Human Trafficking, Conflict, and Security

Friday, June 7, 2019
Migrants disembark a Libyan Navy boat at a base in Tripoli, Libya, after they were stopped by Libyan coast guards. Libya has become a major hub for human traffickers smuggling African migrants by boat to Italy. September 29, 2015. Ismail Zitouny/REUTERS
James Cockayne

Director, Centre for Policy Research, United Nations University

Sarah E. Mendelson

Professor and Head, Heinz College DC, Carnegie Mellon University

Jamille Bigio

Senior Fellow, Women and Foreign Policy Program, Council on Foreign Relations

The scale of human trafficking around the world is staggering, affecting populations across regional, ethnic, and religious lines. Trafficking is not simply a gross violation of dignity and human rights—it is also a security challenge. Trafficking is exacerbated by armed conflict and helps bankroll operations for transnational crime syndicates and violent extremist organizations. James Cockayne and Sarah E. Mendelson join us to discuss the intersection of human trafficking and conflict, and the potential to address human trafficking through national security efforts.


BIGIO: Good afternoon. Thank you all so much for joining us today for today’s discussion. We’re thrilled that you could be there. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations. My name is Jamille Bigio. I’m a senior fellow with the Council’s Women in Foreign Policy Program. Our program has worked for over fifteen years now to analyze how elevating the status of women and girls advances U.S. foreign policy objectives, including prosperity and stability.

I want to take a moment before we begin to thank our advisory council members as well as Humanity United for its generous support for today’s discussion. I also do want to remind everyone that the presentation, discussion, and the question and answer period will be on the record. We’ll be posting a transcript of the discussion to our website to help share the insights that we cover today with a broader audience interested in this issue.

Human trafficking is a global phenomenon that occurs in almost every country in the world. But it takes on particularly abhorrent dimensions during and after conflict. That’s what we’ll focus on today. Some forms of trafficking that are particularly prevalent in the context of armed conflict are sexual exploitation, enslavement, and forced marriage. It takes on different forms in conflict. Forced labor to support military operations as one example. We’ll talk about other forms. Recruitment and exploitation of child soldiers, and the removal organs to treat harmed fighters or to finance operations.

We also see traffickers targeting forcibly displaced populations. So at a moment where migration is at higher levels today than ever before, and when we know that an estimated 40 percent of all newly internally displaced people are precipitated by conflict and violence, then this becomes an ever-more critical area to look at how human traffickers use migration routes to deceive people into fraudulent travel arrangements and job opportunities. And in this context, we also see some specific vulnerabilities of refugee women and girls to sex trafficking and forced marriage.

Yet, as we look across the policy and program response, we see that few efforts have addressed the specific intersection of trafficking, and national security, and conflict, or have sufficiently addressed the compounding effect of conflict and migration on trafficking patterns. So that’s what we’re going to be looking at today with our esteemed guests.

I am thrilled to be joined by James Cockayne, the director of the Center for Policy Research at United Nations University and Sarah Mendelson, who’s the distinguished service professor of public policy and head of Heinz College at Carnegie Mellon University. She also held senior positions at the U.S. mission to the U.N. and at USAID, where she advanced trafficking priorities.

So let’s start first with understanding the issue. So we know that human trafficking is an affront to human rights and dignity, but it also has criminal and security concerns associated with it. So if I could turn to James and Sarah to help us unpack what those concerns are. Do you want to go first?

MENDELSON: First of all, thank you so much, Jamille, for having us, and the Council on Foreign Relations. So, yes.

Before we get started, can I just see a show of hands of people who are deeply ensconced in combatting human trafficking, consider themselves experts, just to have a sense of where we are? OK. OK. [A few hands go up.] So part of what I’m going to talk about briefly is related to a report I wrote almost fifteen years ago at CSIS called Barracks and Brothels that looks at human trafficking in and around the peacekeeping operations in Bosnia and Kosovo. And I was rereading it on the train this morning. And I have to say, I’m very upset that a lot of what I wrote is still true. I mean, it’s incredibly relevant still. 

To directly respond to your question, the overlapping networks of people who traffic in guns, narcotics, and people present a source of money, organized criminal networks in and around conflict zones. So, number one, it is an issue of fast cash that is then flowing into the zone, the theater that you’re working in, and it undermines the very thing that you’re doing in terms of peacekeeping. To the extent that the U.N., NATO, DOD, contractors, or uniformed service members are involved, it is misconduct. And misconduct is always a threat to security. But having people understand that connection at senior levels at the U.N., at NATO, and at DOD is an ongoing battle. The topic is under-resourced, it’s under-focused. There are no senior folks working on it, as far as I can tell. So just to open it up there. 

