Image Source: Council on Foreign Relations
October 2019
REGION: Middle East and North Africa, Western Hemisphere

In the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Discussion Paper, “The Security Implications of Human Trafficking,” authors Jamille Bigio and Rachel Vogelstein expose the role that human trafficking plays in decreasing national security, rule of law, commitment to justice, and overall peace. Highlighting the pervasiveness of human trafficking and its implications in both developed and developing nations, the paper argues why the international community should place increased attention on human trafficking and suggests concrete policy measures to address it.

According to the paper, human trafficking occurs in almost every country in the world and is a serious human right crisis. By definition, it includes sexual exploitation, forced marriage, forced labor, recruitment and exploitation of child soldiers, and forced removal of organs. Human trafficking is particularly prevalent in locations with violent conflict, a high population of displaced persons, and weakened rule of law. Conversely, human trafficking destabilizes communities, exacerbating the armed conflict and displacement that further drives trafficking.  For terrorist organizations and other armed groups, human trafficking is a lucrative means to finance activities, recruit fighters, gain regional control, and carry out terrorist attacks.

Human trafficking has significant implications for U.S. interests, particularly in national security, commerce, global development, and international cooperation:

  • National Security: Armed groups, like ISIS and Boko Haram, use trafficking to “boost recruitment, generate revenue, expand military capabilities, and support operations, including by using victims as combatants, messengers, cooks, porters, and spies.” In ways such as these, trafficking advances the strategic aims of terrorist groups.
  • Finance and Commerce: Human trafficking creates financial instability that is detrimental to U.S. commercial concerns. According to the paper, human trafficking is a high-revenue, low-risk commercial activity that allows armed groups to generate significant profit. Traffickers then use legitimate financial services to manage and launder money; in turn, banks that fail to identify illicit activities can be charged fines and remediation costs, in addition to the reputational harm that discounts institutional credibility and reduces public trust.
  • Development: The paper argues that human trafficking is contrary to intrinsic American values, including freedom, dignity, and a commitment to justice and the rule of law. In failing to identify and hold accountable traffickers, the United States loses its credibility to act on other human rights issues and reduces its standing as a leader in global development.
  • International Cooperation: The paper argues that United Nations peacekeeping missions contribute to human trafficking, particularly sexual exploitation. According to the article, UN Peacekeepers have been accused of over 100 cases of sexual exploitation in the conflict-ridden territories in which they serve. In this case, sex trafficking specifically undermines the UN’s ability to promote peace and stability and degrades public trust in the international institutions of which the Unites States is part.

Broadly, the paper advocates for public-private partnerships with the White House; the intelligence community; the Departments of Defense, Justice, State, and the Treasury; multinational corporations; and USAID to “disrupt and dismantle the criminal networks and terrorist groups that exploit conflict-related human trafficking, while prioritizing the prevention, prosecution, and protection from human trafficking in conflict contexts.” The paper also gives twenty-eight specific suggestions for the U.S. Government, including the following legislative and justice sector-focused reforms:

  • Urge other governments to adopt legislation allowing data sharing related to suspicious financial activity;
  • Report the number of human trafficking cases investigated and prosecuted;
  • Increasing surveillance of human trafficking related to armed conflict and terrorism by U.S. intelligence agencies and law enforcement;
  • Focus on conflict when adopting policy on human trafficking;
  • Pass legislation that requires U.S. social media companies to monitor suspicious online activity; and
  • Pursue charges against the Islamic State and other terrorist organizations for human trafficking for increased accountability.

Lastly, the article includes several short case studies of the connection between conflict, terrorism, and human trafficking in Iraq, Libya, Myanmar, and the Northern Triangle.


NOTE: This summary is produced by the Rule of Law Collaborative, not by the original author(s).

The Security Implications of Human Trafficking

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