PRESS CONFERENCE ON GENERAL ASSEMBLY THEMATIC DEBATE ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING

3 June 2008

PRESS CONFERENCE ON GENERAL ASSEMBLY THEMATIC DEBATE ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING

3 June 2008
Press Conference
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

PRESS CONFERENCE ON GENERAL ASSEMBLY THEMATIC DEBATE ON HUMAN TRAFFICKING

If there was one evil on earth that nations, peoples and individuals were facing, it was that of human trafficking, Srgjan Kerim, President of the General Assembly, said at a Headquarters press conference this morning.

Speaking as he introduced the keynote speakers for today’s General Assembly thematic debate on human trafficking, Mr. Kerim pointed out that more than 127 countries were sources of the illicit trade in human beings, and 137 countries received trafficked persons.  That was why the Assembly was holding its first ever comprehensive debate on that issue, during which the keynote speakers were Ashley Judd, actress and board member of Population Services International (PSI), and Anwar Gargash, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs of the United Arab Emirates.

Ms. Judd said she had stumbled on human trafficking while working for Population Services International, an international non-governmental organization with public health programmes in 65 countries, covering child health and family planning, water purification, diarrhoeal diseases, malaria and HIV/AIDS.  Having spent a lot of time hearing the stories of trafficked women in brothels, slums, youth centres, rural clinics and hospitals all over the world, she had made “sacred promises” to tell their stories.  The aim of her presence today was to bring the United Nations into the “sacred circle of sharing”, because “the unheard are helped when they are heard”.

Mr. Gargash, describing the United Arab Emirates as “a very successful country”, said that with that success had come problems, including human trafficking.  The country had received a “wake-up call”, when world attention had focused on its use of underage camel jockeys.  In order to tackle that problem, the United Arab Emirates had entered into a partnership with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).  “There is no stigma to have [human trafficking]; the stigma is not to do anything about it.”

Although the country was resolute in its desire to address the problem, there was still a long way to go, he said, adding that the United Arab Emirates led the region in addressing human trafficking through a “four-pillar policy” of legislation, prevention, victim support and bilateral and multilateral cooperation.  That cooperation was very important, as the nature of the problem was basically transnational and no country could tackle it alone.

Asked why she had chosen that particular problem to address, Ms. Judd said all the issues she had mentioned stemmed from gender inequality.  “Working for the PSI, I do get to see it all.”  If the source of water was far from a community, the girl child had to get it, thereby missing school; wood used to boil the water caused environmental problems; and if the water was not safe, diarrhoeal diseases broke out.  The problems were all interconnected.  “If and when gender equality finally arrives, the vast majority, if not all social ills, will be ameliorated,” she said.

Answering other questions, Ms. Judd went on to say that the best way to address human trafficking was through a holistic and complementary approach involving prevention, protection, prosecution and partnerships.  It was fundamentally important to reduce both supply and demand, and pop culture could be used to sensitize people on the demand side.  Local pop stars and athletes could reach the 15-to-25-year-old people, the most vulnerable group, with messages of positive behavioural change.  Girls and women could be empowered to resist “sugar daddies”, transactional sex and cross-generational sex.  The problem could also be addressed through the educational, economic, legal, social and cultural empowerment of women and girls.  If a widow were not thrown off her land, she might not have to resort to sex work to provide for her children.

“Behaviour communication change” could be achieved through mass media or such activities as puppet shows and games, she said.  Government officials should exercise dignified leadership and show healthy behaviour.  With consistent hard work, appropriate funding, political will and support from grass-roots programmes, a culture change could be created.  “Changing cultural norms is slow and hard, but it is at the core of the fight.”  Talking to individuals was also effective.  “It is so small, but it is changing the consciousness of one individual that can create a paradigm shift in an entire community.”

She said that, in order to carry out her philanthropic work, she had had to find a spiritual solution, a faith to work under the extremely intense and disturbing conditions she had found.  Returning from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she had been “flat on her back” for two weeks, not only because of an infection, but also due to a “soul sickness” owing to grief and mourning because she could see no distinction between the victims and herself.  Meditation had been integral to her ability “to stay in the fight”.

Asked what his country was doing about the fact that it had 30,000 children involved in camel racing over the last 30 years, Mr. Gargash said the issue of camel racing had been addressed in partnership with UNICEF.  There had been two phases, the first of which had ended in 2005.  It included legislation to ban the recruitment of children, new regulations for the traditional sport and the creation of centres for the victims.  Phase two, which would end in 2009, consisted of helping the children readjust back into their communities.

In response to a question about the sexual exploitation of Iraqi war widows, he said that, because his country was a successful and attractive society, geographically situated between continents, it had become both a transit point and final destination for human trafficking.

He added that, while sexual exploitation had indeed become a problem, which was being addressed through prosecution, among other measures, he was not aware of Iraqi war widows.  There were now 15 cases before the courts under the 2006 anti-trafficking laws, a huge number for a country the size of the United Arab Emirates.

Stressing that proving human trafficking was extremely difficult, he said his country was tackling the problem in the most systematic way in the region, not only because of the international focus, but also because of the values of its people.  There was a lack of awareness, but the problem was being addressed, even though there was still a long way to go.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.