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World: UNODC Chief Talks About Trafficking Challenge

UN Undersecretary-General and UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa (photo UN.GIFT/Mario Romulic) (Courtesy Photo) RFE/RL caught up with UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa on the sidelines of the UN-organized Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking in mid-February to discuss international efforts to combat "modern-day slavery." He told correspondent Eugen Tomiuc about the birth of the Global Initiative To Fight Human Trafficking (UN.GIFT) and the obstacles to more effective policing.

RFE/RL: The Vienna Forum to Fight Human Trafficking managed to gather together some 1,000 participants from around 100 countries. International organizations, UN agencies, NGOs, antitrafficking activists all sent the message that human trafficking -- whether it is meant for sexual exploitation, forced labor, or organ transplants -- has become a huge problem for the modern world. But beyond whistle-blowing and statements of sympathy for the victims, what do you expect from this event?

Antonio Maria Costa: I have great expectations which are becoming every day more realistic. When we started this initiative about a year ago -- the initiative is called UN.GIFT -- Global Initiative To Fight Human Trafficking -- we did not really know where we were heading. We had a good, strong starting point, namely the protocol, the international agreement [to establish UN.GIFT], but there was a lot of skepticism about whether much could be done about it, [because] of lack of money. But eventually all of this was overcome. We have a good sense of direction, we have the resources provided [in the form of a grant] by the United Arab Emirates, and of course this forum is proving a resounding success. Not necessarily yet in terms of outcome --- we shall see -- but in terms of participation of different components of our society. What I would like is to have some very concrete leads into the future -- operational programs, commitment by joint ventures to do more and more together, so I have great expectations about it.

RFE/RL: When RFE/RL raised the question at the conference about the new technique used by sex traffickers, which is perversely called "happy trafficking," [eds: traffickers are promising to release some of their sex victims and even reward them financially -- on condition they return to their home countries and bring back one or even more women to replace the released one], interest about the issue was huge in our broadcast area. However, there was no immediate sign that international organizations have a solution to fight this new trend.

Costa: It's not easy for me to give you a silver bullet [solution] to stop this "happy" trafficking. But certainly, having just recently talked to field victims we do see a pattern there where the individuals who go through this ordeal, they are perhaps physically freed at one point. But mentally they are not. They are mental slaves even after their body is free to move and has been rescued physically. So we have to invest many more resources, intellectual, financial and others in understanding what goes on in the mind of the trafficked people.

We somehow assume they can switch on and off -- namely, having been rescued they can go and meet the police and talks to the police frankly and openly about their ordeal. They cannot. They cannot as we were shown in the mock trial [presented at the forum] because they are mesmerized, at times they don't even know the language, they are afraid, they are afraid of being recaptured, they are afraid of retaliation on their families. So all of this proves that the pattern -- you call it "happy trafficking" -- the pattern of the predator being able to go back more and more to the same victim, or using the same victim to hook up to another victim, that pattern is also the consequence of the mental exploitation. And this is something I promise to Radio Free Europe as well as to other media as well as to [UNODC] member states to work a lot more on, because we are really just scratching the surface of this problem.

RFE/RL: Somehow it looks like the traffickers, the criminals, are always one step ahead of the authorities. It’s as if they were waging a highly efficient guerrilla war against a conventional armed force. It causes frustration among victims and observers, and raises doubts about the efficiency of the authorities’ approach.

Costa: I certainly agree with some of the many points you raised. First, criminals in general are ahead of the game in the sense that they write their own rules. We, law enforcement officials, governments, international organizations have rules, we cannot go beyond certain rules. So by definition these free operators are always ahead of the game, whether we talk about money laundering or clandestine arms trading or drug trafficking.

RFE/RL: It was said during the forum that sex trafficking has a lot to do with the way women are regarded and treated in certain cultures and societies. It is very true that at the source of sex trafficking, in many regions, women are regarded as objects which can be exploited and sold for profit. However, half of the huge profits made by sex traffickers, estimated at more than $31 billion a year, come from the industrialized world, the Western world. That makes us wonder, do Western men regard women in general the way they should?

The answer is absolutely not. I think that women and their rights are belittled in many of our societies. It's enough to look at the way the garment industry and some of the advertising campaigns are run. The way women are dressed -- or undressed for that matter -- basically naked, in posters splashed or plastered all over our cities and our screens, television and otherwise. This is a factor which is very prominently pushing sex, in a sense even sexual exploitation, right on our doorsteps, right on the screens in our living rooms, right in front of the eyes of our children.

And then, we are surprised when something happens -- a woman is exploited and so forth. The whole [Western] culture is prone to making this business flourish. So while we need to have interdiction operations and legislation to rescue victims, I think we should look at the direction our society [is heading toward] -- with so much emphasis on sex and exploitation, especially of a woman's body, even if it may only be visual exploitation on the screen or on a poster. But this is demeaning for women, this is a form of victimization of women, this is a form of putting them on the defensive, this is a way of indeed showing that there is lack of respect for women in our Western society. I wish our society were able equally to recognize that there is gigantic exploitation right here in our Western society.