Who’s who in anti-trafficking?

There are three main groups of people active in anti-trafficking efforts, with considerably different approaches. Sometimes they overlap, but often they pull in opposite directions. They can be summarised as follows:

  1. Moralist, “Abolitionist” and Prohibitionist groups (both state and non-state actors)
  2. States and Governments (including law enforcement)
  3. Human Rights groups (including labour rights, migrant rights, sex worker rights and more)

Many moralist, “abolitionist” and prohibitionist groups have their origins in the days before the Palermo Protocol was agreed. Accordingly, their perceptions of trafficking are largely influenced by the earlier treaties which framed trafficking exclusively within the sex sector and focused on women and children.

For these groups, “prostitution” is itself the problem: either a vice to be controlled in the name of public morals, or a ‘vector of disease’ to be controlled for public health, or a fundamental, intrinsic form of violence against women that must be abolished. (The appropriateness or otherwise of using the term “Abolitionist” will be examined in a later post.) Strategies advocated to achieve these goals tend to focus on full or partial criminalisation of buying/selling sexual services*. Some groups who have emerged since 2000 also adopt this framing of the issue, talking primarily of “sex trafficking”, even if “and labour trafficking” is added on the end of their agenda.

Both conservative religious groups and certain feminist groups exist in this area. Given how differently these two groups see other issues – particularly abortion and same sex sexual acts – it is unusual to see them aligned or working together on trafficking. It is not without precedent, however, as similar alliances were formed during the ‘pornography’ debates of the 1970s and 80s. Between them these groups possess significant funding, lobbying capacity and public-mobilising methods developed over years of experience in campaigning.

Making a consenting adult choice to voluntarily sell sexual services is not an option under this system; it simply has no place in the framework. The language used by these groups not only refer to “prostitutes” (considered a derogatory term by many who call themselves sex workers) but also to “prostituted women” implying an entirely passive person to whom things happen, not exercising any agency. Accordingly, some who advocate for the human rights of sex workers (see the third category, below) have termed these groups ‘prohibitionists‘: people who seek to impose their own views on wider society and prohibit other people’s choices to engage in consenting adult sex in exchange for benefit.

States, Governments and Law Enforcement

While some states have been (and still are) influenced by the historical treaties as above, two newer perceptions of what trafficking is from the perspective of States and Governments are reflected in the text of the UN Trafficking Protocol, 2000. These are trafficking as an issue of immigration, and trafficking as an issue of organised crime.  It was these two perceptions that led to UN member states drafting the UN Trafficking Protocol in the context of a treaty on organised crime (UNTOC). (See posts: What is Trafficking in Persons? and A Brief History of Anti-trafficking.)

A major criticism of this approach, and of the UN Trafficking Protocol itself, is the extent to which it neatly and conveniently aligns with the anti-immigration policies of many states. Where stricter border controls to prevent migrants entering a country may face opposition from civil liberties groups and the wider electorate, increasing border security to “fight trafficking” is much more acceptable and popular.

A less talked about aspect of governments in relation to trafficking is the adoption of neo-liberal idealogy in terms of managing a state’s economy. The second ‘pillar’ of neo-liberalism is deregulation of the labour market.** This makes it easier to hire and fire employees, and discourages regulation or inspection schemes that might identify employers taking advantage of their workers. Naturally, this runs counter to efforts to identify labour exploitation and thus potentially trafficked people.

An even less discussed topic is the role of police in enforcing anti-trafficking laws. Due to the locations of trafficking exploitation being private (domestic work), discreet (sex sector), or remote  (agriculture, fisheries), trafficking is what law enforcement calls a surveillance crime. In other words, if you don’t go looking for it, you do not find it. And, correspondingly, the amount that you find may relate as much to the amount of money and human resources spent looking for it, than the extent of the crime itself. The political ramifications of this, especially through media coverage, have been documented for some time.***

Human Rights Organisations

This is also a wide group of civil society organisations active in anti-trafficking policy and frontline response who use the international human rights framework as the basis of their approach. These include groups working on women’s rights, labour rights, migrant rights, sex worker rights, and the right to health.

