Published on Thursday, December 14, 2000 by the Inter Press Service
Trafficking in Human Beings Reprehensible, Says UN's Kofi Annan
by Thalif Deen
UNITED NATIONS - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has denounced one of the most ''reprehensible'' violations of human rights: the global trade in human beings.

''I believe the trafficking of persons, particularly women and children, for forced and exploitative labour, including for sexual exploitation, is one of the most egregious violations of human rights which the United Nations now confronts,'' he said in a statement released Wednesday.

According to the Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM), human trafficking is a thriving 7-billion-dollar annual global business with links to the international arms trade, drugs, prostitution and child abuse.

In the United States alone, an estimated 500,000 women and children - from Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe - are trafficked into the country each year to work as prostitutes, servants or in sweat shops in the garment industry.

Addressing a UN conference in Palermo, Italy, Annan said Tuesday that the trade in human beings was both ''widespread and growing''.

It is rooted in social and economic conditions in the countries from which the victims come, facilitated by practices which discriminate against women, and driven by cruel indifference to human suffering on the part of those who exploit the services that the victims are forced to provide, he added.

The four-day conference, which is for the signing of a new UN Convention Against Transnational Organised Crime, is being attended by ministers and delegates from over 120 countries.

Urging member states to sign and ratify the Convention, which includes provisions against human trafficking and smuggling of migrants, Annan said the fate of these most vulnerable people is ''an affront to human dignity and a challenge to every state, every people, and every community''.

The Convention - the first legally binding UN treaty to fight organised crime - was adopted by the General Assembly last month and will enter into force after 40 countries have ratified it.

For the first time, the convention offers the international community universally recognised definitions of several fundamental concepts of criminal law linked to organised crime. The 41 articles in the convention define concepts such as ''organised criminal group'', ''serious offence'' and ''proceeds of crime''.

The new treaty is expected to strengthen governments against all forms of serious crimes, including money laundering, arms smuggling, international fraud, drug trafficking and corruption.

The need for a convention has arisen due to a surge in transnational crimes prompted by globalisation. Open borders and advanced technology, which have propelled international trade and global commerce, have also led to an increase in cross border crimes.

Annan said that criminal groups have wasted no time in embracing today's globalised economy and the sophisticated technology that goes with it. ''But our efforts to combat them have remained, up to now, very fragmented, and our weapons almost obsolete,'' he added.

Annan pointed out that the Palermo Convention, however, gives a new tool to address the scourge of crime as a global problem.

''With enhanced international co-operation, we can have a real impact on the ability of international criminals to operate successfully, and help citizens everywhere in their struggle for safety and dignity in their homes and communities,'' he said.

The signing of the Convention, he said, would be a watershed event in the reinforcement of the UN fight against organised crime.

Addressing delegates, the Italian Minister of Justice Piero Fassino said: ''We are no longer citizens of individual countries, but of the world. Crime is more organised at a transnational level while technology has increased mobility for all. Both licit and illicit interests have become transnational and new figures of illegality have arisen, as have new forms of crime.''

The Italian government, he said, is supporting a proposal under which 25 percent of the confiscated proceeds of organised crime will be paid to the United Nations to help fight transnational crimes.

UN Under-Secretary-General Pino Arlacchi of Italy, executive director of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, said that until recently, the Sicilian city of Palermo was the centre of one of the world's most notorious mafias.

''Our presence here this week, and adoption of the Convention, is a potent symbol of hope. It is a lesson for those who believe that cross- border crime is invincible - too big or too complex to be faced down by the rule of law,'' he noted.

Arlacchi, who is best known for his relentless battle against mafia syndicates in his home country, paid tributes to two judges, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who were killed by the Sicilian mafia back in 1992.

''Their deaths remind us that the struggle against organised crime is never cost-free. This is the reason why this Convention is a milestone measure a living tribute to the thousands of men and women who have lost their lives in pursuit of a world free of mafias and criminal violence,'' he added.

''I hope that today will be the beginning of a process - one that will result in the reclaiming of many cities around the world - for peace, justice and the rule of law.''

Copyright 2000 IPS