Human Security, IR Theories, and Human Trafficking


By: Gerald F. Witherpsoon, Sr.


     Human trafficking is an international problem and therefore poses a universal threat to human security. That is, human trafficking undermines individual and state security because all seven elements of human security are threatened when the rights of individuals are violated through coercion and exploitation. The seven elements of human security established in the Human Development Report are as follows: Personal, environmental, economic, political, community, health, and food (UNDP 1994, 24-25). Human Security provides a framework that removes victims of human trafficking from the categorization of threats to state security and places them in the proper context of individuals in need of state protection. By elucidating the attributes of human trafficking from the theoretical perspectives of realism, feminism, and a hint of constructivism, the responsibility of states to protect trafficked persons will spotlight the prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership necessary to achieve human security.

The domination and coercion existent within human trafficking is analogous to the colonial conquests of sovereign rulers that exerted control over territories and peoples. This sovereignty led to oppression and exploitation that arose from profit motives. The International Relations theory of Realism views the historical normalcy of such occasion as stemming from a state of anarchy where no higher sovereign exists, conflicting self-interests are at the heart of interactions, and therefore domination of others is necessary for survival (Standford 2013). The realist perspective is problematic because Thomas Hobbes claimed that state insecurity did not necessarily contribute to the insecurity of individuals (Standford 2013). However, the Commission on Human Security argued, “Human security and state security are mutually reinforcing and dependent on each other” (2003, 6). Finally, profit motives have left the protection and neglect of victims of human trafficking in a state of gridlock.


     According to Article 3(a) of the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, human trafficking is defined as:

“The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation” (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2013).

The following analysis will piggyback the protocol by emphasizing the female gendered, child, and sexual exploitation orient of human trafficking. It is critical to note that women have struggled for centuries to be shown equal respect or gain protection from abusive treatment. As mentioned by Helena Wojtczak, “There has never been a time, from the beginning of recorded history until the present day, in which men have regarded women as their equals” (2009). Amnesty International USA claims, “A global culture of discrimination against women allows violence to occur daily and with impunity” (2013). Women have been ostracized, shamed, and blamed for the violence they have suffered discouraging many from reporting violations of their rights (AI USA 2013). Those who do report their suffering endure long humiliating court battles where they experience little to no attention or sympathy from authorities. Nearly all cultures have normalized the subjugation of women. As a result, violence against women has been accepted by society for so long that the public has been desensitized to its sting. Still further, globalization has led to increased economic opportunities that have created pathways to security previously inaccessible to women and children. Despite the inevitable encounter of subsequent abuses, the seven elements of human security are like carrots dangled before the vulnerable victims of human trafficking. Unfortunately, traffickers have a $32 billion (USD) industry dangled in front of them (ILO 2008, 1).

Complicating Issues

            International awareness and concern is debilitated by an inability to differentiate between voluntary and involuntary attributes of human trafficking. Unfortunately, human trafficking is proportionally fed by a pool of voluntarily interested candidates. However, as the third-way feminist Shelley Cavalieri put forth, “When trafficking represents a choice under circumstances of constrained autonomy where limited alternatives are available, the capabilities approach insists that the proper intervention is to increase individual capabilities (Cavalieri 2011). It goes without saying, then, by increasing the personal, environmental, economic, political, community, health, and food security that women and children lack, the desire or interest to voluntarily submit to human trafficking would be minimized or mortified. So then, the lack of various elements of human security produces a consistent supply of interested candidates. Consequently, it would be a false sequitur to assume that women and children who become victims of human trafficking are criminals who deserve no protection.

Traditional security concerns have left trafficked victims out of sight and out of mind. Jennifer Lobasz argues, “Focusing on trafficking as a security threat to the state neglects the voices of trafficked persons, whose human rights the state is legally obligated to protect” (2009). It is important to note that the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children is a supplement to the 2000 United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UNODC 2013). In essence, it is an additional aspect of State security measures, not an overarching priority. As states focus on protecting their borders, they are forced to mitigate illegal immigration. This is problematic because human trafficking and migrant smuggling work synergistically as traffickers are oft-times forced to smuggle illegal immigrants to achieve their organizational and profiteering objectives. Simultaneously, trafficking victims may volunteer to be smuggled without consenting to the victimization that follows ( 2010). Feminists, NGOs, and security scholars have strategically framed human trafficking as a threat to state security in hopes of increasing attention and resources to fight it (Lobasz 2009). However, the drawbacks have arguably outweighed the benefits.

Moreover, the economic incentive for refusing protection to victims remains strong. Both and share congruent information indicating that human trafficking amounts to ‘modern slavery’ and there are approximately 27 million victims worldwide (2010, 2013). The UN estimates about 2.5 million people from 127 countries have been trafficked to 137 countries for purposes such as forced labour, sexual exploitation, the removal of organs and body parts, forced marriages, child adoption and begging (2008). It is important to note, the difference in numbers and report dates could lead to research complications, but in either case, the researcher would undoubtedly choose between two evils. In essence, although the UN estimates focus on women-specific trafficking (including various types) and the other two estimates focus on human trafficking in general (including both sexes), the difference can be subtracted then amalgamated to demonstrate that women involved in sexual exploitation comprise a massively unequal portion of the victims involved in human trafficking. A further analysis might indicate that sexual exploitation of women claims the most profitable segment of the trafficking industry and the older report date by the UN could indicate a rise in occurrences. Data presented by the International Labor Organization confirms that 98% of those trafficked for the purposes of sexual exploitation are women and children (2008). Moreover, it is important to note that modern slavery is a worthy term because all forms of trafficking are essentially profit-driven enterprises. According to the Polaris Project, “To sex traffickers, the “product” they sell are the women and children they control (2013).