COCKAYNE: Great. Again, thank you so much to the Council on Foreign Relations, and it’s really a pleasure to be here with you, Sarah. Sarah was a really instrumental part of the discussion at the United Nations, which is where I hang out a lot of the time, on the other side of the island. But it’s a pleasure to come a little further west and uptown to share some ideas with you.

I thought I’d start maybe, Jamille, by sharing a few numbers to give us a sense of scale, and scope, and geography, and how the general problem of modern slavery and human trafficking interrelates with the specific problem of conflict. And you’re going to probably hear me slide between those two terms—modern slavery and human trafficking—today. Generally, modern slavery doesn’t have an international legal definition, but it is increasingly the umbrella political term used to cover a range of forms of exploitation that do have very specific legal definitions, including human trafficking, forced labor, forced servitude, forced marriage, and so on. 

By the best estimates from the International Labor Organization, there are currently roughly forty million people in modern slavery around the world—forty million. I’ll give you another number, 192. Roughly one in every 192 people alive today are in that kind of exploitation. It’s a pretty astonishing number when you think about it. Now, if you think about 192 people that you know, probably none of them are in that situation. Which means that somebody else knows two people in 192 to get to that average. 

So obviously this is a problem that is not evenly distributed around the world. But also the best estimates are now telling us that it is in just about every country in the world, in one form or another. That 192 leads to another number, which is nine thousand. If we wanted to bring that number to close to zero by 2030, which is one the Sustainable Development Goal targets—this is the U.N.’s agenda for sustainable development by 2030—then we would have to reduce the number by nine thousand every day to get close to zero by the end of 2030. 

How are we doing? Short answer, we have no idea. We’re working on getting a better idea, but to give you a sense, the country that is thought to have the best track record of identifying and removing people from that status is Brazil. And Brazil has fifty thousand cases of documented removal, successfully, over the medium term, in twenty years. Fifty thousand in twenty years. We need nine thousand per day globally. So there’s every reason to think that we are a long way from addressing this problem.

Now, of the forty million, twenty-five million are thought to be in forced labor and fifteen million of those in Asia. Seventy percent of all victims in the whole forty million are women or girls—70 percent. More of them in commercial sexual exploitation than in non-sexual labor trafficking, if I can call it that. So, again, there are differences in geographies, and the types of exploitation, and the way that people find themselves in this status. What has all of that got to do with conflict? Well, essentially, we’re talking about forms of extreme exploitation, which are obviously the result of major power differentials.

So people find themselves in these situations because they don’t have access to a reliable income or a livelihood, or they’re physically isolated. They’re in some way at a massive power differential from a potential employer or exploiter—whether that’s in a sweatshop or in an IDP or refugee camp. Now you think about what conflict does. Conflict massively disrupts the social system, the legal system, the political system, and puts lots of people in highly vulnerable situations, especially women and girls. So what we’re seeing with conflict, and we have increasingly good science to back this up, is that it’s a driver of trafficking in the kinds of ways that Jamille described so nicely at the beginning there, but also that trafficking is, in turn, fueling conflict, because it’s a source of cash for the groups that can harness it. And increasingly we see it’s also an ideological tool for enforcing that power differential, that political domination over groups. And maybe I’ll stop there for now.

BIGIO: As we look at why this issue is of concern, the next question is what now are we doing to address it? You talked about the need to reach the broader SDG goals. What do we see happening within the narrower space of the security implications of human trafficking and its linkages to conflict, instability, terrorism, peacebuilding? Policymakers are certainly beginning to recognize that it’s an area that they need to do more in, and we see some progress by member states, by the United Nations, civil society. What are some promising steps being taken in this area?

MENDELSON: This is a story that really goes back to 1999. When you look at human trafficking and modern slavery in the modern era, a lot of the leadership actually came from the United States as the First Lady Hillary Clinton was very involved in getting the Trafficking Victims Protection Act written in Congress. It was bipartisan. It is still very much bipartisan. And the story from sort of ’99 to 2000, when it’s adopted, through to 2019 is one of a number countries, dozens around the world, putting in place laws that conform with an international protocol, which was also adopted in 2000. So there is a legal definition of what human trafficking is. We don’t have to argue about it. It’s been agreed to. Nearly 170 countries have signed onto this definition.