While there is great diversity among these groups, a number of common themes are evident, including:

  • recognising that all labour exploitation is an infringement of people’s rights and should be addressed irrespective of whether it meets the definition of trafficking or not (though in doing so it will also help address trafficking)
  • recognising that rights to “safe” migration will reduce risks of trafficking and that restrictive immigration policies contribute to enabling conditions for trafficking
  • acknowledging that it is coercion, abuse, deceit and violence within the sex sector that violates people’s rights, not sex work itself;
  • recognising the agency and voice of those who migrate to sell sex, and applying a human rights framework from the sex worker’s perspective, including calls for the decriminalisation of sex work
  • recognising the multiple gender dimensions of trafficking, including that many men are also affected by trafficking
  • recognising the intersections between trafficking and migrant rights, labour rights, gender (in)equality, borders and security,
  • calling for a human rights based approach not just to those who are trafficked, but also to those who are not trafficked: anti-trafficking efforts should themselves do no harm.

In conclusion

These are broad categories and there can be overlap between the three groups. For example, some moralist/prohibitionist groups also use the language of human rights (some with integrity, others simply in an effort to make their conservative views sound more modern and palatable). Some trade unions make strong arguments in the third category, while also promoting ideas from the first. Other analysts describe six categories rather than three (see references below). As a general overview, however, these three are a useful shorthand guide to understanding where people are coming from when they speak.

Lastly, it should come as no surprise that this blog blogs firmly from the human rights perspective. We argue that “All of Us First” includes sex workers (female, male and transgender); includes migrant workers (whether documented or undocumented); it includes those within our borders who are fleeing political persecution (refugees and asylum seekers), and those who simply see no viable life back home (‘economic migrants’).

Nobody is illegal.

Nobody’s human rights are dispensable.

And anti-trafficking efforts should help, or at least do no harm.

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What is trafficking in persons?

The international definition of trafficking is found in the “UN Trafficking Protocol” drafted in the Italian town of Palermo in 2000, and sometimes also referred to as the “Palermo Protocol”.

It’s official title is: “Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, supplementing the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime.”

The Trafficking Protocol is one of three protocols (additional parts) of the United Nations Convention on Transnational Organised Crime (UNTOC). The other protocols concerns smuggling of migrants, and the trade in firearms.

It is the first global legally binding instrument with an agreed definition on trafficking in persons, and came into effect in 2003. No less than 171 countries have signed, ratified or acceded to the Protocol. (Four have signed but not ratified.) That’s almost 90% of countries who are member states of the UN. In other words, there is widespread agreement at the international level on what the definition of trafficking in persons is.

The definition itself, however,  is somewhat complex:

(a) “Trafficking in persons” shall mean 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;

(b) The consent of a victim of trafficking in persons to the intended exploitation set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article shall be irrelevant where any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) have been used;

(c) The recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of a child for the purpose of exploitation shall be considered “trafficking in persons” even if this does not involve any of the means set forth in subparagraph (a) of this article; .

A more memorable shorthand version might read: “the recruitment or movement of persons, through force or fraud, for the purpose of exploitation.”  (While remembering that movement can include ‘non-movement’ parts of the journey like harbouring or receiving, and force/fraud can include threat,  abuse of power, or ‘buying someone’.)

The three elements of ‘action‘ (recruitment or (non)movement), plus ‘means‘ (force, fraud, control), plus ‘purpose‘ (exploitation) are all required to be present in order to constitute the crime of trafficking.

The definition is different for children, defined in the protocol as people under eighteen years of age, for whom force/fraud/control is not necessary. Simply moving or recruiting children for the purpose of exploitation is sufficient to be considered trafficking. Exploitation must be present in all cases, however, either actual (already happened) or imminent (clearly about to happen).

It should be noted that prostitution itself is NOT considered trafficking in the UN Protocol. It is the ‘exploitation of the prostitution of another’ that is an element of trafficking.  Unlike earlier laws on trafficking, the UN Trafficking Protocol makes clear people of all ages, and all genders, can be trafficked into a wide range of sectors.

It also important to note that Trafficking and Smuggling are not interchangeable words; they have separate Protocols to UNTOC for a reason. A trafficking offence involves exploitation at the end of the journey; it is considered a crime against the individual and specific protections are outlined for victims of this crime. Smuggling, which concerns benefiting from someone else’s transport over a border through unofficial means (and/or provision of false documents), is considered a crime against the state. While the rights to life, safety, and asylum of smuggled migrants are protected, they are still considered to have entered ‘illegally’ and repatriation is assumed to the likely outcome.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published “Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking” in 2002, partly because although the Trafficking Protocol contains references to human rights and human rights law, it is not itself a human rights treaty as such. The UNTOC primarily concerns the area of criminal law, and in practice some would argue the Trafficking Protocol often has a greater focus on border protection rather than human rights protection (not least as repatriation of trafficked persons is only ‘preferably’ with their consent).

