Caught between crime control and human rights?

author: Stephan Parmentier, KU Leuven
published: Oct. 30, 2009,   recorded: September 2009,   views: 3939

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The fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989 has not brought the “end of history” but the beginning of a new era of instability, uncertainty and conflict. One of the outputs of the opening of the borders in Europe has been the rapid increase of trafficking in human beings in the 1990s, coupled with the rise of research on the phenomenon of human trafficking. Despite all research done it remains very difficult to get a good grip on the phenomenon. Albrecht, using a variety of sources, mentions estimates of between 200,000–500,000 women who are trafficked to Western Europe for the purpose of prostitution on an annual basis, many of them coming from the former socialist countries of Central and Eastern Europe. Since the 1990s as well the issue of trafficking has become the object of systems of crime control worldwide, both through criminal legislation and criminal justice system enforcement. Both national states and international organisations have adopted a variety of legal instruments that make trafficking a criminal offence and have reinforced the investigation and the prosecution of such offences. Enforcement, however, remains a problem in most countries, partly because of the close relationship with organised crime, partly because victims are not always willing to testify out of fear for revenge. At the same time it is interesting to note a shift from conceiving human trafficking as a law enforcement problem relating to offenders to understanding it as a serious violation of human rights and putting the emphasis on the human dignity of the victims. This shift has also facilitated the development of protection mechanisms for victims, including access to justice for them, which at the same time may strengthen the model of law enforcement. In this contribution I will focus both on the phenomenon of trafficking, its antecedents and its manifestations, as well as on the policies designed to combat trafficking. In doing so, I will also highlight fundamental conceptual paradigms used to view the phenomenon, such as ‘moral panics’ (Cohen), left realism (Young et al.) and crime and human rights (Parmentier and Weitekamp).

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