Broadening the Narrative: A Human Rights Approach to Trafficking

SR Trafficking slideshow graphic

If we truly want to end the persistent problem of human trafficking and labor exploitation in the United States,  we can’t just listen to the loudest and most aggressive voice in the room, the one that only sees intensified policing and prosecution as the path forward.

We have to pay attention to the voices of everyone in the room--from people trafficked into forms of labor other than sex work, who are mostly invisibilized by the dominant frame; to sex workers who are targeted, harassed, and criminalized in the name of “anti-trafficking”; and all of those who are directly impacted by trafficking and attempts to address it.

When we broaden our focus to include a wealth of perspectives, we can identify a holistic strategy that is based, first and foremost, in ensuring the full human rights of all workers and all people. We can work together, not just to address the problem of trafficking, but to prevent it from happening altogether, and end it once and for all. 

The UN Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in persons, especially women and children, Ms. Maria Grazia Giammarinaro, conducted an official fact-finding visit to the United States from December 6-16, 2016. Dr. Maria Grazia Giammarinaro is an Italian Judge, and previously was the Special Representative and Coordinator for Combating Trafficking Human Beings in the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). She began her appointment as Special Rapporteur in 2014, and her appointment will last until 2018. 

The Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in persons, especially women and children, is an expert dedicated to promoting the prevention of trafficking in persons in all its forms, and encouraging measures to uphold and protect the human rights of victims. The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. 

Read her press release at the conclusion of the US visit

Read her preliminary findings at the conclusion of the US visit

For questions about the visit email: or contact the UN OHCHR directly at:


At the US Human Rights Network, we believe in growing a powerful and intersectional human rights movement that is led by the people most directly impacted by the issues, and solutions that leave no one behind. As we engaged with this visit, we wanted to interrupt the conflation of sex work and human trafficking in order to support the human rights of sex workers and all workers. For this reason, we do not use the term "sex trafficking" and opt for "trafficking into sex work;" and strongly encourage others to do the same. As we do this, we also lift up that there are people being trafficked to do coerced and exploited work in other sectors: domestic work, agricultural work, restaurant work, factory work, and many other sectors, and expand the narrative of what we understand human trafficking in the United States to be. When we expand the narrative and expand where we understand human trafficking to be taking place, what becomes clear is that there is a failure to protect the human rights of workers – especially for the people at the margins and for those who work in industries that are left out of labor protections in the United States. Lastly, human rights experts in the three prior visits to the U.S. over the past year - the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of Freedom of Assembly and Association, and the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention -  have all raised the persistent and pressing problem of the racially and economically disproportionate impacts of policing, mass incarceration, and our criminal legal system as a critical area where human rights abuses are taking place. 

These assessments from UN experts, as well as the calls from sex worker rights organizations for the decriminalization of sex work, lead us to reject the push for criminalization - particularly of sex work and sex workers themselves - as the path to end human trafficking, despite proponents of criminalization being some of the loudest and most aggressive voices in the room. We see an opportunity to redirect the necessary energies to end trafficking towards a path that affirms the full human rights and dignity of all people and all workers – ensuring that everyone who resides in the United States has access to the full spectrum of human rights; that people are not being put in cages and given a criminal record that can prevent access to other forms of employment for doing what they need to in order to survive; that policy decisions, strategies, and solutions are made by the people most affected by the issues; that the loudest voices speaking on these issues are those directly impacted; and ensuring the human right to decent work and labor protections for all workers, but especially sex workers, farm workers, domestic workers, restaurant workers, migrant workers, and other workers of color – especially cis and trans women of color.

Learn how to talk about trafficking in a way that centers human rights! Watch NYATN's #TalkTraffic Video Series


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