The Recommended Principles and Guidelines attempt to overlay a human rights approach to trafficking on top of the criminal law based framework, and can greatly assist states implementing domestic legislation to comply with the UN Trafficking Protocol (if they read it, carefully). The guidelines reassert the primacy of human rights, and highlight areas where issues related to trafficking overlap with other areas of international law – including rights of migrants, refugees and children.

In Europe, we have several additional layers of law. Firstly the Council of Europe adopted a Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings in 2005. Then in 2011 the EU adopted a Directive ‘on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims’.

Recently the Westminster Parliament adopted the “Modern Slavery” Act (2015)*, and the Scottish Parliament is currently developing legislation currently titled Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Bill.

So going from international to domestic we have no fewer than five pieces of legislation to consider here in Scotland.

  1. UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime – Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (pdf full text)
  2. Council of Europe – Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (html)
  3. EU Directive 2011/36/EU, on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims (pdf)
  4. UK “Modern Slavery” Act (2015) (html)
  5. (Draft) Human Trafficking and Exploitation (Scotland) Bill (html)

Confused yet? You soon will be. The first three laws all use the identical definition of trafficking as outlined above. However, the UK Modern Slavery Bill (and it’s smaller Scottish draft sibling) use different definitions, that will require another post to describe, let alone comprehend.

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A Brief History of Anti-trafficking

With the explosion of media coverage, awareness raising campaigns, movies and documentaries over the last 15 years or so, you could be forgiven for thinking the idea of “trafficking” in persons was a relatively modern concept.

In fact, it’s history goes back over 100 years and has it’s origins in a particular period towards the end of the Victorian era when the British Empire was at it’s peak. Travel between Europe and North America had become faster and cheaper than ever before due to the evolution in design of steamships, and this also opened up new travel opportunities, for working class people as well as the wealthy.

We do not know exactly how many women traveled to America on steamships, nor what proportion  were of independent means, or who chose to engage in available work. What is much more clear is that late nineteenth century European and American middle class perceptions of the role of women in society mostly involved staying at home. Women of “good reputation” would certainly not cross the Atlantic without a husband, parent, guardian or chaperone.

Some migrants taking advantage of new transatlantic opportunities certainly included European women who sold sex. And the perceived increase in these numbers in America – in “ice cream parlors” and “fruit stores” amongst other places – fueled social activism described by some modern historians as a moral panic. Books and pamphlets were written, speaking tours arranged, and all the governments of Europe were lobbied.

This culminated in the first ever international agreement to refer specifically to trafficking:

Parties to this agreement committed amongst other things to:  “have a watch kept, especially in railway stations, ports of embarkation, and en route, for persons in charge of women and girls destined for an immoral life.”

Ostensibly the “War on the White Slave Trade” was about women and girls forced into prostitution against their will: ‘snatched‘, ‘lured‘ and ‘enticed‘, often by ‘foreigners’. The phenomenon is widely agreed to have existed more in the public perception than in reality, and few cases were ever documented. In practice, of course, these efforts – including early examples of religious groups organising raids on brothels in partnership with local police – blurred the lines between those forced into prostitution and those who made their own decisions to enter.

Various amendments were made to the 1904 agreement over the years: the inclusion of trafficking within national borders in 1910; replacing the language of “white slave traffic” with the less racist, but equally gender-biased, phrasing of “traffic in women and children” in 192; and the 1933 version spoke of “traffic in women of the full age”, and outlawed movement of women across state borders for “immoral purposes” regardless of their consent.

The extent to which these agreements reflected the prevailing abolitionist agenda in relation to the buying and selling of sex is illustrated in the next major revision of these laws in the:

This convention dropped the ‘women and children’ language but maintained the focus on prostitution. It committed states who signed up to: “punish any person who … procures, entices or leads away, for purposes of prostitution, another person, even with the consent of that person; exploits the prostitution of that person; … keeps or manages … a brothel … building or other place … for the prostitution of others.

