Combating Human Trafficking: An Interview with Simone Monasebian

Human trafficking, also called modern-day slavery, is a $32 billion-a-year international business with an estimated 21 million victims. At any given time, millions of women, children and men are sold worldwide to serve as sex slaves, forced laborers or child soldiers. Many are also killed for their organs. That is why the United Nations has been focusing heavily on addressing these rampant human rights violations.

In May, the General Assembly organized its first high-level meeting on human trafficking. The first detailed report about the illegal trade came out in late 2012, two years after the passing of the United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons. And just this month, the UN's International Labour Organization helped launch a program to prevent the trafficking of 100,000 girls and women from South Asia.

Recently, The InterDependent interviewed Simone Monasebian, the New York chief of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which was mandated to handle trafficking in 2010.

The ID: What steps has the UN taken to combat human trafficking?

Monasebian: Three big things have happened: In the year 2000, there was the adoption of The Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children. This so-called Palermo Protocol was the first treaty that gave a comprehensive definition of what human trafficking is, including organ trafficking, sex trafficking, labor trafficking and child soldiering. Now more than three-quarters of the UN member countries have ratified the protocol, but the implementation of it needs to be a lot stronger.

The next big step to happen was when the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime started working on various initiatives, including the United Nations Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) in 2007. Then, in 2010, the third big step was the passage of the Global Plan of Action.

The ID: Why has it taken so long for the UN to tackle this issue?

Monasebian: We haven't had resources. It hasn't been a priority until the Global Plan of Action for the member states to put their money where their mouth is. People don't look at this as affecting national security in a way that drugs or terrorism do. But one has to ask, if you can transport a body over a state line without being detected, what else could you transport?

But since December 2009, they have started talking about human trafficking as a problem even in the Security Council. As of late, there's more of an understanding that it's a security issue, not just a human rights or a development issue.

The ID: How does the UN define human trafficking?

Monasebian: The definition of human trafficking in the treaty has three aspects. One is movement, which could be kidnapping or somebody crossing the border. The UN Convention only deals with international borders, but most of the trafficking is happening nationally. You could cross state lines, and that's trafficking. Moving people from New Jersey to Chinatown in Manhattan, or even from Brooklyn to Queens could be trafficking. Second is the use of force and the force can be trickery. The third is the purpose—exploitation.

The ID: Who is most at risk?

Monasebian: The vast majority of people that are trafficked are women and children, mostly for sex purposes. A lot of times, the woman who is trafficked for forced labor is also subjected to forced sex, so it's very hard to tell if it is one or the other, or both.

Then there's the whole dilemma of the good victim versus the bad victim. The good victim is the one who gets kidnapped into white slavery from the street, maybe while on vacation. The bad victim is the one who answers an ad for modeling and winds up in prostitution. Just because you agreed to one thing, it doesn't mean you give away your consent and you can't retract from it.

Or maybe in order to get your papers to get across the border, you agreed to be a prostitute for one week. And then you are stuck in some brothel as a sex slave for years. That doesn't mean you consented: You can't consent to being exploited. A child under 18 is never allowed to consent. Even if the child is 15 and says, "I want go and be a prostitute, it's better than working in the fields all day," [that child] cannot consent.

The ID: On a practical level, what is the UN doing to help victims and prevent further trafficking?

Monasebian: When the General Assembly passed the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons in July 2010, they came up with two very practical things to help us understand this issue. One is compiling a bi-annual report, researching the figures. The next report comes out in December 2014.

The other thing is, for me, the most interesting part—establishing the United Nations Voluntary Trust Fund for Victims of Human Trafficking. Also, this May, the General Assembly had a high-level meeting on human trafficking for the first time in history, appraising the Global Plan of Action. It was three days long, though it was supposed to only last for one day. Eighty-five countries spoke, as well as NGOs, CNN anchor Jim Clancy, people from the private sector and the Academy [Award-winning] actress Mira Sorvino, the UNODC Goodwill Ambassador to Combat Human Trafficking.

The ID: Could you explain the fund's importance?

