Sold in War: Human Trafficking During Armed Conflict

A demobilized child soldier in a rebel camp in the Central African Republic. Photo by Pierre Holtz of UNICEF

A demobilized child soldier in a rebel camp in the Central African Republic. Photo by Pierre Holtz of UNICEF

Islamic State (IS) militants are trafficking Yazidi women and children for sex during their campaign across Iraq and Syria. Decades of conflict in Afghanistan have led to poverty and insecurity, making the country a valuable resource for human traffickers. Lebanon struggles to prevent the trafficking of Syrians fleeing the conflict within its borders.  Armed conflict and human trafficking frequently coincide.

While the world sought to limit the recourse to war and even proscribe it, realists recognized the need to regulate the conduct of hostilities when all else failed. So we created rules that govern how wars are fought. International law protects those who are not fighting in war—particularly civilians—through the Geneva Conventions, their Additional Protocols, other relevant treaties, and customary international law.

These laws protect civilians from enforced prostitution, forced labor, compelled service in hostile armed forces, and other forms of slavery resulting from armed conflict. Provisions on forced labor in the Third Geneva Convention  and Fourth Geneva Convention  reveal a prohibition on slavery in armed conflict while Article 4 of Additional Protocol II prohibits slavery and enforced prostitution in non-international armed conflicts. Article 27 of the Fourth Geneva Convention and Article 76 of Additional Protocol I also prohibit enforced prostitution by extending special protections to women. In addition, a non-binding ICRC compilation of customary law identifies a plethora of military manuals, international instruments, legislation, case law, and UN resolutions that forbid many forms of slavery in armed conflict. Under the Rome Statute, human trafficking in armed conflict can also be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a violation of international criminal law.

But rules to protect civilians, ultimately, do not immunize them from the effects of armed conflict. When civilians live in an area afflicted by armed conflict, they face a loss of economic opportunities, a lack of access to justice, and decreased security. Aside from being susceptible to these vulnerabilities, women and children are particularly at risk of exploitation through human trafficking.

Human trafficking is basically modern day slavery—people exploiting others through forced labor, domestic servitude, and sexual slavery. At the recent Human Trafficking and Armed Conflict conference hosted by the American Red Cross under the Chatham House Rule, panelists noted that traffickers may entice victims by promising a better life away from the conflict or they may abduct civilians living in the chaos of conflict. Indeed, armed groups have been known to engage in human trafficking—using child soldiers or enslaving civilians for labor or sex. Importantly, conflict itself can also make populations vulnerable to criminal groups that are not involved in the fighting but actively prey on the victims of conflict.

The Human Trafficking and Armed Conflict conference focused on the importance of a multi-disciplinary approach to resolving human trafficking in armed conflict. Panelists and participants discussed the importance of prevention, protection, prosecution, and partnership in addressing human trafficking during armed conflict. William Eggers of Deloitte wrapped up the day by facilitating an innovative session on opportunities for multi-sectoral cooperation to address human trafficking. Multi-sectoral cooperation organizes actors from non-governmental organizations, private businesses, and government agencies to develop creative solutions on preventing, protecting, and prosecuting human trafficking. Developing apps to identify high trafficking in conflict zones, promoting campaigns to eliminate market reliance on trafficking victims, and providing resources for advocates to effectively prosecute traffickers are potential results of multi-sectoral cooperation. By combining monetary, programming, and technological resources, these actors can expand the reach and increase the effectiveness of programs that address human trafficking in armed conflict.

If you are interested in joining the conversation on human trafficking, Christie Edwards, Director of International Humanitarian Law at the American Red Cross, will moderate “Human Trafficking and Migrant Smuggling” on Thursday, October 16th at 6pm. Sponsored by the American Society of International Law’s Women in International Law Interest Group, the event will feature legal practitioner Anne Gallagher and professor Dina Haynes. This fireside chat will discuss the intersection between smuggling and trafficking, positive contributions in international law, and how to address critical gaps and weaknesses in the law.