The 1950 Convention was never widely adopted, and trafficking as in issue largely disappeared from public discussion until later in the 20th Century. From the 1980s onwards, however, the phrase “trafficking in women” began being used by some women’s rights groups to describe abuses in the migration experiences of women; especially those of women traveling from poorer countries to richer ones, and especially in relation to the sex sector.

This reappearance of Victorian-era language with its moral binary options of “victim” or “criminal”,  its racist and nationalist roots, and its criminalisation and abolitionist approach to the sex sector, was of considerable concern to a range of other women’s rights groups. This second group included those who favoured human rights approaches to migration, labour and the sex sector; and for whom it was coercion, abuse and exploitation in the sex that was the problem, not a woman’s decision to travel or work. Furthermore, they argued, exploitation through force or fraud was an issue in a range of migrant employment sectors, including domestic work, and was also of significance to men who migrated and were exploited.

Other important developments around the final decades of the 20th century included the increasing spread of globalisation, and the end the “Cold War”. Both of these had led to new patterns of migration and new opportunities for organised crime groups. These latter two issues where what prompted UN members states to address trafficking in persons, smuggling of migrants, and trafficking of firearms under the Convention on Transnational Organised Crime, leading to the drafting of the:

A range of international legal perspectives went into the drafting of this protocol: the histories of slavery, forced labour, prostitution, and human rights including the rights of the child. There was much debate during the drafting of the text, and the end result continues to be argued over in terms of: the return of gender-biased language (‘women-and-children’); misinterpretation of references to prostitution and sexual exploitation; priority given to border security (an issue exacerbated in the post 2001 ‘war on terrorism’ era); and the use of a criminal justice rather than a human rights framework in the first place.

Ultimately, these issues are themselves human rights issues. Freedom of movement, the right to work, the right to live free from violence and more are all inalienable rights. The should not be infringed by patriarchy, nor should they be infringed by anti-trafficking policies.

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Does it do no harm? How do we know?

In an ideal world, this post would just be a sub-category of the previous one: Is it based on evidence? But, of course, the world is far from ideal.

Common sense says that basing our plans on evidence ought to always include periodically reviewing and assessing what worked well, what could be improved on, and what went wrong.  Feeding that information back into a management system allows for a process of continuous improvement, or, at least, continually decreasing harm.

In the private sector the concepts of monitoring and evaluation are almost self explanatory. Manufacturers build stuff and sell things. So they need to keep track of what they buy, what they build and what they sell. And more importantly, how much each element cost and how much money is left over at the end.

If a company is spending spending money on an advertising promotion, then sales will be carefully tracked before, during and after the advertising period. The figures will be carefully analysed in order to be sure the increased sales were indeed a result of the advertising and not just due to holiday season, or shops selling off old stock cheaply.

In the public and non-governmental sector, unsurprisingly, this process is a bit more complicated; and not always done well. However, it is a critical component of doing no harm. Without stopping to check, review and analyse, how will we even know we are doing harm? This process is often known as monitoring and evaluation.

Monitoring can be thought of as a management task: keeping track of who does what and when. How many participants took part in the workshop? (Broken down by gender, of course.) How many people received one to one counseling and an HIV/AIDS fact sheet? How many clean injecting kits were given out at the needle exchange?

Evaluation, on the other hand, is typically only done periodically. Perhaps every year, or once every several years. During an evaluation the data gathered by routine monitoring is analysed along with additional information, including data gathered or commissioned by the evaluators themselves.

The evaluation exercise is about trying to assess whether “what we did” came close to achieving our intended goals. Was there a reduction in needle transmitted HIV infections over this period? And if so, was it due to the needle exchange efforts, or was it due to some unrelated factor like people changing to smoking rather than injecting?

Key aspects of an effective monitoring and evaluation strategy include defining clearly at the outset what the program or policy hopes to achieve and how the results will be measured. (What will be the indicators of success?) Another important element involves doing some research or assessment before the project begins, gathering what is called “baseline” data. Repeating this periodically during the project or after it ends should, hopefully, demonstrate a significant improvement in the key issues or indicators.

Monitoring and Evaluation is sometimes done badly. This could could involve bolting a tokenistic evaluation exercise onto the end of a program almost like an afterthought, with a lack of clear data to work with, or a restricted mandate to investigate. In the worst cases, it is done internally or by a sympathetic friend who can be trusted not to be too critical.

