Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law Stanford University


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January 11, 2013 - CDDRL, FSI Stanford, PHR News

Combating human trafficking requires a regional approach, says Stanford scholar

By Sarina A. Beges

Asia is a major source and destination for victims of human trafficking. The region's booming sex tourism industry, China's appetite for Burmese child-brides, and widespread poverty foster a black market that goes unchecked. Governments often have little incentive to combat the internal and cross-border sale of people, sometimes profiting from revenue generated by sex tourism and a cheap, unregulated shadow labor market.

Helen Stacy, director of the CDDRL Program on Human Rights and a FSI senior fellow, says now is the time to address human trafficking and the mechanisms to fight it in Asia. As U.S. foreign policy pivots toward Asia, human rights issues are becoming integrated into regional discussions on trade and economic development. According to Stacy, regional trade blocs - such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) - are using their collective strength to get serious about human rights and curb trafficking.

Stacy, a lawyer by training, has dedicated a great deal of research to examining the shifting landscape of the international human rights movement. Her 2009 book, Human Rights for the 21st Century: Sovereignty, Civil Society, Culture, highlighted the success of sub-regional organizations in using their economic, political, and security cooperation as a platform to pursue human rights issues.

Stacy points to one of Africa's sub-regional organizations - the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) - as a surprising benchmark in pursuing a collective plan of action against human trafficking. The 15 ECOWAS nations signed harmonized legislation outlining how to enforce laws and punish offenders.

Building off this research and her recent travels to Asia, Stacy is writing a new book that will examine how regional and sub-regional institutions in Africa and Asia are able to successfully enact and enforce human rights agreements. 

Why the emphasis on regional and sub-regional institutions when examining human rights enforcement?

Africa, Europe, Latin America, and Southeast Asia have created regional bodies for country-to-country dialogue in their region. Given the vastness of their population and territory, sub-regional groups are now forming to advance economic and security cooperation. Intriguingly, the African and Southeast Asian sub-regional bodies principle purpose is economic cooperation, which makes their human rights activity very different from either national government or the international level human rights activity. Countries of varying political interests and economic capacity that had no interest in human rights are now negotiating cross-border human rights agreements with their regional neighbors. They are now being swept into a “regional group-think” approach to human rights.

Why focus on Africa and Asia?

Africa and Asia are huge markets for the U.S. and Asia holds China, the other world economic superpower. In Africa, China is consuming resources at a staggering rate but with scant attention to human rights. The U.S. must manage a complicated dance about trade and human rights in its negotiations with China. China is also a huge economic presence in Southeast Asia, and with the U.S. diplomatic “pivot” to Asia, it’s the right time for the U.S. to be focusing on Asian Pacific human rights.

What is ASEAN's role as a sub-regional organization in Southeast Asia?

ASEAN is a free trade organization that has really started to gather its forces since the Asian financial crisis. At the same time, Asian national governments have realized that their relationship with China makes them vulnerable. On the one hand they want China’s investment money; on the other hand they want to assert their own national goals and standards and not be consumed by China’s huge demand for resources. ASEAN understands that it must have institutions of good regional governance if they are to be taken seriously by the ASEAN Plus Three countries (China, Korea and Japan), or beyond to the U.S., Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.

Why does ASEAN care about human trafficking?

There aren't any accurate statistics of the number of victims whose bodies are being sold – that’s just an unfortunate reality of any black market. Global estimates are that 27 million people are enslaved, half of them children. That’s more today than the entire 300-year long Atlantic slave trade. Governments are realizing that if they want to claim national governance credibility they have to at least acknowledge the problem, sign human rights agreements, and start cooperating with their neighbors.

What are the steps ASEAN is taking to combat human trafficking?

ASEAN has committed itself to a trafficking agreement in 2014. They signed their first human rights convention in November 2012. I have been meeting with the country representatives here at Stanford and overseas and this is a serious diplomatic cadre. The U.S. has its own ambassador, which again is all part of its pivot toward Asia. President Obama made a landmark speech about human trafficking in September 2012 and the U.S. Agency for International Development is now incorporating anti-trafficking programming into their agenda. There has never been this level of international understanding of human slavery as a global phenomenon. My interest lies in seeing how the regional and sub-regional organizations respond to this moment.

What are your plans for your next book?

The book is about new actors, markets, and technologies that yield both good and bad human rights outcomes. The number of “deep-pocket” non-governmental groups is growing exponentially: both helpful ones like philanthropic organizations, and worrying ones like black market and underground political organizations. One way or another they have profound influences upon the actions of national governments and regional and sub-regional institutions.

How does human trafficking factor into your research?

Human trafficking is my lens because it provides a unique window into a country and region. It provides information about the status of minorities; levels of health, education, and poverty; and a national government’s commitment to human rights and the rule of law. A trafficking analysis shines light on when regional co-operation, economic aid, and philanthropic assistance improves human rights. It also reveals when corrupt governments profit from predatory black market trade in humans, guns, and drugs. If we understand this better we can guide intelligence professionals, civil society, communications people, and policy-makers in human rights reform.

Stacy will be discussing her evolving research agenda on human trafficking, with a focus on Burma's current human rights challenges, at the weekly CDDRL seminar on Feb. 7. For more information, please click here