Vatican summit sets goals to combat human trafficking

Pope Francis, with Monsignor Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo at right, signs a declaration during a two-day Vatican summit of judges and magistrates against human trafficking and organized crime. The summit began on June 3. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

An international summit of judges and prosecutors hosted by the Vatican concluded its work on Saturday, June 4, by declaring, “modern slavery in terms of human trafficking, forced labor and prostitution, and organ trafficking are Crimes against Humanity and should be recognized as such.”

A closing declaration signed by Pope Francis and some 100 judges, prosecutors and magistrates from all continents also affirmed that “organized crime that aims directly or indirectly at expanding modern slavery in its above mentioned forms must also be considered a Crime against Humanity.”


The summit, organized by the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences and its dynamic chancellor, Archbishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo, at the request of Pope Francis, heard judges and prosecutors from more than 20 countries report that organized crime is able to operate for the most part with impunity across national borders, corrupting state officials and destroying 40 million lives.

They acknowledged that the justice system at both national and international levels is not as well organized and does not move rapidly.

“It’s impossible to combat organized crime if we are disorganized,” said the Costa Rican prosecutor Jorge Chavarria Guzmàn, expressing a widely shared view. Argentina’s Judge Maria Romilda Servini de Cubria put it more graphically: “Criminality travels by jet, justice goes by car!”

It was hardly surprising, then, that the first of the summit’s 10 goals, as presented in the declaration, is “to encourage each state to increase resources.” It also asks for “international judicial and police collaboration in order to raise low prosecution and conviction rates for criminals, strengthening supranational institutions for the fight against traffickers and the protection of human rights.”

Several judges highlighted the lack of resources and low conviction rates. Susan Coppedge, the new U.S. Ambassador at Large for Monitoring and Combating Trafficking in Persons, said that the United States is committed to combatting human trafficking at home and abroad, but U.S. District Judge William S. Duffey stated frankly, “We have insufficient resources to deal with the problem.” In 2014, he said, only 190 persons were convicted for sexual trafficking in the United States and “a statistically insignificant number” were convicted for slave labor, “and we don’t know the scope of the illegal drug trade in the country.”

A Mexican judge, Edgas Elias Azar, told the summit that in 2011 the Federal District of Mexico had convicted 733 persons for human trafficking, or more than all the other countries of Latin America put together. “After the United States, we are the country that has condemned most people worldwide for this crime,” he stated.

The summit’s second declared goal was for “all nations” to “recognize modern slavery, human trafficking, and forced labor and prostitution as Crimes against Humanity with commensurate sentences”—in other words, to recognize the need for appropriate national and international legislation.

“If political will is there, change can happen quickly,” Kevin Hyland, the United Kingdom’s first Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner told the summit. He noted that the U.K. Parliament approved an advanced piece of legislation in this field in 2015.

But an Argentine judge from Santa Fe, Miguel Absolo, explained how difficult it is for judges in his country to deal with human trafficking and drug trafficking. The borders with Paraguay and Bolivia are not controlled, he said, unknown aircraft can land freely, and there is much corruption of police and state officials. “All these crimes could not take place without the connivance of the authorities” he said, adding that “there is also political responsibility for the lack of prevention of these crimes.”

Several judges highlighted the immense financial resources accumulated by organized crime from human trafficking, prostitution, slave labor, the sale of organs, drug trafficking and arms trafficking. A young Argentine federal judge, Sebastiàn Casanello, said, “The way to fight organized crime is to hit them in their pockets, to seize their assets, to get the money that allows them to corrupt institutions and politicians.”

The third goal from the summit states, “assets seized from convicted traffickers and criminals must be devoted to victim rehabilitation and compensation, and making reparations to society.” The declaration calls for “the crime of money laundering” to “be severely prosecuted, because it is the process of transforming the proceeds of crime and corruption into ostensibly legitimate assets.”

In another goal, the judges and prosecutors said the “prosecution of clients of commercial sexual services should become an integral part of anti-slavery and anti-trafficking legislation, as should the knowing employment of forced labor.”

Sweden’s chancellor of justice, Anna Skarhed, recalled that when her country passed a law criminalizing those who seek or promote prostitution, the rate of prostitution dropped significantly in Stockholm and other cities but increased in neighboring Norway and Denmark. Another Swede, Chief Judge Mari Heidenborg, reported that organized crime has developed new ways of making money in Sweden by exploiting the country’s social welfare system, using poor migrants.

Many summit participants spoke about how best to assist and protect the victims of human trafficking and slave labor who are often “invisible.” Five of the goals address this issue. For example, Goal 4 calls for “the provision of adequate victim support including civil and legal aid, secure witness protection, medical assistance and support for individuals from social service agencies, especially in the case of undocumented victims.”

In a similar vein, Goal 5 calls for “in the case of undocumented victims, the issuing of temporary residence permits in the country of destination, for those wishing to remain there, regardless of their legal status in that national territory and including effective access to relevant courts and tribunals, access to free legal assistance, and job training aimed at reinsertion into the labor force.”

Goal 6 encourages efforts “to reduce delays in accessing legal support for identified victims of modern slavery,” and Goal 9 asks that “trafficked persons should never be confused with non-trafficked irregular migrants, nor being smuggled with being trafficked.”

In Goal 10, the summit participants declare, “Repatriation of undocumented foreigners should never be the default judgement upon victims, in order to avoid the risk of their being re-trafficked or resorting to illegal and humiliating activities.”

Apart from these specific proposals, perhaps the most significant news is that by organizing this summit, the Pontifical Academy, at Pope Francis’ request, is gradually building an important transnational movement with key actors to combat one of the great crimes against humanity of the 21st century.

This movement started with young people and quickly moved on to the international summits, starting with police authorities from many countries. It next gained the commitment of the main world religions and then the support of the mayors of 65 major cities worldwide. This week it involved judges and prosecutors from all continents who play a central role in this struggle for justice and human dignity. The summit was a major positive achievement.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Pope Francis has suppressed the Ecclesia Dei Commission, a significant decision with consequences for the Holy See’s relations with the priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X.
Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 19, 2019
Photo: IMDB
A new Netflix miniseries brings out the story’s aspects of adventure and conflict, with occasionally pulse-pounding results.
Rob Weinert-KendtJanuary 19, 2019
Protestors march to support a U.N. anti-corruption commission in Guatemala City on Jan. 6. Photo by Jackie McVicar.
“What they are doing not only puts Guatemala at risk but the entire region. Bit by bit, for more than a year, they have been trying to divide us. The elections are at risk. We are six months away.”
Jackie McVicarJanuary 18, 2019
“We will just do what we need to do to help people in need,” said Antonio Fernandez, C.E.O. of Catholic Charities for the Archdiocese of San Antonio.
Emma Winters January 18, 2019