Monasebian: The problem with human trafficking is that once you are in trafficking, it's very hard to get out of it. I'll give you an example. We went on a mission with actor Nicolas Cage, who is the goodwill ambassador for UNODC, to Northern Uganda, to Juba, to meet with former child soldiers, former sex slaves and forced wives. I asked one of the children who was 14 years old: "How long were you abducted for?" And they said, "Which time?" There were kids who were trafficked and they were rescued, and then somehow they were re-trafficked again.

Human trafficking steals your soul, takes away your confidence. For a lot of the trafficked girls, their dream is not to be taken out of human trafficking. Their dream is to become the brothel owner, so that they don't have to be the sex slave anymore but can run the business. That is very sad. These people have very little options for getting out of that life when that's all they've had—when their own family may have been complicit in them winding up in trafficking, because they were duped or they were so desperate.

The ID: Is the fund financially secure?

Monasebian: Right now the donations amount to less than $1.5 million. A number of countries have given money to the trust fund, but it's not coming quickly enough. Individuals can also donate to this trust fund. A group of Catholic schoolgirls in New Jersey heard about it; they gave $100 after they had a bake sale. We are hoping that others are similarly inclined, and will give whatever they can to the victims of human trafficking.

The ID: Do donations reach victims?

Monasebian: Member states are very adamant that they don't want the money going to UN staff member salaries or to a publicity campaign or to overhead expenses. They really want this money to get to the victims on the ground. A lot of the trust fund board members' meetings are done electronically, and we decided to create a small grants facility, where we go to tried and true NGOs that are on the ground, providing direct services to victims: legal advice, housing, training, education, medical services and all the various different psychological and social services.

These service providers have done extraordinary things. For example, the grant recipients are located on all continents. The NGOs are teaching these former victims in various occupations, giving them housing, taking care of them and their kids, relocating them and providing them with the training to fight their traffickers.

The ID: Why is human trafficking such a big business?

Monasebian: The thing about human trafficking is that it's such a lucrative business to do. A bullet, for example, you can only use one time: You shoot it; it's gone. It's a commodity. A line of coke: You can only sniff it one time and it's gone. But a person: You can use them over and over again and for many different purposes. For example, when they are young, maybe use them for sex trafficking, and when they are older, for labor trafficking. When you can't use them for that anymore, maybe sell their organs. So it's a very flexible type of commodity; it doesn't exhaust in the same way that bullets or drugs do.

The ID: What are the hotspots for human trafficking?

Monasebian: Here is the interesting thing: Every single country of all 193 countries is either an origin, transit or destination country of human trafficking—meaning either the victims come from that country, pass through the country or wind up in that country. Some countries, like Thailand, have all three problems.

Of course, the U.S. is a destination country; Israel is a destination country. There are countries where there's international trafficking, maybe sex tourism. Europeans may go to Cambodia, for example, and you then have trafficking within the country as well. This is everybody's problem. This is not a name and shame-type of a situation; the problem is everywhere.

The ID: The Global Commission on HIV and the Law and the UN Development Programme have taken a stance in support of the decriminalization of sex work. How does that affect your efforts at the UNODC?

Monasebian: In 2000, when the Palermo Protocol was negotiated, there were some countries that believed there's no such thing as voluntary prostitution. Because the member states could not agree on whether prostitution should be criminalized or decriminalized, the protocol doesn't take a view on that. Neither does the Global Plan of Action. We leave it open. Countries can deal with it as they deem fit.

In terms of the UN secretariat's view, or that of UNODC as the guardian of that convention, we don't take a view on whether there should be criminalization or decriminalization. We deal with implementation of the protocol, which means there should be protection, prevention and prosecution of offenders.

The ID: What can be done to eradicate human trafficking once and for all?

Monasebian: The UN Protocol, article 9, talks about why we have human trafficking, the root causes: the condition of women, the lack of equality, the lack of development, poverty, social status, and inequality. The only way we are ever going to end human trafficking is to deal with those root causes. If you really address them, you can make such a difference.

Educating girls is one fantastic way to deal with the human trafficking. Prevention is always the best thing: Work more on educating girls. There's nothing more important than that in the fight against human trafficking.

Keywords: Featured, Human Rights

Read the original article on the Inter Dependent.