The UAE's law-and-order approach to human trafficking has failed to protect the victims of this heinous crime.
More than just law to fight scourge of human trafficking
Human trafficking is one of the world's fastest-growing criminal businesses, behind only the sale of weapons and the drug trade. But a law-and-order approach to this problem has not worked and new strategies are needed to prevent the atrocity and to help the victims.
Trafficking in human beings touches on many issues: human rights, inequality, discrimination, the rule of law, crime control, law enforcement, corruption, economic deprivation and migration. Any state can be a country of origin, transit or destination. Clearly, fighting this trade requires a concerted, multidisciplinary international approach.
The rapid growth of the UAE's free-market economy has made this prosperous country a prime market for the lucrative trade of trafficking, mainly of women for sexual and labour exploitation.
After the UAE agreed yesterday to invite a UN investigator on human trafficking issues, there is an opportunity to examine efforts to combat this scourge - and what remains to be done. The Global Report on Trafficking in Persons 2009, issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, says that of the 79 trafficking victims identified in the UAE between 2003 and 2007, 72 were women. In 2005 and 2006, all of the female victims identified had been sexually exploited.
But these numbers are barely the tip of the iceberg. National and international experts estimate that thousands of women - from sub-Saharan Africa, Eastern Europe, South and East Asia, Iraq, Iran and Morocco - may be victims of sex trafficking in the UAE. Lured here by false promises of jobs in hotels, night clubs, massage centres, hospitals or domestic service, they instead have their passports confiscated and are forced to work as prostitutes. It is a heinous crime, and perpetrators should be dealt with severely.
The UAE passed a law on the subject in 2006, and the next year set up a National Committee to Combat Human Trafficking. And the country is a party to the most comprehensive international legal tool on the issue, the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons Especially Women and Children, which came into force in late 2003.
Human trafficking, itself a human rights violation, can lead to other crimes: debt bondage, forced labour, rape, torture and murder. Treating human beings as commodities grossly ignores the basic rights of autonomy and dignity. The problem therefore demands a solution that punishes the perpetrator but also seriously addresses its root causes.
Trafficking grows from a combination of political, social, economic and legal failings. To tackle it effectively, we must see it as a labour problem, a migration problem, a human rights problem, a law enforcement problem and a political problem.
Poverty, discrimination and unequal access to schooling and jobs all make people vulnerable to trafficking. A human rights approach to the problem would aim to identify its root causes, combining the insights and aspirations of law enforcement bodies, civil society, professionals, governments, NGOs and more.
Scholars argue that human rights law provides a conceptual framework for addressing the root causes of trafficking, and also legal and political opportunities for the disenfranchised to begin to claim their rights, bringing state responsibility into sharper focus.
A human rights based approach built on values of equality, accountability and the rule of law, they say, can build a legal framework for prosecution of traffickers and assistance to victims.
Socio-economic reform is imperative, but demands multinational political will. A rights-based approach would integrate the principles of the international human rights system into the struggle against trafficking. But this will happen only if human rights can be made central to policy-making, which is a political choice. It is time to rethink the struggle against trafficking by adopting this broader approach to policies and programmes.
The UAE's fight against trafficking has so far concentrated on prohibition and prosecution. Protection of the victim has been only a secondary consideration, and the causes and the consequences of trafficking have mostly been ignored. In a human-rights approach, prevention, prosecution and victim protection must be given equal emphasis. This means going beyond criminal law to involve labour law, migration law, external relations and development policy.
The principle of non-discrimination could, experts say, be well-suited to a human rights analysis of the root causes of trafficking, namely poverty, inequality in education and hiring, violence against women and other issues.
What is needed now in the UAE is a fundamental review of counter-trafficking policy, so that at long last the offensive can be taken against the traffickers. The review needs to be conducted in cooperation with local and international NGOs, civil society and the international community.
First this review would ensure that existing measures do not operate contrary to the desired goal of long-term prevention of trafficking. Attention can then be directed at deeper, systemic problems. The cycle of trafficking and re-trafficking will be broken only once a holistic approach is adopted.
Captain Mansoor Hassan Albalooshi is a Dubai police offer and PhD candidate at Lancaster University Law School in the UK. Dr Gyan Basnet is a researcher in International Human Rights Law and an Advocate in the Supreme Court of Nepal