There are many tools and frameworks that can be used to evaluate polices and programs. One of these, Impact assessments (IAs), are increasingly significant among European governments.

Impact Assessments attempt to go beyond the simple indicators of a project, and look at the long term direct and indirect impacts of policies and programs. Importantly, they consider the positive and negative outcomes, including both intended and unintended impacts.

The IA framework has been adapted to various specific contexts including social impact assessments, health and environmental impact assessments, gender impact assessments and human rights impact assessments. Impact assessments are also of interest to some in the business sector.

Of course, no evaluation methodology is perfect. And as with evidence-based policy making, fallible humans are involved at each stage of the process. Critics who argue “evaluation is political because we set the agenda with the measures we use“, make a valid point. But this is not an excuse to ignore the process nor try our best to overcome our limitations.

It is logical therefore, that we should evaluate, as well as implement, to the best of our abilities. Here’s a quick checklist, that argues the best evaluations:

  • are done by a fully independent body (self-evaluation is better than no evaluation, but not much)
  • are themselves adequately funded (good research costs money)
  • are made public for the purposes of transparency (especially in relation to use of public money)
  • use an appropriate methodological framework (which is also published for transparency)
  • include assessments based on human rights
  • include inputs from key populations affected directly and indirectly by the policy/program
  • include assessment of unintended as well as intended outcomes: both good and bad
  • make some assessment of efficiency / value for money
  • include assessment of the long term / sustainability (many projects are great for a few years, then funding finishes and impacts disappear)
  • where possible, include assessment in relation to control groups or areas without interventions

So does it work? Does it do no harm? And how do we know? Our knowledge is never perfect, but there are no excuses these days for not having a pretty good idea.


Further reading:

The UK government’s Magenta Book contains technical guidance for people who commission and implement evaluations of government policy. It’s also a handy reference, or a crash course, in many research methods. Other books also exist.

First do no harm: is it based on evidence?

Policy is not just a “course of action adopted by an organisation” as a dictionary might suggest. It encompasses, especially in the public sector, a whole series of activities from: conceptualising an idea; to research and consultation; drafting a law or program of action and implementing it; and a process of review and evaluation – hopefully with a view to improving it as needed.

At each stage of this process, the individual people involved are fallible humans just like us, with varying preconceptions, prejudices, ideologies and beliefs; including perspectives based on gender, class, colour and ability. Our perceptions are influenced on how and where we were raised and educated, what life experiences we have had since then, and what efforts we have (or have not) made to identify and address them. Individual perspectives can be compounded by aspects of ‘group-think’ where shared dominant views can go unchallenged, and where party politics or ideals may guide our thinking.

One approach that attempts to address the limitations of our human imperfections is to use “evidence-based policymaking” – a concept (or catchphrase) very popular with a number of governments these days. The idea is to use “scientifically rigorous” studies to analyse problems and identify potential solutions, and to align policy as closely as possible with the needs identified by looking at this evidence.

The concept originated in the medical profession, where scientific studies are well established and need to be rigorous and professional given the risks involved with, for example, introducing new drugs.  The “double blind randomized control trial” is perhaps the most famous of these techniques.

Techniques like this get beyond some of the common mistakes of us fallible humans, such as projecting the personal onto the universal: just because I think, or feel, or have a hunch, that the world is flat (or this new drug is great), does not mean it is true.

Another common mistake is failing to understand that correlation does not prove causation. Just because two patterns can be observed in a group, does not mean one is the cause of the other. There are literally thousands of examples of un-related phenomena that seem to correlate.

Bringing the best available research to each stage of the policy making process should, therefore,  enable us to make the best possible decisions, right?

It is hard to disagree that evidence-based policy-making makes good sense.  The reality, however, as always, is a little more complex.

Scientifically rigorous research can be complex and difficult for non experts to understand. Elected policy-makers (our parliamentarians) are rarely voted for based on their academic levels of intellect, and nor should they be. Permanent civil servants cannot be specialists in every subject area. All of us might, in practice, misinterpret evidence, or selectively filter and use it based on our own preconceptions.

Scientific research often tends to focus on numbers – quantitative research – often within a very narrow and specific context. But not all subjects lend themselves to being easily counted. And when numerical analysis is appropriate, it can be argued that even the double-blind, randomized, placebo-controlled trial is not as free from bias as we would like to think.

