Sixty-first General Assembly: Third Committee (Social, Humanitarian and Cultural)

The Third Committee during the sixty-first session of the General Assembly had at the top of its agenda the rights of women, children and migrants, as well as an evaluation of the work of the recently established Human Rights Council, and approved a draft resolution naming the right to development as a major goal of this new UN body. With many Member States expressing concern over the Council's early work, such measures may help to strengthen its relationship with the General Assembly. Specific human rights abuses in some countries, such as Iran, Myanmar and the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, also took centre stage, with sharp disagreement among Member States on how to handle the alleged violations. "We need to put as much pressure as possible on countries to improve human rights conditions, and sometimes we are forced to follow the policy of name and shame", said Committee Chairman Hamid al Bayati of Iraq. "However, we also don't want to provoke them unnecessarily or accuse them of false things." Besides an overwhelming number of resolutions adopted by consensus, some of the main points of contention during the debate were the draft texts on specific human rights violations.

Looking holistically at human trafficking

A 12-year-old girl suffers severe beatings after trying to escape a brothel in Bangkok, Thailand, while a 14-year-old must serve up to six "customers" each night, thus contracting HIV in the process. In the Philippines, a family survives on wages earned by a daughter working as a prostitute overseas.

Trafficking for sex, which pulls women and girls into prostitution against their will, is an epidemic almost unspeakable in its darkness. The practice has joined unpaid labour and indentured servitude to make up a kind of modern-day slavery, commonly known as human trafficking. A resolution, sponsored by the Philippines and adopted unanimously by the Third Committee, is the latest in a string of progressive measures that seek to staunch the spread of forced sex labour. Besides addressing one of the most insidious problems facing the international community, this latest anti-trafficking resolution is also a case study in mobilization: learning what causes the problems and how to fix them, fast.

In Asia, perhaps the world's hub for sex trafficking, the practice became commonplace during the 1970s and 1980s. According to a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Vital Voices, the presence of foreign soldiers stationed in the region and an economic boom in Japan at that time led to a high demand for prostitution. Today, trafficked women are escorted by middlemen to bars and nightclubs that "purchase" and keep them against their will because of debt pressure and the threat of physical violence. "Poverty makes people vulnerable, and then evil people exploit their dreams of a better life", said Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) at a recent event on human trafficking, which was co-sponsored by New York University. UNODC estimates that more than 2 million people worldwide are in some way under the control of traffickers. Although a vast majority of cases is most likely unreported, the estimated number of trafficked women runs as high as 10 million.

Signs of hope have surfaced as experts begin to look more holistically at the problem of human trafficking. The 2006 annual report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights aspects of victims of trafficking in persons centres around the demand for commercial sexual exploitation and trafficking. "Demand must be understood as that which fosters exploitation, not necessarily as a demand directly for that exploitation", the report states. This broad look at demand places responsibility not just on traffickers and "prostitute-users", but also on "the economic, social, legal, political, institutional and cultural conditions, which oppress women and children throughout the world".