Prevention, Prosecution & Protection: The World’s Commitment to Combat Human Trafficking & How We Move Forward

This year, the 65th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW65), the UN’s largest annual gathering on gender equality and women’s empowerment, took place from March 15 to 26th, under the theme:

Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls.

Like most things over the last year, the sessions occurred virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

This past year, parallel events organized by non-governmental organizations (NGOs) also took place virtually. I was privileged to speak on a panel this year at a parallel event on the topic of human trafficking, its relationship to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and how to tackle this problem into the future.

This blog highlights a few of the things that I spoke about on this panel.

SDGs and Human Trafficking

In 2015, the leaders of all the UN’s Member States agreed to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development – a set of universally applicable commitments to be achieved by the year 2030. Out of the 17 SDGs, trafficking in persons is specifically mentioned in three targets under three goals: 5 (Gender Equality), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth) and 16 (Peace Justice and Strong Institutions).

 Target 5.2

Target 5.2 advocates for the elimination of all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.

Target 8.7

Target 8.7 calls for taking immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 to end child labour in all its forms.

Target 16.2

Target 16.2 calls for ending abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children.


While the adoption of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development appeared to renew the world’s political commitment for the protection against trafficking in persons, there are some dangerous assumptions preventing us from achieving these goals.

Assumption 1: We have the data

We live in a metrics-obsessed world in which we are constantly looking for ways to quantify and qualify both our problems and our successes. This is no different in the anti-trafficking space. As noted by the World Economic Forum, “without being able to paint a clear picture of the size of the trafficking problem, it is difficult to attract attention, to solicit money, and to show how well we are doing.”

While there have been strides in some areas and sectors with respect to research methodologies, we simply do not know how many people have been or are being exploited – or the amount of money that such exploitation is generating. This is equally true in Canada. In Canada, we are missing data in Newfoundland and Labrador, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, and all three of the Territories. We also have barely scratched the surface of trying to understand and measure how human trafficking has an impact on Indigenous peoples in this country.

Assumption 2: Anti-trafficking laws are enough

When it comes to this issue, we often think that what is missing in both North America and around the world is stronger laws and greater enforcement. And while that’s true, we have another major issue: lack of training.

In Canada, many Crown prosecutors are not trained on how to bring trafficking cases forward. There is also lack of training among judges. This is a significant problem since lawyers often rely on judges’ expertise and experience handing down similar sentences, and when untangling the complex web of human trafficking rings.

In addition to lack of training, around the world we are seeing deficient aftercare systems for survivors. We know a person who has exited a trafficking situation has a wide range of immediate and long-term support and resource needs, from legal services and health care in the short-term, to employment in the long-term. We continue to see a lack of safe spaces for survivors, a lack of transitional housing, and a lack of day-to-day support or counselling services.

Assumption 3: Technology is the answer

We live in an age in which technology is generally considered the answer to all problems. Technology, in particular the Internet, has enabled sex trafficking and sexual exploitation to become the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world. Like any other “successful” business, sex traffickers rely on online marketing and communication tools to ensure a steady cycle of demand and supply. The increasing use of the Internet has changed the nature of trafficking and how it must be addressed.

The sad reality is that we are seeing an increase in child sex trafficking victims being exploited online around the world. And perpetrators often make their first connections to victims on the Internet.

Traditionally, sex trafficking was establishment-based – it was carried out in brothels and bars. But technology creates a situation in which you don’t have a permanent location. It’s very mobile. All a trafficker needs is a computer, webcam and an internet connection. These individuals can operate anywhere – a café, a trafficker’s home, a parked car. Online technology gives traffickers the unprecedented ability to exploit a greater number of victims and advertise their services across geographic boundaries.

So what do we do with these assumptions? And how do we as advocates move forward to combat this issue?

Everyone has a unique role to play – the social worker, the physician, the police officer, the teacher. As a lawyer, one of the major gaps I continue to see today is the lack of training among lawyers, Crown prosecutors, and judges about the plight of human trafficking – even in their own country. People often consider Canada a leading country in human rights, and yet Canada is considered a transit and destination country for human trafficking. The sad reality is that many Canadians, lawyers and judges included, are unaware that many of Canada’s victims of human trafficking are born and raised here.  We can and must do better.

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