Research funding does not exist in a vacuum, and many factors influence what funding is available for what topics at any given time. Funders may be more interested in whether research fuels economic growth, or a university’s research rating, than furthering science or promoting intelligent public policy.  It is quite possible, therefore, that rigorous research relevant to the policy area under consideration may not yet exist.

When we commission new research, to address gaps, care needs to be taken not to frame the research questions and objectives in biased ways. Research that is intended simply to back up a preconceived idea is not helpful, but exists. This is sometimes called “policy-based evidence“.

Available evidence about an issue does not always point to an immediate or easy solution to that problem: evidence does not necessarily tell us what to do next. And where solid evidence does already exist, the conclusions reached by the research processes may be politically unpalatable, or highly controversial. (The role of the evidence base in UK drugs policy is an obvious case in point.)

There are a host of other difficulties in making a simple sounding process a reality, including limitations of the policy-making process itself.

In a nutshell, evidence-based policy making is an imperfect ideal. It is rarely, if ever, fully implemented throughout the whole process; and even if it was, it would still not yield complete information.

So should we give up and leave well researched evidence out of the equation altogether? Of course not. But we also need to be realistic and acknowledge that multiple sources of information can, and should, influence policy-makers; and that all sources are imperfect and ultimately influenced by subjective, fallible people. We all need to begin by knowing ourselves.

Evidence-based, or evidenced-referenced, (or “evidence-infused” or “evidence-influenced”) policy is still a reasonable goal in making the best decisions we can. At the very least, if we are to stay true to our objective of helping, or at least doing no harm, the messy policy-making process could or should at a minimum:

  • attempt to compile and review all available relevant evidence
  • include and fund independent analysis of research if needed (because of quantity / complexity)
  • commission and fund appropriate additional research if significant gaps exist
  • never just ignore relevant existing evidence
  • avoid ‘cherry picking’ convenient studies that reinforce preconceptions
  • work hard to avoid “policy-based evidence”
  • engage with complexity and unintended consequences, especially in monitoring and evaluation
  • recognise the power dynamics between all groups involved (and not involved), and include consideration through lenses of gender, class, colour and ability
  • consider especially the views of those who will be most affected by the policy.

The last three points are especially important. Evidence should build on the principles of inclusive participation, agency and voice already outlined, not work against them.

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First, do no harm: realise human rights

The topic of human rights is enormous, and beyond the scope of this blog to give a full introduction. There are plenty of websites and wikipedia pages that do go into more depth, and we encourage you to use your favourite search engine to find them. For a very quick (900 word) overview, and handy reference, read on!

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) is perhaps the most famous of all human rights documents. It was adopted at the United Nations in 1948 and is considered by some to mark the beginning of the modern human rights framework.

There are strong arguments to say the concept of ‘rights’ are modern and Western, but the ideas and values expressed in the UDHR did not just pop up out of nowhere and have roots all over the world as well as in the ‘West’. Some concepts date back thousands of years and are found in many religions and indigenous beliefs. “Do to others as you would have them do to you“, for example, occurs in a number of religious contexts, and implies justice or fairness, respect for the other, and at least a degree of equality.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), established in 1919 to protect workers rights and safety, also predates the UDHR – as do various European and American declarations and bills of rights.

Along with the UDHR, two later treaties – one on civil and political rights; and another on economic, social and cultural rights – form the basis of what is sometimes called the International Bill of Rights.  Their language can be a bit ‘legalese’ at times, but the best way to get your head around them, is simply to read them:

There are a number of other treaties, which are of particular significance and together with those listed above make up the UN’s “core international human rights instruments“:

Life gets a little complicated when we start looking into whether instruments are legally enforceable directly, or are part of what is called ‘customary international law’, or an international ‘norm’, or if they are non-binding in nature. But generally speaking:

  • Conventions and Covenants are legally binding once a state has signed and ratified them. (Heads of state or foreign ministers often sign agreements, then domestic parliaments or legislatures reaffirm the decision by ratifying and passing local laws to implement them.)
  • Declarations (as well as Resolutions or Statements), however, are usually non-binding and non-enforceable. (A major exception, however, is the UDHR which is so widely recognised and respected it is accepted as part of ‘customary international law’.)
  • When a state does not sign/ratify a treaty it is not enforceable as law. (While the existence of other treaties can be appealed to as international ‘norms’, this is no guarantee of success in the courts.)
  • Enforcement of human rights laws can be in national courts, or at regional or international bodies. (The latter two get complicated, and ‘semi-enforced’ is sometimes more accurate, or even ‘un-enforced’.)