So there’s this—countries that care about their international reputation align with this definition. They start training. They have laws in place. The problem is there is a sort of bottom third of countries. And not surprisingly, on that bottom third list, or tier three as the State Department would say, are countries like Syria, Iran, Russia, Sudan. So you see the places where there is conflict or countries that are fueling conflict, not only do they not care about their international reputation, this tier-ranking system isn’t helping. Let me just say that there’s also what came from the sort of 2000 wave is a paradigm that focuses on prevention, prosecution, protection, and then as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also put it, partnership. I’ve noticed that J/TIP has recently taken out that fourth P. But both for this work and certainly the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Goal 17 is about partnership, partnership is critical.

But if you have those four Ps, there’s been a lot of focus on prosecution, for reasons that make lots of sense. But the truth is, we still have a culture of impunity. I would quibble a  bit with the number that James threw out of forty million. The truth is, for many years, the U.S. government was comfortable with the number twenty-point-one, I think it was—twenty million. Regardless if it’s ten million or five million, we do know the number of prosecutions globally. And that was less than twenty thousand last year. So good news in terms of laws in place, good news in terms of a whole sort of counter-trafficking movement erupting. And the SDGs give us enormous opportunity, which we’ll talk about in a second.

On the security side, in a very short span of time—I was doing interviews in 2000 with the military saying to me, this is ridiculous. Why would we need a policy? And by 2004, we had policies at DOD, U.N.—actually, I think the order is U.N., DOD, and then NATO. So everybody’s got policies in place on combatting human trafficking. But these zero tolerance policies have, by and large, yielded zero prosecutions. They have zero resources. There’s zero leadership. So we have a lot of work to do. 

Now, when we were in the Obama administration, there was a moment where we got the interagency together, and we had the intel folks in the room, and we got them to be thinking about, OK, this is a critical part of their mission as well, particularly in areas that are difficult to track, conflict zones. So there was some progress. But if you don’t have leadership inside the White House asking, what have you done for me lately, it’s not as if either the intelligence or the DOD folks are going to turn on a dime and focus on this. So it’s just this ongoing process of we’ve got a tool, how do we use that tool, and how do we make sure that the resources are there? We’ve lost some leadership in Congress on this, certainly on the Senate side. Senator Corker was a very strong advocate on these issues. 

COCKAYNE: Can I pick up from there?

BIGIO: Please.


Because I broadly subscribe to Sarah’s analysis, but I’m maybe a little more optimistic in my outlook. To give you the headline first, what I mean by that is I think there is a growing recognition that the criminal justice tool, while central and important, has natural limitations, especially in conflict contexts, and we have to embed a criminal justice-based approach in a broader, more holistic, and increasingly what people talk about is a more systemic approach. Using not just penal levers but financial leverage, political leverage, yes, also security leverage.

Let me just tease that out a little bit. If we think about the places where human trafficking and conflict intersect directly at the moment, they’re quite specific places. We’re talking about, for example, Myanmar and Cox’s Bazaar, the largest refugee camp in human history. We’re talking about the Sahel, and certain parts of sub-Saharan Africa. We’re obviously talking about Iraq-Syria, where it has been a major factor. We’re talking about Libya, where it is also a major factor but takes quite a different form. Libya is increasingly a slavery-driven political economy, with militias fueled by control of rents over both an internal market for forced labor and export market for forced labor. And we’re talking about Central America, and the Northern Triangle, where it’s not necessarily armed conflict but there’s no question that organized human trafficking and other forms of organized crime that are linked with it are driving mass displacement with all sorts of implications for this country.

Now, what’s common to those areas, although they all look quite different, is no effective criminal justice system. Just from a strategic level, it’s evident that relying on criminal justice approach, which is what the PalermoProtocol does with its criminal justice paradigm, is going to come up against natural barriers in armed conflict and structural violence contexts. Hugely important when we’re talking about sweatshops or about forced labor in nail salons on Manhattan, or about the use of trafficked labor to manicure lawns in Southwest United States, but maybe not such an effective tool in these places.

So what other tools do we have available? Well, I think increasingly policymakers are reaching for those tools, and recognizing that there are other tools connected to the penal system, the criminal justice system, that may provide other kinds of leverage. The security tools that Sarah pointed to, political leverage in certain contexts. Think about Libya. There is political leverage in the way that the negotiations around the future of Libya are going on that may be relevant to thinking about how those militias intersect with that slavery-driven economy. And increasingly the financial sector as well. 

Here I want to pay tribute to the Mission of Liechtenstein, which has been at the center of an initiative with the governments of Australia, of the Netherlands, and also with the support of Muhammad Yunus, who is a Nobel laureate and microfinance pioneer. The Liechtenstein initiative for a financial sector commission on modern slavery and human trafficking is all about working with the financial sector to figure out where is that leverage to influence the way that systems work.

