Violating Human Rights by Criminalising Trafficking Victims/Survivors



March 27, 2014 | CUNY School of Law

Today, the U.N. Human Rights Committee urged that the U.S. end the prosecution of human trafficking victims for crimes that they are forced to commit. The Committee expressed concern that victims of sex trafficking are arrested and convicted for prostitution and related offenses, and recognized that there is insufficient identification of trafficking victims. The Committee urged the U.S. to “take all appropriate measures to prevent the criminalization of victims of sex trafficking, including child victims, to the extent that they have been compelled to engage in unlawful activities.”

The recommendations follow the Committee’s dialogue with a U.S. government delegation in Geneva earlier this month to review the U.S.’s compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, one of three human rights treaties to which the U.S. is a party.



“The Committee’s concluding observations send a clear message that criminalizing trafficking victims violates their fundamental human rights,” says Cynthia Soohoo, director of the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic (IWHR) at the City University of New York School of Law.

“We hope that the U.S. government will heed the Committee’s recommendations and take action to ensure trafficked people are not arrested and criminalized,” says Kate Mogulescu, supervising attorney of The Legal Aid Society’s Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project (TVAP). “In addition, many states have passed laws allowing trafficking survivors to vacate criminal convictions.  These laws are a crucial step toward redressing the harms of unjust criminalization and should be encouraged across the country.”



Advocates from IWHR and TVAP were in Geneva during the review to raise the issue of criminalization of victims of sex trafficking with U.S. government representatives and the Committee.  IWHR, TVAP, and the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center also submitted a shadow report to the Committee highlighting the issue as a human rights violation.

IWHR recently issued a new report describing the alarming consequence of the U.S’s emphasis on a criminal justice approach to trafficking: trafficking victims are often treated like criminals rather than being recognized as victims of a crime. The report documented the lasting consequences that criminal records impose on the lives of trafficking survivors, including barriers to safe housing and stable employment, in addition to fueling mistrust of law enforcement.

Sixteen states across the country have enacted legislation designed to mitigate these harms by allowing survivors of human trafficking to clear prostitution and related convictions from their records.

The Committee’s full concluding observations are available online.


Cindy Soohoo, Director, CUNY Law’s International Women’s Human Rights Clinic, Cynthia.Soohoo@law.cuny.edu(718) 340-4329

Kate Mogulescu, Supervising Attorney, The Legal Aid Society Trafficking Victim Advocacy Project, kamogulescu@legal-aid.org(347)834-6089.




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