As if all that wasn’t complicated enough, in Europe there is also the:

It is this European Convention on Human Rights that is referred to in our own Scotland Act  (under its formal and less used title of Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms). The primary implementation of ECHR for the wider UK is through the Human Rights Act.

( Quick reminder, there are two different but major non-state entities in Europe:

  • the European Union (EU), which has 28 state members who agree to certain legal matters and go to the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU) to sort out disputes; and,
  • the Council of Europe (CoE), which has 47 state members who sign up to treaties in a similar fashion to the international instruments. The CoE are responsible for the European Court of Human Rights, above. ) *

It’s important to note that it is States, ie. governments, who are accountable under human rights law, not individuals or businesses. States must create conditions under which citizens’ human rights can be realised, and it is their failure to do so which may be challenged under human rights law.

Of course, it is always much better if disputes and injustices can be sorted out long before anyone needs to take legal action. Lawyers, judges and courts are expensive but vital last resorts when all else has failed.

A ‘human rights based approach’, on the other hand, is one example of how public, and private, bodies can seek to implement the values and norms outlined in the international treaties in practice. The more this can be encouraged and utilised, the less we will ever need to use the courts.

* Participation in Eurovision is partially related to CoE membership, but also to membership of the European Broadcasting Union, which is even less related to geography. (Hey, we know you were desperate to ask!)

Put all of us first: Agency


As with Voice – where people speak best for themselves, if we have ears to listen – so too with Agency. Agency is about respecting people’s ability to decide for themselves what is best for their own lives.

In labour theory, a famous study [link] demonstrated that factory line workers were both happier and more productive when control of the speed of the assembly line was handed directly to them. (Though if memory serves correctly, there was no comparative study to assess whether paying better wages would have had the same effect!)

In counselling or therapy it can happen that a therapist can see an issue or problem, or solution, very quickly – perhaps even in the first session. However, pointing it out straight away might be very inappropriate, cruel or even harmful if the patient/client is not ready or able to deal with that information at that time. They have to wait and gently point them in new directions until they eventually figure it out for themselves.

People with abusive domestic partners often take multiple attempts at leaving before they finally make a clean break. Support services, however painful it may be to watch, need patience and perseverance to be on standby to provide assistance and help when the person finally makes a move for change. They know from experience, you cannot push people before they are ready.

In international development, theorists like Nobel prize winner Amartya Sen have argued the need to recognise people’s right to achieve ‘what they decide to achieve.’ And others he argues, including aid donors and development agencies, should see them not only as people “whose well-being demands concern, but also as people whose responsible agency must be recognised.”

Or again: “nothing about us, without us.

And if none of those examples connect, dear readers, consider the council worker in the Deacon Blue song “Dignity” who works quietly for over 20 years while saving up to buy a dinghy to sail round the west coast in his old age. His right to dignity includes his right to agency: to achieve what he decides to achieve. In this case, buying a boat.

Agency is sometimes called ‘self determination’ at a personal level – but can also be exercised in groups or even as nations. “The people who live and work in Scotland are best placed to decide how Scotland should be governed”, might ring a bell, for example. Central to ideas of inclusion, whether of citizens, an electorate, a target audience, a market segment, a key affected population, or whatever, is acknowledging and respecting that people are best placed to decide for themselves what is best for them.

Irrespective of gender identity, age*, level of education, or ability, the idea of Agency recognises that people have a right to take decisions about their own lives. This principle still holds true even, or perhaps especially, when people are faced with very limited options, or where someone in a relationship of power over a person disapproves of some or all of their available options.

Agency can also involve resisting others attempts to control our lives as much as it involves making active positive choices. The last resort of protest by political prisoners, for example, is to refuse food.

* Even within the child rights frameworks, where children often do not have legal agency until they reach the age of 16 or 18, children are recognised as being the experts on their own lives and their  thoughts and feelings are (or at least should be) taken into account in determining what is in their best interests.