And you might say, well, what does Park Avenue have to do with this problem? Well, the reality is that it’s embedded in investments, and anti-money laundering systems that are central to identifying that leverage. A hundred and fifty billion (dollars) a year is the best estimate of the money coming from these forms of exploitation. That’s flowing into and through the financial system somewhere. And some of it is tied to conflict.

Think about how the minerals are mined in eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo in order for us all to be able to whip out our little magic gadgets that we all walk around with. In every one of these smartphones there are minerals, many of which come from conflict-affected communities. And in many of those contexts, forced labor is at play in mining those minerals. This is huge industry that we’re talking about, with a big financial footprint. And investors, banks, commodity traders, hedge funds, a whole range of different financial sector actors do have leverage over these businesses. So the commission is looking at what that looks and developing a roadmap that will be published in September to help the financial sector lean in in playing a bigger role to address this problem.

I think one of the key messages you’re likely to see come out of that work is this idea that modern slavery isn’t a bug in the way our current global economy works. The fact that there’s forty million people and that the number just keeps replenishing itself suggests it’s actually a feature of the operating system. So if you want to change that outcome you have to change the system, and not just marginally, you have to do some deep surgery into the system to make this kind of risk unacceptable in the financial system, in the global economy as a whole. So I’m quite optimistic that there are these creative ideas bubbling to the surface. But I fully agree with Sarah, if that number of prosecutions remains at twenty thousand, then all the conversations you’d like with Park Avenue and Wall Street will ultimately be ineffective. There has to be enforcement of the law.

This kind of exploitation is illegal under international law in every situation. There is absolutely no exception. It’s one of the three or four things in the world, along with genocide, where that’s the case. And yet, we just don’t enforce the law. And we have to.

MENDELSON: So I want to go back to this issue of the Sustainable Development Goals. Now, if we don’t have a lot of human trafficking experts in the room, I’m guessing that there’s probably not a lot of awareness of this framework that we agreed to, 193 member states, in 2015 that runs through 2030. It’s universal. It applies to all of us. And in several pieces, in several elements, rights are woven through. And there’s specific commitments around human trafficking. In the goal around gender, 5.2, in the goal around decent work, 8.7, and in the goal—or, the cluster of goals around peace, just and inclusive society, 16-plus, again commitments to eradicate human trafficking.

This collective framework, for me, it’s the opportunity to greatly expand awareness of this issue. And I’m working with colleagues from the International Youth Foundation with some  support from The Rockefeller Foundation, to grow the next generation of leaders on this issue, what we call “Cohort 2030.” People who were born after 1980, who have the most to lose or gain by how much we implement the Sustainable Development Goals. This project has elements working with mayors. I work at a university, so universities are a piece of it. But we’re interested in finding youth around the world, getting them to know about this agenda, and going way beyond the clutch of human trafficking experts that are either around Turtle Bay or near the White House in Washington, D.C.

Those are important nodes, but we need to have your families, your neighbors, your kids saying: I want slave-free chocolate! I want to know where my clothes come from! And I want to know that my clothes are slave free! I want to make sure my banks are not supporting it, or my investments are not supporting it! And I think if we get to that point where there is this collective—truly a movement. Because I don’t think we’re there yet. I think there are a lot of positive things that have happened in the last two decades, but we haven’t broken through yet. And if we can figure out how to harness Cohort 2030, I think there is the opportunity. I think young people are very interested in ethically produced goods, when they can afford them.

We recently had a pro-bono survey by Kantar in Pittsburgh, where Carnegie Mellon is, where we asked young people about a variety of issues. And the number-one issue they were very interested in being involved in was combatting human trafficking. So we think there’s untapped potential there.

BIGIO: I think it is incredibly important to identify where there is untapped potential at different levels. Whether it is among the general public, or in the private sector and financial institutions, or among governments and at the United Nations. It’s interesting to see the Security Council in the last few years take this issue on and talk about trafficking for the first time ever. And then for the first time, use sanctions tools against human traffickers. James, could you talk about what’s happened at the Security Council?

COCKAYNE: Sure. I’m a little hesitant to, because you probably have the world expert in the room, and it’s not me. But maybe actually me giving you an outline of what has happened, and then turning to Sarah, means she doesn’t have to humble-brag. I can just brag on her account. Because what Sarah managed to achieve while she was an ambassador at the United States mission to the U.N. was pretty remarkable on this file.

The Security Council has changed. You might not have noticed, but over the last twenty years—there was a period when big thematic ideas could be brought into the council and you could do quite creative things, pulling levers in quite creative ways here. And I think a good comparison for us here is children in armed conflict. So there’s quite a complicated set of mechanisms within the Security Council that allows the council in a variety of ways to look at whether armed forces not only nonstate armed groups but also state armed forces are using children in different ways. And it doesn’t just have to be those in situations that are already formally on the agenda of the council. This mechanism can actually look beyond that.