Possible Solutions

     Because women’s voices have been suppressed out of fear of further abuse, the conscience of the global civil society must be awakened by an international awareness campaign that stresses the coerciveness of human trafficking and magnifies the oppressive treatment of individuals against their will. The four principles of Human Security should be applied to the construction of the campaign. In essence, the campaign would be people centered, comprehensive, context-specific, and prevention-oriented (OCHA 2013). Constructivists would see a solution arising from evolving interactions which could be facilitated through globalization and communication technologies that would change attitudes, interests, and social norms. Still further, the present plenipotentiaries must realize their role in shaping the global civil society. In doing so, they must abandon historical and cultural perceptions of women as inferior objects. Diana Ayton-Shenker argued well, “By rejecting or disregarding their legal obligation to promote and protect universal human rights, States advocating cultural relativism could raise their own cultural norms and particularities above international law and standards” (1995). By doing so, they would assume that cultural rights are superior to others. This is far from the truth and international law demands that one right not interfere with another. Ayton-Shenker further agued, “Traditional culture is not a substitute for human rights; it is a cultural context in which human rights must be established, integrated, promoted and protected” (1995). States must recognize that human trafficking poses a threat to national and international security. State parties have been verbally committing to punishing human traffickers since at least 1904 under the International Agreements for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic, and more commonly, the 1949 Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Persons and of the Exploitation of the Prostitution of Others (Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights 2013). Yet these commitments have not meant a reduction in the human trafficking problem. It is high time for commitments to turn into action.


     Although states should be concerned with the security of its borders, they must be careful not to ignore the prospect that illegal immigrants may be vulnerable women and children fleeing from one environment of insecurities to another in search for freedom and protection. As put forth by the Polaris Project, “Like drugs and arms trafficking, human trafficking is a market-driven criminal industry that is based on the principles of supply and demand” (2013). Therefore, states must treat human traffickers like the criminals they are and work toward swift prosecution. States should abandon traditional security approaches in order to better understand the root causes of human trafficking and its true impact on state and individual security. States must realize that by neglecting to protect the victims, they advance and contribute to human trafficking and their own insecurity. Therefore, states should embrace the five phases of the human security approach when designing, implementing, and evaluating their efforts to combat human trafficking. The five phases include: (1) Situational awareness, (2) Mapping needs, vulnerabilities, and capacities, (3) Build protection and empowerment strategies, (4) Implement in a participatory manner, and (5) Human Security Impact Assessment (OCHA 2013). Phase one could help to identify geopolitical indicators that might raise legitimate security threats to the state. Phase two could help reveal the particularities of insecurities that are more prevalent and expose currently ambiguous political objectives and identities amongst various state and non-state actors. Again, this could expose underlying threats to state security. Phase three could increase individual security, concurrently reduce the demand and profit potential of human trafficking, and thereby minimize or eliminate the consociated threats to state security. The fourth phase could generate local and international partnerships and alliances by identifying common interests during the implementation process. This could strengthen the balance of powers and increase state security. Finally, the fifth phase could provide an offensive-defense by assessing the effective potential of combative strategies. This could provide opportunity for refinement and increase the sustainability of any increase to individual or state security.

Summary-Anticipated Outcomes

     As stated in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “The classical realists do not reject the possibility of moral judgment in international politics. Rather, they are critical of moralism—abstract moral discourse that does not take into account political realities” (2013). This means their decision-making process peaks around political outcomes and the correctness of their decisions are evaluated against political advantages or disadvantages. This seems an inherently contradictory schema. That is, the very existence of such schema means the ‘possibility’ of moral judgments in international politics is automatically suppressed by decisions that produce ‘advantages’ thereby overriding any commitment to a ‘moral’ judgment. This would explain commitments to respect the rights of individuals on a circumstantial basis. Put more simply, the possibility of making a moral decision to protect victims of human trafficking is annihilated by the political will to retain the political advantages of neglecting the responsibility to protect. The echo of this notion can be heard in the voice of the genocidal Adolph Hitler in 1939 when he asked, “Who, after all, remembers the Armenians?” (ANI 2013). Therefore, the realist perspective delivers little to no hope for a swift commitment or moral judgment to prevent trafficking or protect victims as the need for relative gain is safeguarded by the current profitability of the trafficking industry. It is important to note, however, that Human Security is still evolving as a discipline, doctrine, and universal language with the potential to transform the values and norms of the international community. Therefore, in the constructivist view, human security research and practice may evolve to cement the interrelatedness between individual and state security and provide the political realities and incentives necessary to no longer consider victim negligence advantageous. Then, there will be nothing distracting states from entertaining the possibility of preventing trafficking and protecting victims. In either case, the current state of gridlock will persist until political will is transformed by the presence of a higher sovereign. Again in line with the realist view, “Each state is responsible for its own survival and is free to define its own interests and to pursue power. Anarchy thus leads to a situation in which power has the overriding role in shaping interstate relations” (Stanford 2013). To limit or eliminate anarchy would require a new world government (different from world governance). This could be realized through an evolved UN or another international organization with the capacity to formulate, implement, and enforce international law concerning human trafficking. This would require member States to agree and accept the Sovereign authority to reign in their domestic affairs or an International Criminal Court that has evolved to possess a history of documented prosecutions of international human traffickers and extradited state leaders who neglected to intervene when human trafficking occurred within their borders. The international community as an integrated unit must abandon stereotypical assumptions that sex trafficking victims have solicited their own suffering and proactively work to prevent these crimes from occurring.  States must adopt a human security approach to respecting and protecting women and victims. Most importantly, states must formulate and implement policies that increase the security of individual citizens. They will need to partner with IOs, NGOs, and other states, particularly those with a proven track record of increasing women’s protection and fighting for their rights. Finally, in the words of Confucius, “He who wishes to secure the good of others, has already secured his own.”


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