Mark P. Lagon, Centennial Fellow and Distinguished Senior Scholar, Georgetown University School of Foreign Service
A 2012 International Labor Organization study found that at least 20.9 million people are victims of forced labor and human trafficking. One quarter, or 5.5 million, are children. Of the 18.7 million in the private economy (minus the 2.2 million exploited by states or armed rebels), 4.5 million, are victimized primarily for sex.
Child and sex trafficking persist despite promulgation of three legal instruments in 2000:
- an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography;
- the Palermo Protocol on Trafficking in Persons to the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime;
- the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act, establishing a State Department office and global report prodding other nations to fight trafficking.
They persist for two reasons. First, is the inability or unwillingness of countries to enforce existing law. Human traffickers degrade fellow human beings because the profit exceeds the risk. As long as traffickers go unpunished due to law enforcement's apathy, corruption, lack of resources and training, or blaming the victim, laws and treaties on the books are just paper.
The second reason is demand. Absent stigmatizing or punishing sex buyers, particularly of children, sex trafficking will be profitable. Moreover, demand for cheap commodities and products, and hence cheap labor, propel onerous child labor.
Since 2000, not least because of U.S. leadership, awareness of child and sex slavery has increased markedly. Over three-quarters of countries have ratified the Palermo Protocol and over two-thirds have put in place comprehensive laws on all forms of human trafficking. But there needs to be greater focus by governments, international organizations, non-government organizations, and businesses on impunity for traffickers and demand.