Bringing Light to the Darkness of Human Trafficking (Trafficking in Persons)

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Earlier this week, Julia Crawford from discussed the reasons why the International Criminal Court (ICC) has failed to prioritize human traffickingwhy the International Criminal Court (ICC) has failed to prioritize human trafficking. These can be boiled down to three systemic obstacles: lack of evidence against criminals, stigma, and domestic laws that fail to protect the victims they should be assisting.

Rape was first recognized as a crime against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993. It continues to be employed as a weapon of war. Yet while international legal mechanisms allow for its prosecution–however difficult the process–the motivations and pull factors for engaging in sexually violent acts during times of conflict remain under-explored.

The use of sexual violence by terrorist organizations has become widespread, systematic, and strategic. As the findings from research I have previously published indicateindicate, groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram and, increasingly, the Taliban and Ansar Dine, target victims for sexual violence along ethnic, religious, and political lines. At the same time, a rise in abductions indicates an increasing overlap between the use of sexual violence by terrorist groups, and trafficking for profit. Kidnapping accounted $10-30 million in revenues for Islamic State in 2016 alone.

Many individuals who join terrorist organizations exhibit controlling and violent behavior, something that tends to reported by their partners only after their abusers have died. Ondogo Ahmed, a British citizen who fled to Syria to join Islamic State, did so to escape the remainder of his jail sentence for a rape conviction. Testimony by Nihad Barakat, a Yazidi teenager held captive by Siddharta Dhar–a British national–casts light on the propensity of fighters to take personal slaves whilst in Syria. These cases reveal a type of terrorism that is sexually motivated. Individuals with prior records of violence are increasingly attracted to the sexual brutality permitted by membership of Islamic State, which normalizes and legitimizes such conduct through its propaganda.

Worryingly, the stigma associated with sexual violence can often prompt lethal retaliation, with victims subjected to additional horrors in the form of “honor” based violence (HBV), untreated diseases, unsafe abortions, and economic exclusion. The result is a chain of injustice, initiated by terrorists, compounded by unresponsive states and societies that criminalize and punish survivors, to the benefit of traffickers seeking to profit from power imbalances between the genders.

Gathering information and raising awareness in this area is far from easy. The non-state armed groups which employ sexual violence strategically, as a tactic of terrorism, neither recognize international legislation or borders. This makes their crimes hard to monitor, let alone prosecute. As a result, statistics on sexual violence are haphazardly collected, and under-reported.

When it comes to sexual slavery, understanding the hybrid nature of trafficking and terrorist networks will be a prerequisite for targeting what has become a joint criminal and terrorist enterprise. Greater focus needs to be placed on identifying trafficking networks, in order to understand their connections with terrorist groups, and terminate existing supply chains. Gaining control of the extensive records kept and maintained by Islamic State would enable a better understanding of the financial sales and trades that underpin sexual violence, as well as the connections between terrorists and traffickers that manifest as revenue streams.

International law enforcement assistance–particularly from countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States–should deploy greater resources to enhance their monitoring of human traffickers in general, and by extension, their links to terrorist networks. Denying profitability will be essential, and steps should be taken to ensure that traffickers found to be trading with terrorist groups are targeted with economic sanctions.

It is also essential that voices of victims are heard, and that procedures are instituted to ensure that justice is done. The U.K. has an important role to play, by undertaking capacity building in affected countries, and where possible, collecting and preserving evidence. Domestic prosecutions regarding British fighters of Islamic State will be contingent on their return to the United Kingdom. However, it is imperative that where foreign fighters are identified, a robust legal framework is in place to ensure that their sexually violent crimes are prosecuted. This can be done through customary international laws that are part of British law, as well as domestic legal provisions that outlaw terrorist acts. For instance, the Terrorism Act of 2006 and the Modern Slavery Act 2015 should be interpreted broadly, so that they encompass the full spectrum of crimes that have been committed by individuals.

Terrorist groups increasingly use the appeal of sexual violence to attract recruits, gain revenue, and spread fear. They also sustain trafficking networks, whose corrosive practices bleed into organized crime. A response to both appalling practices will be necessary for their prevalence to be brought to an end.

Nikita Malik - Contributor

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