Well, that era is over, because the great power politics has shifted and there is not that much space now. So instead, we see issues like this being brought in less through big thematic resolutions and more through attachment to specific cases where it might be arising. But just as this window was closing, Sarah managed to drive a giant truck into the council and force a debate on human trafficking itself and the adoption of a presidential statement, which is really crucial on these issues. And that then set the scene, forced open the space for other actors coming after to get more practical and use the leverage that she had generated. Specifically, as Jamille mentions, the council, really as a result of Dutch leadership, in, I think it was, October of last year adopted specific targeted sanctions against six individuals in Libya under the standing Libya sanctions regime. They put these six people on the list precisely because of their involvement in human trafficking.

Now, there are arguments that you can do something similar elsewhere, because human trafficking actually already meets the threshold required for listing under a whole range of other different sanctions regimes. For example, in—most obviously in Syria or Iraq, or also potentially in sub-Saharan African countries that are already on the council’s agenda. But how far we get with that, how far the council goes with that, I think depends heavily on what comes of these first six listings in Libya.

And what is interesting is that states are finding it quite difficult to implement those sanctions because it’s not clear where the assets of these individuals are, whether they are part of the formal financial system or whether they are off book. We need to think collectively how we develop that financial intelligence to allow the bankers and the anti-money laundering regulators to effectively identify and go after those assets. So still a lot of proof in the pudding, I would say.

MENDELSON: Those of you who serve or have served in government know it’s a team sport. So Ambassador Rice and Ambassador Power also had something to say about this. But it’s the case that when I showed up at USUN in October 2015 we were just beginning to plan what we would do with the presidency of the Security Council in December 2015. And like good team sports, we had different teams competing within the team on different topics. And as the ambassador to ECOSOC, I was not formally accredited to the Security Council. But Ambassador Power wanted to open it up. All good ideas. And so, of course, having worked on human trafficking in peacekeeping operations, I wanted to have the possibility of addressing trafficking and conflict for the Security Council. And finally, the decision was made that that’s what we would do.

But then came the really powerful part, which is Nadia Murad was the person that we had speak to the Security Council. And her presence and her power were such that I think the Security Council—this was the first time in seventy years the Security Council addressed this issue. And the power of this person, and the youth of this person, and the vulnerability of her, was such that people were just left speechless. And there became this sort of movement—the Spanish wanted to hold their presidency on trafficking, and then the British wanted to do it. And, thankfully, it sounds like the Dutch have used their chair to good measure. And of course, Nadia was made a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

It was an unusual moment. But, you know, also, from her perspective, at that time there were still thousands of Yazidi women and girls being held in captivity. So a win in the U.N. context doesn’t necessarily translate to a real change outside. We’re forever grateful to Nadia for being willing to come and speak with us and open that door, but there’s a lot of work yet to do on this.

BIGIO: As we think about what are the avenues to actually see some real change, we’d love to open it up to questions from you. Please.

Q: I’m just wondering if you, James, or any of those involved with the Liechtenstein initiative might give us a little bit more background, are there champions within the financial sector for this? Exactly what is the roadmap for leverage, because on the ground you see a lot of worthy NGOs working kind of systemically to provide protection, you know, in-situ, in a situation that is so fundamentally stacked against the recipients of the programming, has to be kind of demoralizing.

COCKAYNE: Well, I’ll try to be brief, but you might have to force me, Jamille, because I get a bit excited about this, because there is an amazing coalition coming together to do this work. The commission itself is about twenty-five members. Everything from two survivors of modern slavery who, amazingly, each have previously done work in or with the financial sector—one after surviving child slavery in Ghana became a bank manager and the other was trafficked to Canada and did amazing work after she escaped exploitation with the financial sector on these issues.

From the financial sector, we have organizations like Barclays, ABN AMRO, the chief investment officer of the largest hedge fund in the world, the British development finance institution, several large pension funds, a sovereign wealth fund. Myriam, chime in if I’m forgetting key actors. But also numerous actors from the anti-slavery movement as well. Dr. Jean Baderschneider who is the director of the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery and was previously the head of procurement for Exxon globally. We have Humanity United. Ed Marcum is represented there. Freedom Fund, and so on. So it’s a pretty amazing coalition. They’ll publish their roadmap at the General Assembly on the 27th of September. And the roadmap will basically look at how all the different parts of the sector have roles in identifying and tackling modern slavery. 

