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U.N. Expresses Concern that U.S. Anti-Trafficking Policies May Criminalize Trafficking Victims

March 17, 2014

 U.N. Encouraged By State Laws that Decriminalize Trafficking Victims Wrongly Prosecuted for Prostitution


March 17, 2014 

Contacts:  Cindy Soohoo, Director, CUNY Law’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic,, (718) 340-4329              

Geneva, Switzerland – Friday, the U.N. Human Rights Committee urged the U.S. to do more to address the root causes of trafficking for labor and sexual exploitation.  The Committee expressed concern that U.S. anti-trafficking policies lead to secondary victimization. The Committee noted that in addition to being victims of human trafficking, victims of sex trafficking often have to suffer being accused and convicted of the crime of prostitution. The Committee noted that 16 states are looking into ways to decriminalize victims who are wrongfully prosecuted for prostitution and asked what the U.S. was doing to address the issue on the federal level.

U.S. officials maintained that the U.S. has a “victim-centered” approach in combating trafficking.  However, the Committee expressed concern about policies that lead to prosecution of “those who have engaged in criminality as a result of their previous victimization because of human trafficking.”

The comments came as part of the Committee’s two day review of the U.S.’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), one of three human rights treaties to which the U.S. is a party.

“Criminalizing trafficking victims is a clear violation of the U.S.’s international legal obligations,” says Cynthia Soohoo, director of the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic (IWHRC) at the City University of New York School of Law. “By raising these issues with the United Nations, we aim to shed light on the serious harms that result from overzealous policing of the sex industry. The U.S. government can and must do more to ensure that its policies and practices do not result in the arrest and detention of individuals trafficked into the sex trade.”

Advocates from IWHRC and its partner, the Legal Aid Society’s Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project, traveled to Geneva to raise the issue of criminalization of victims of sex trafficking with U.S. government representatives and the Committee.

The Committee’s concluding observations will be issued at the end of the month.

IWHRC recently issued a new report describing the alarming consequence of the U.S’s emphasis on a criminal justice approach to trafficking: trafficking victims are often treated like criminals rather than being recognized as victims of a crime. “Treating trafficking victims as criminals subjects them to the trauma of arrest, detention, prosecution, and sometimes deportation, and criminal records impose lasting consequences on the lives of trafficking survivors, including barriers to safe housing and stable employment” says Suzannah Phillips, IWHRC Clinical Fellow and primary author of the report. “Criminalization also fuels mistrust of law enforcement, undermining the U.S. government’s efforts to bring traffickers to justice.”

The report also highlights that 16 states have passed laws to enable trafficking survivors to essentially erase criminal convictions that were a direct result of the trafficking situation. In New York State alone, 38 survivors of trafficking have collectively had over 350 convictions for prostitution related offenses cleared from their criminal records. In addition to modifying policies that inadvertently criminalize trafficking victims, IWHRC and Legal Aid are calling on the U.S. to promote passage of similar laws throughout the country to ensure that survivors of human trafficking have access to an effective remedy when their rights are violated.


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Related Categories: General News, HRGJ, IWHR

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