be at the centre of all efforts to combat trafficking.”[25] Ms. Huda’s successor, Ms. Joy Ngozi Ezelio, continues to emphasize the need to align anti-trafficking strategies with core international human rights standards.[26] Ms. Ezelio has focused particular attention on effective remedies for trafficked women, preventing trafficking and identifying and protecting victims.[27]

For more information, please see the Palermo Protocol and the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children sections of this website. 

[1] International Agreement for the suppression of the "White Slave Traffic,” Paris, 18 May 1904, League of Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 1, p. 83; International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, Paris, 4 May 1910, United Nations, Treaty Series, Annex C, No. 8.

[2] United Nations, Commission on Human Rights, Integration Of The Human Rights Of Women and the Gender Perspective, Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, on trafficking in women, women’s migration and violence against women, submitted in accordance with Commission on Human Rights resolution 1997/44, E/CN.4/2000/68, par. 18, February 29, 2000.

[3] International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children, Geneva, 30 September 1921, League of Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 9, p. 415.

[4] International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women of Full Age, Geneva, 11 October 1933, League of Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 150, p. 431.

[5] Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others, Lake Success, New York, 21 March 1950, United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 96, p. 271.

[6] Coomaraswamy, Report on trafficking in women, sec. IIB.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., par. 22.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., par. 24.

[12] Coomaraswamy, Report on trafficking in women, par. 22

[13] Ibid., par. 25

[14] Ibid.

[15] See, e.g., U.S, Department of State, Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, “Victim Protections: Principles for Progress” (June 2012).

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., arts. 3-5.

[19] Ibid., arts. 6-8.

[20] Melissa Ditmoreen and Marjan Wijers, “The Negotiations on the UN Protocol on Trafficking in Persons,” Nemesis, European Network Against Trafficking in Human Beings (2003).

[21] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking, U.N. Doc. E/2002/68/Add. 1, 2002.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid., Guideline 1.

[24] UN Economic and Social Council, Commission on Human Rights, Sixtieth session, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children, E/CN.4/2004/L.62, April 19, 2004

[27] See Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially in women and children, “Annual Reports,” http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Trafficking/Pages/annual.aspx (accessed August 15, 2014).