I can’t say too much more, because the commission is meeting for its final meeting in The Hague in three weeks, and we’ll be working on the draft then. But it’s quite a broad front of—broad waterfront. Everything from remedy to the use of financial technology in this field. They’re also very focused on practical tools. And one of the most exciting initiatives coming out of their work looks like it will be a project focused on smoothing the path of survivors back into the financial system. 

So many survivors, to their great misfortune, find that even once they’ve escaped exploitation they have a really difficult time getting back into the formal financial system because their financial identity has been hijacked by their exploiter. So they may be lucky enough to win a job, and then they go to bank that first paycheck and they just can’t open a bank account because there are all sorts of red flags around their name, because it did pop up in a conviction, or because it’s in some way associated with fraudulent activity on a bank account. So we’re working with banks, with regulators, with credit bureau agencies to explore a path back into the system in several different jurisdictions.

So very exciting. I’ll try to stop there. (Laughter.)

BIGIO: Please.

Q: Thank you. 

BIGIO: And if you could introduce yourself. 

Q: I’m Judith Bruce. I’m Population Council. And the areas we work in I would call trafficking reservoirs, basically.

And so I appreciate trying to deal at the backend, but it seems to me—or, and it seems to me; it’s not a but—that if there’s a possibility of raising awareness. The data exists obviously to identify products which—whose value-added is more likely to be slave-produced, right? That’s one group. But there are also places from which they are going to come, right? So you have—the demographic and health surveys have information that can tell you—I’ll give you an example from Sierra Leone—of a portion of girls ten to fourteen living apart from parents and not in school—unambiguously a problem. At one point in Sierra Leone, the district in the south, Pujehun, 37 percent of the ten- to fourteen-year-old girls living apart from parents and not in school—of those girls who are in that category.

And so you can map the world right now, I think, probably, and say: Here are potential reservoirs. And the proactive measures that could be taken to both see those girls quantitatively and organize them, give them save and supportive spaces, protective assets and so forth, because obviously you want to stop it. And it’s a job market area, scarcity and sexual exploit—these are all one great bundle. So I don’t know if anything’s being done on that front, but the data certain exist to presumptively put that forward and identify—and, of the countries you listed, I’ve worked in six of them. And I just take the map and say: There, there, there, there, and there. And those girls—it’s—not all of them will be trafficked but, you know, they have a much higher proportion than girls in another locale.

MENDELSON: So can I say a world about collaboration and research? I spent about a decade at a think tank in Washington, CSIS, where one is responsible for raising money to be able to do work. I did a lot of work on Russia. I did work on trying to close Guantanamo. I did work on human trafficking. Raising money to do research on human trafficking is among the most difficult things. The—first of all, there are very few funders. By and large organizations have not wanted to fund research—if you work on human rights, but maybe you don’t work on human trafficking. If you work on human trafficking, but you’re working with these NGOs on the ground. When I got to USAID and I was on the other side of the table, I went to my colleagues at Humanity United and said: Let’s have a donor dialogue. Let’s bring some folks together and see if we can encourage, nudge along some bilateral donors, some private donors. So that was on the margins of UNGA in 2013. And I don’t think—by the next year I had gone back to CSIS—I don’t think it’s ever happened again.

There’s just this strategic lack of collaboration. And I thought the SDGs being adopted was going to change that, and I haven’t seen it yet. I think you’re right. There is tons of data out there. But supporting a team, whether it’s in bilateral donors or whether it’s in universities or think tanks, to map that has been a real challenge. I hope it changes.

COCKAYNE: I want to follow the same pattern as earlier, and entirely agree but be a little bit more optimistic about where we are. It’s precisely because people like Sarah have been ringing the bell on issues like this that I think we’re beginning to see some movement. And it comes back to your point, that in a sense this is really a development issue. If we are arguing that trafficking is one way that massive power differentials get turned—get exploited, literally, then we have to think about how we address those power differentials. And as Sarah says, we have this incredible mobilizing framework now in the Sustainable Development Goals broadly, and specifically in the various targets on trafficking and modern slavery that could offer a framework for developing a shared strategy for resource mobilization, prioritization, and allocation.

I believe that is feasible. I agree, it’s not happening right now. What we do see is something called Alliance 8.7, which is an initiative of the International Labor Organization. Many countries, many civil society actors, researchers, and so on. But that has not yet generated this kind of sense of shared framework. There are actors, we are amongst them at U.N. University, that are trying to bring the development community in, because we won’t get there with the current levels of funding. We have to mainstream this issue into the heart of the development community’s thinking.

So if you asked the development community at the moment—and I’m talking here about the World Bank, the Regional Development Banks and so on—if you asked them human trafficking, question mark, they’ll say, oh, yeah, I think there’s somebody, you know, Wing E, third office on the right, maybe spends 10 percent of their time on it.

