Human rights and trafficking in persons


Human trafficking usually refers to the process through which individuals are placed or maintained in an exploitative situation for economic gain. International efforts to address it can be traced back to the nineteenth century. However, it is only over the past two decades that a comprehensive legal framework has developed around the issue. The adoption of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish the Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime in 2000 was a milestone that provided the first internationally agreed definition of “trafficking in persons”: “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. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”

Despite the existence of a comprehensive international legal framework, millions of children, women and men continue to be trafficked each year, in all regions and in most countries of the world. Victims may be trafficked within a country or across a border for various purposes, including forced and exploitative labour in factories, farms and private households, sexual exploitation, forced marriage and organ removal. The clandestine nature of trafficking makes it difficult to quantify the phenomenon. According to the Walk Free Foundation and ILO Global Estimates, 25 million people were subjected to forced labour and sexual exploitation in 2016 worldwide. UNODC’s 2016 Global Report (PDF) on identified victims shows that 51% of victims are women, 21% men, 20% girls and 8% boys. Among those victims, 45% have been trafficked for sexual exploitation and 38% for forced labour. In recent years, trafficking has also thrived amongst populations living in or fleeing conflict situations.

Even though our knowledge on trafficking in persons remains incomplete, it is widely acknowledged that certain factors make an individual, a social group or a community more vulnerable to trafficking and related exploitation. Discrimination in the denial of economic and social rights are critical factors in rendering certain persons more vulnerable than others. Discrimination and poverty results in fewer and poorer life choices, and may lead certain individuals to take risks and make decisions that they would never have done if their basic needs were being met. This lack of genuine choice can in turn increase the vulnerability of certain groups, such as minorities, migrants and women and girls, to trafficking. In addition to economic deprivation and inequalities, gender and race-based discrimination are important factors that may limit life choices and make some persons and communities more vulnerable to trafficking.

The links between human rights and trafficking in persons are manifold. Human rights are universal and hence victims of trafficking are entitled to the full range of human rights, irrespective of their sex, age, race, ethnic origin, nationality, migratory status or other distinction. International human rights law also recognizes that certain groups, such as women and children, require additional or special protection. Different human rights are relevant at different points in the trafficking cycle. Some are especially relevant to the causes of trafficking. This is when a violation of human rights, for instance the violation of the right to an adequate standard of living, lead to increase vulnerability of a person. Other human rights are relevant to the actual process of trafficking. In fact, trafficking and associated practices such as slavery, sexual exploitation, child labour, forced labour, debt bondage and forced marriage, are themselves violations of basic human rights and are prohibited under international human rights law. Finally, certain human rights concern the response to trafficking, such as the right to access to justice, the right to effective remedies, and the right to a fair trial.

While the link between human rights and human trafficking is rather clear, it does not necessarily follow that human rights will be at the centre of responses to trafficking. The human rights-based approach places the victim at the centre of any effective and credible action. It also extends the focus to the root causes that underlie trafficking, maintain impunity for traffickers, and deny justice to victims, such as patterns of discrimination, unjust distribution of power, demand for goods and services derived from exploitation, and complicity of the public sector. The human rights based approach also acknowledges that governments are responsible for protecting and promoting the rights of all persons within their jurisdiction, including non-citizens, and therefore have a legal obligation to work towards eliminating trafficking and related exploitation.

The UN Human Rights Office is at the forefront of efforts to promote a human rights-based approach to trafficking in persons. The Office has developed Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking (PDF) and its extensive Commentary (PDF) that aim to help all those involved in anti-trafficking efforts to fully integrate human rights into their analysis and responses to trafficking. The document includes seventeen recommended principles that address the following core areas: (a) the primacy of human rights; (b) preventing trafficking; (c) protection and assistance; (d) criminalization, punishment and redress. Additionally, eleven recommended guidelines provide practical measures for their implementation.

Feature stories

How to train cabin crews to identify trafficking victims

Meetings, Events and Workshops

Appraisal of the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking, New-York
27-28 September 2017

Studies, reports and papers

Fact sheet on HR and human trafficking (PDF)

International Instruments concerning Trafficking in persons (PDF)

Trafficking in persons (PDF)

OHCHR Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking (PDF)

Commentary on the Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking (PDF)


Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish the Trafficking in Persons, especially women and children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime

UN Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons

Alliance 8.7: Global Estimates of Modern Slavery (PDF)

UNODC Global Report on Trafficking in Persons  (PDF)

Statements and messages

Libya must end “outrageous” auctions of enslaved people, UN experts insist
30 November 2017

UN human rights chief: Suffering of migrants in Libya outrage to conscience
14 November 2017

Statement by Andrew Gilmour, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, at the High-level meeting of the General Assembly on the appraisal of the United Nations Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons
27 September 2017

Statement by the High Commissioner to the Informal Interactive Multi-stake holder Hearing in support of preparation towards the Appraisal of the Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons
27 June 2017

More news and statements


Cabin crew can help prevent human trafficking