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Human Trafficking Center

The UN’s Approach to Combating Human Trafficking


Aug 2016



By Jocelyn Iverson, Director of Communications and Social Media

The United Nations (UN) has long been seen as the global leader for issues concerning human rights.  The relatively nascent anti-human trafficking movement is no exception, as can be seen by the adoption of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (referenced as the “Palermo Protocol”) by the General Assembly in 2000.  The Palermo Protocol was an essential document in that it set forth the first global, standardized definition of human trafficking, as well as a three-pronged approach consisting of prevention, protection and prosecution (the “three Ps”).  But what has the UN done since the enactment of the protocol?  How is it assisting nations in the realization of the three Ps?  As with many movements, there has been a learning curve, and the UN has had to take into consideration its scope as well as its resources.

Initial Action

The first program rolled out by the UN was the Global Initiative to Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT), which was launched in 2007 and planned as a finite program with an end date of December 2014.  The topic of human trafficking, as well as the UN.GIFT program, were mandated under the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) from the beginning.  This fact is significant because it dictated the frame through which human trafficking was viewed, and led to more of a crime-control approach rather than a rights-based approach.  Since the movement was rather young, and many countries still did not properly understand what human trafficking was, UN.GIFT focused largely on awareness raising and strategic partnerships.  This was vital work in order to build the necessary infrastructure to effectively combat human trafficking, but was rather high-level and did not address many of the varied nuances of how trafficking may present itself in different countries or regions.

A Need for Reliable Data

The UN quickly recognized the lack of reliable data on the subject, and as a response launched the Global Report on Trafficking in Persons in 2009 under UN.GIFT.  Although the program under which it was originally drafted has come to an end, the Global Report shall continue as a biennial report, scheduled to be released later this year, showing trafficking flows as well as regional data.  Unlike many other reports on human trafficking, the data used in the UN report is strictly that which is reported by its member states, which has its pros and cons as a methodology.  It is beneficial in that the numbers are solid and are not based on assumptions or extrapolations, which can lead to significant errors.  However, on the negative side there may be large populations missed either due to the hidden nature of the crime, or possibly a lack of transparency in government reporting.

Bringing Timely Issues into Focus

In 2015 the UN launched a new initiative, the Global Action Against Trafficking in Persons and the Smuggling of Migrants (GLO.ACT).  The four-year joint initiative between the UN and the European Union will focus on both human trafficking and migrant smuggling, as interrelated issues, in 15 strategically selected countries.  By narrowing the scope of this new initiative, the goal is to be able to craft and implement a comprehensive approach to combatting human trafficking and migrant smuggling which is tailored to the country selected.  Since migrant smuggling is such a significant issue at the moment, and one which can greatly contribute to human trafficking, this is certainly a program with a great deal of potential.

Valuable Resources for Governments and Researchers

Beyond the initiatives, actions and reports aimed at combatting human trafficking, the UN has made available a number of other resources.  There are toolkits, training manuals and draft legislation, which can all be extremely useful for governments with limited resources available to commit to anti-human trafficking measures.  There is also a Human Trafficking Knowledge Portal, which consists of a case law database and a database of relevant legislation within member states.  The portal is constantly being updated, and the available information continues to expand, which can be very useful for organizations to reference quickly and easily.

A Leading Voice But Limited in its Action

The United Nations must continue to be a leading voice in the fight against human trafficking, but this is not something it can tackle on its own.  The organization operates with limited resources, and thus must depend on partners in government, civil society and private business to carry out the actions that bring about real change.  Additionally, the UN is constrained by its respect for state sovereignty, and cannot act without the consent of its member states.  Hopefully through a continued dedication to sound research, as well as more tailored programs such as GLO.ACT, the UN will provide the guidance needed to comprehensively combat this global crime.  

Photo Credit: Yann Forget (own work) via Wikimedia Commons


About the Human Trafficking Center

The Human Trafficking Center, housed in the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, is the only two-year, graduate-level, professional-training degree in human trafficking in the United States. One way graduate students contribute to the study of human trafficking is by publishing research-based blogs. The HTC was founded in 2002 to apply sound research and reliable methodology to the field of human trafficking research and advocacy.

Founded in 1964, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies is one of the world’s leading schools for the study of international relations. The School offers degree programs in international affairs and is named in honor of its founder and first dean, Josef Korbel.


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