MENDELSON: Probably the youngest female. (Laughs.)

COCKAYNE: It’s a marginal issue. If you go to the economists at the World Bank and say: What does forced labor and human trafficking have to do with costs of capital, market access, productivity gains, you’ll get a shrug. So these are the kinds of areas where researchers are now thinking about how do we make that change, how do we articulate this in a way that these actors have no choice but to address these questions, and mobilize much bigger pools of money?

BIGIO: You mentioned the economists and the development actors. And it’s true too of the security actors, and those working in peacebuilding and conflict prevention, that despite the face human trafficking fuels conflict, drives displacement, undermines international institutions when it’s committed by security forces and by peacekeepers, the conflict prevention/peacebuilding security community also doesn’t think about trafficking. And some of this points to a little bit of what Judith is mentioning, that there’s—there are—these data points are out there, but there are also silos where the trafficking community works separately from the—even in the conflict space—sexual violence community, the child soldiers community. These are all connected issues, but even there, there isn’t a connected conversation that helps kind of lift up all of those issues.

We have another question, please. You could introduce yourself.

Q: Hi. I’m Yasmeen Hassan. I’m from Equality Now. And we are a global organization working on women and girls, right? And sex trafficking is one of our program areas. I was very interested, you said in the beginning that 70 percent of the victims of trafficking are women, and overwhelmingly into the commercial sex trade, or for commercial sexual exploitation. Yet, in the presentation, we haven’t heard much about that. We’ve talked about forced labor. We’ve talked about in conflict situations. And so to me that’s the crux of the issue. And, you know, when you—and also to Judith’s work, enough work isn’t being done on prevention and that around decreasing vulnerabilities to women—of women who get entered into the sex trade. To your point donors are very wary, and I can be testament to that, about funding this work, because there’s not agreement among the women’s rights community as to what the best approach is. 

There’s one view that the commercial sex trade is the things that people are trafficked into, so we have to address the commercial sex trade. The other view is that we have to make the commercial sex trade safer for women, because it’s a form of work. And as long as there’s disagreement there, I mean, I feel we cannot move forward in addressing this issue. I was wondering if one of you can talk about that, because I think that’s the big elephant in the room. 

MENDELSON Yeah. Yeah. Let me say one comment on the previous and then go to the elephant in the room. Or, maybe this is another elephant in the room, which is the lack of—or the decline of U.S. global leadership on a variety of issues—reproductive rights, but also multilateralism. And at USAID, you can’t talk about the Sustainable Development Goals. So how, if you’re the largest bilateral agency in the world, the one doing the most on democracy and human rights, the one that has led on combatting human trafficking, do you lead but you can’t then tie to this agenda? 

And it’s not that colleagues in the field or out in the world don’t want to, but leadership is very resistant. We have a situation where we’re told that the White House has said: Don’t use that frame. Don’t speak of it. We had leadership in the U.K. a couple years ago. The prime minister made this a big issue. Prime Minister May convened a head of state meeting that she wanted on the margins of UNGA on this issue. [But now] she’s obviously entangled with lots of other issues. So we’re kind of waiting for others to lean in, and we haven’t seen this yet.

On this issue—you’re absolutely right. There are arguments inside communities. There’s also a big component of culture. When I would go and interview the military on this issue they would say, oh, well, this is prostitution. They have a view or a schema of prostitution. And it’s, like, well, but actually, prostitution is illegal in the conflict zone that you are working in. Oh, I didn’t know that. Well, so therefore how does that change what we’re talking about? It changed somewhat, because it meant that it was an illegal activity, and there were criminals involved. 

There are a lot of bruises and infighting that has disabled the community from walking in the same direction. I found, though, in the work that I was doing, certainly in the Balkans, back over a decade ago, we figured out a way to get through that. We didn’t have those debates. It was really about trying to get the policy enacted. And obviously there’s still much more to be done in terms of all the things that you said. But you’re right, it’s a huge huge issue. And it has turned a lot of people off. They sort of walk away and they say: You know what? I’ve got other things that I want to work on that I find are more fruitful, or less fraught.

COCKAYNE: Just two quick comments, if I may. The first is just to come back to that 70 percent. Look, I think it’s important to recognize that that’s not completely or even majority women in commercial sexual exploitation. It includes also women in other forms of exploitation, domestic servitude in particular, agriculture, other things. The forms of exploitation are, perhaps unsurprisingly, gendered. So if you look at the construction industry it’s overwhelmingly, but not entirely, male. If you look at domestic servitude, it’s generally a feminized workspace. It’s mainly women who are exploited in that context. And so it’s true more women are exploited in commercial sexual exploitation than men. But that 70 percent, there’s nuances within that. Just to make that clear.

