Twenty Years Of Trafficking: Taking Stock Of The World The Palermo Protocol Built

January 12, 2021


Twenty years ago this week the UN General Assembly adopted a new Convention against Transnational Organized Crime. Two supplementary protocols accompanied this addition to the pantheon of international law. The first sought to “to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, especially women and children” while the second targeted “the smuggling of migrants by land, sea and air”. A third focusing upon “illicit manufacturing and trafficking in firearms” was added the next year. These became known as the Palermo Protocols, with the name coming from the city where they were finalised.

It is the first of these protocols, the human trafficking protocol, with which we are chiefly concerned. For two decades now, this protocol has been the starting point for legal and political conversations regarding labour exploitation and irregular migration. It has also provided the key rationale for approaching these issues through a criminal justice lens, rather than in terms of migrant and labour rights. It is, after all, a convention on organised crime. This focus on crime may help to explain why the protocol has been rapidly endorsed by an unusually large number of states – 178 – and was recently described as “nearing universal ratification with blazing speed”. This trajectory stands in stark contrast to the 1990 International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families, which has only 55 ratifications (and no ratifications from states from the Global North), despite being a decade older.

This comparison helps to underscore a broader point: the human trafficking protocol exerts enormous influence in a world where human rights are under sustained attack. Unlike the more recent United Nations Global Compact on Migration, which has been mired in political controversy, it continues to command support from across the globe. Its provisions have profoundly affected domestic legislation and policy while also providing a legal and conceptual foundation for anti-trafficking campaigns worldwide.

There is thus no question that the trafficking protocol has been impactful. The more significant and difficult question is whether or not its effects have been positive or negative. Despite all the cash that has been pumped into anti-trafficking efforts, criminal prosecutions remain rare. Severe labour rights violations continue to be an everyday occurrence, with workers demonstrably no safer in the post-Palermo world. Migrants continue to be abused and deported. And, as regular readers of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery will know, anti-trafficking and ‘modern abolitionist’ interventions do not always have beneficial effects. Some are simply ineffective. Others do outright damage.

To read the full article by Cameron Thibos on Open Democracy: Click Here