U.N. Expert on Trafficking Recommends that the U.S. Stop Arresting Persons for Prostitution
In partnership with the Exploitation Intervention Project at The Legal Aid Society, the Human Rights and Gender Justice (HRGJ) clinic at CUNY School of Law successfully urged the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Trafficking to address the harmful impact of criminalization of trafficking victims.
Following a 10-day visit to the U.S., a U.N. expert on trafficking questioned the focus and impact of the U.S.’s current anti-trafficking strategies, which rely heavily on prostitution arrests. In order to protect sex trafficking victims, Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, urged the U.S. “to stop the practice of arresting persons – especially women, girls and LGBTI [individuals] – engaging in prostitution.”
In an official statement, the Special Rapporteur recognized the U.S.’s commitment to address trafficking and its “impressive number of laws and initiatives,” but she noted that many anti-trafficking initiatives have “an adverse impact on trafficked persons.” In particular, laws and policies that focus on arrest of people engaged in prostitution result in fear of law enforcement that make it more difficult for trafficking victims to come forward. Further, criminal convictions make it difficult for victims to gain stability and independence by imposing substantial barriers to obtaining housing, education and employment.
Kate Mogulescu, a supervising attorney at The Legal Aid Society, who met with the Special Rapporteur in New York, stated “In the U.S., anti-prostitution policing has been reframed as anti-trafficking policing. Our clients continue to suffer the real and harmful consequences of their ongoing arrest and prosecution. We urge careful consideration of the Special Rapporteur’s recommendations as a way to eliminate trafficking, abuse and exploitation, and reduce the devastating impact of criminal legal involvement for victims of trafficking.”
The Special Rapporteur recommended that the U.S. adopt “a human rights based approach to trafficking which includes the de-criminalization of those who engage in prostitution” and “encourage[d] law enforcement officials to use their discretion to avoid arresting sex workers as they can be potential victims of sex trafficking.” Because services and immigration and other relief to trafficking victims are often conditioned on cooperation with law enforcement, which many victims are unable or unwilling to provide, she also urged government authorities “to refrain from conditioning services and residence status to victims’ cooperation with law enforcement authorities.”
“The Special Rapporteur’s statements echo other U.N. human rights bodies that have repeatedly emphasized that the U.S should take a victim centered approach to trafficking. Under international human rights law, it is clear that trafficked persons must not be prosecuted for violations that were committed as a direct consequence of their situation as trafficked persons and that criminal liability should not be imposed on minors under 18,” said Cynthia Soohoo, Director of the Human Rights and Gender Justice Clinic at the City University of New York.
The Special Rapporteur recognized that some states have taken steps to decriminalize minors and to allow trafficking victims to vacate criminal convictions.
She urged all states to pass “safe harbor laws” with the goal of “ensuring that all minors involved in the sex industry are shielded from criminal prosecution” and emphasized the need for vacatur laws that enable all trafficking victims to “vacate criminal convictions for acts they were compelled to commit.”
During her visit to the U.S. from Dec. 6-16, the Special Rapporteur, met with federal, state and local officials, businesses, civil society and trafficking survivors in Washington D.C., New York, Texas and California. Her official statement is available here.
Exploitation Intervention Project
Legal Aid Society
Director, Human Right and Gender Justice Clinic
CUNY School of Law