Otherwise, I think you’re absolutely right that there are some very difficult, long-standing, frankly at times dogmatically held positions. We at U.N. University are unusual, in that we’re a U.N. actor but we’re a university. So we believe our role in this space is very much about protecting space for science to influence policy. And whenever we’re confronted with this kind of bipolar position in policymaking—and it happens a lot in this space, and not only around this differential—we really believe heavily in investing in science and understanding what works. 

So what we need to see here is investment in longitudinal analysis with sufficient scientific rigor to be able to say reliably to policymakers: In your context this policy approach is going to have these results. This policy approach is going to have these results. And probably, in each case, it’ll be a mixture of pluses in some—something in the plus column, something in the minus column. And then it’s the role of the policymaker to have an engagement with their stakeholders and constituents and come to a reasoned, informed decision. 

But what we see going on a lot in this space, and it’s not hard to figure out why, sex and politics mix quite effectively if you’re a politician. These positions are not necessarily well-informed by science. They’re about pressing buttons, appealing to people’s emotions, and ideological positions, and drumming up the base into a bit of a lather to bring them out to vote or to be passionate in their campaign for you. So it’s very important to just keep hammering away at not only investing in science but protecting that space for science and for facts in the policymaking process. And that’s got to be from the local level, from the municipal level, right up to the Security Council. 

BIGIO: Any other questions? Please. If you could introduce yourself.

Q: Howard Stoffer, U.N. and University of New Haven.

Your last comment provokes me to say one more giant gorilla in the room. One is, of course, the fact that United States is no longer a leader across the board anywhere in the world. But the second is that there’s an attack around the world now on science. You know, just yesterday stem cell research was just set back twenty years. The president denied that there’s climate change, or global warming. And in other countries, there is a real reaction against scientific method, scientific achievement, and scientific data. And I agree with you 100 percent, I really do. But I’m concerned that if we rely on scientific data alone, that won’t win the day with the kind of environment we have that’s both this right-wing political environment emerging in the world, both in Europe and the United States and perhaps in Australia as well, and this emerging sense that fantasy is more important than science. I worked on these issues for many years. But I do feel that we have to identify that the anti-science and the lack of American leadership in the world is really bringing all these issues into a dead end, to some respects. 

MENDELSON: Well, let me just say something that is cautiously optimistic, which is that actually in this work that I’m doing on youth and the SDGs, what is true is that at the federal level you don’t see the Trump administration talking about this. But honestly, it was difficult when we were in the Obama administration to do a lot of work on it, because it really happens at the local level. And what we see happening now is that actually cities, together with universities, are stepping up. I just hosted the mayor of Pittsburgh, a private sector partner, at Carnegie Mellon for a standing room only, packed discussion about how Pittsburgh is aligning with the SDGs. And it’s not just climate. It’s understanding this importance of a peaceful, just, inclusive society. And I think you’re going to see more from Carnegie Mellon in general on this issue.


Yeah. I think I would just say things can change. You know, you probably all know yesterday was the 75th anniversary of D-Day. What you may not be aware is five years to the day before D-Day, this country chose to turn away a ship full of refugees trying to escape persecution in Europe. So only five years between that policy stance and the investment of lives, blood and treasure, that really led to the post-war world. Things can change. I’m very optimistic about the future. I’m absolutely amazed, as maybe some of you are, by the—I can’t say it in Swedish—climate strike Fridays that Greta Thunberg has been leading. That’s based on a belief in science. You need the science. It doesn’t speak for itself. You need the advocacy and advocates.

But young people are recognizing that there is strong scientific evidence of threats to their world at the climate level, at the labor level. They are extremely effective advocates. I think those of us who are getting a bit gray probably just need to get out of the way and let them take control of their own future. (Laughter.) But what we can do for them is equip them with that evidence and that information, and with the access to leverage and power, and the support and guidance. They do need guidance. Greta’s, what, sixteen? She’s a sixteen-year-old girl. She needs support and help. That’s what we can offer them.

BIGIO: Well, we are thrilled that both Sarah and James are sitting on an advisory committee for a report that we are writing right now, along with Cindy McCain, Nadia Murad, a member of the Liechtenstein initiative, are all advising us on a report on the security implications of human trafficking. So stay tuned. We’ll be publishing that in the fall, helping us understand human trafficking in conflict, and laying out a very specific policy agenda of what more can be done in this space to help move the needle.

So with that, please join me in thanking Sarah and James for joining us today. (Applause.)


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