Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Symposium: UNODC’s Efforts to Address Challenges to Combat Trafficking in Persons, Especially for Sexual Exploitation

Conflict-Related Sexual Violence Symposium: UNODC’s Efforts to Address Challenges to Combat Trafficking in Persons, Especially for Sexual Exploitation

[Aimée Comrie is the UNODC GLO.ACT Coordinator. This is a post in our joint blog symposium building on the discussion focusing on accountability for conflict-related sexual violence crimes associated with slave trade, slavery and trafficking, held as part of the Digital Dialogue Series, hosted regularly by the UN Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict.]

The link between sexual violence in conflict and trafficking in persons (TIP) has been at the forefront of UNODC’s technical assistance efforts for several years. It was the subject of a special Thematic Paper in 2018 and confirmed in our flagship Global Report on Trafficking in Persons  –  all of which outlined the necessity of integrating efforts to prevent and counter TIP firmly within the conflict and post-conflict responses. This post aims to show the links between organized crime and TIP especially in conflict situations, and how important it is to strengthen national accountability, including for TIP, to address the impunity gap for victims of sexual violence in conflict. There has been a growing recognition of TIP as prevalent in conflict and post-conflict settings, and the highest level of commitment from governments to address it – from landmark Security Council resolutions in 2017 and 2018 to the mobilization of donors, governments, and civil society more broadly.

What’s less often discussed is the nexus between armed and terrorist groups and organized crime. TIP is a systemic component of conflict – not only for sexual exploitation but also forced labour and the conscription of children.  Clearly, armed criminal and terrorist groups take advantage of the lack of rule of law to carry out the ‘dirty business of trafficking in persons’.  

The UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol

It is important to note that the UN Trafficking in Persons Protocol has been ratified by 178 States Parties – and the vast majority have adopted national criminal legislation. This is a strong indicator of the international consensus on the Protocol’s definition and approach. It would seem that there is unlocked potential here. Within domestic TIP legislation, we see a comprehensive and forward-looking framework with a number of benefits for victims.

The UN Protocol’s definition has three core elements; act, means, and purpose of exploitation. While the term ‘trafficking’ evokes the image of border-crossing, the Protocol does not require any movement at all – indeed evidence to date suggests that internal trafficking is on the rise. The Protocol includes both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ means of exploitation – from force or threat of force and abduction, such as seen with ISIS, to fraud, deception and abuse of a position of vulnerability. We know that emotional abuse and the humiliation of victims are two important psychological forms of control, which courts are increasingly recognizing. Traffickers also rely on more subtle means of control over their victims, taking advantage of ‘willing victims’ in dire circumstances. Within the trafficking jurisprudence, there has been an evolution in the thinking around ownership and slavery. While modern day slavery is an effective advocacy term, it can be misleading, as it suggests total ownership, when in fact a victim of trafficking may have some freedom of movement and may not look or appear or act as one might expect.

The Protocol includes clear language on consent – consent is irrelevant when the means of exploitation are present. For children, the UN Protocol is even clearer – no child can ever consent to their exploitation. The principle of the non-punishment (including non-prosecution) of victims for crimes they were compelled to commit as part of their exploitation, is increasingly recognized as an important soft law principle essential to the protection of victims.

UNODC’s Global Action to Address Trafficking in Persons and Migrant Smuggling

UNODC’s  Global Action to Address Trafficking in Persons and Migrant Smuggling, or GLO.ACT, supports the Governments of Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan as well as a separately in GLO.ACT Bangladesh, generously funded by the European Union and delivered in partnership with IOM. GLO.ACT aims to build a community of practice.

In brief, we provide technical assistance to our partners – this means that we do not investigate or document specific cases of trafficking, but we work alongside with the governments through: mentorship of key law enforcement, prosecutors and judicial officials leading the response to trafficking at the country level; empowering women leaders at the national and regional level, through the GLO.ACT Women’s Network, mentoring and coaching women criminal justice professionals; supporting legal reform and the development of effective national policies; and identifying specific routes and flows and relevant partners to support and bring together the seeds for joint investigations and looking to dismantle actual criminal networks through these.

A closer examination of the key evidential challenges facing investigators and prosecutors in regards to TIP or atrocity crimes reveals a number of striking similarities:  access to the territory, ensuring victim and witness protection and safety in ongoing or post conflict areas; overcoming the lack of official identity documentation among displaced witnesses and victims;  international judicial cooperation; building a solid evidential base relying on open source and expert evidence, as well as financial and forensic evidence, to avoid relying solely on victim evidence; and identifying key informants and insiders, whose testimony can be critical.

Perhaps most crucially, investigators of each crime set will struggle to link the underlying or individual crime with the higher-level command of the organized/armed group or leader.


In sum, TIP is prevalent in conflict situations, especially for sexual exploitation, and yet has rarely been tackled as such.  The two legal frameworks must be seen as mutually reinforcing. The fact that there are so many shared evidential challenges is an indication of the potential for increased cooperation between Member States, international organizations, justice mechanisms, and civil society.  And while yes – it is difficult to collect this evidence and mount effective investigations against higher level targets – it is not impossible, and we are regularly seeing breakthroughs.

Indeed, UNODC’s 2018 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons confirmed an important correlation – that the more time has passed since a country has implemented national legislation, the more cases are being brought forward.

This tells us that this approach is working but it takes an investment of time, resources, and capacity.

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