Government Complacency and Complicity in Human Trafficking

By Anna Fletcher for

Most citizens of developed nations believe that slavery ended more than a century ago. With the spread of democracy and the near-universal belief in human rights, more people enjoy freedoms and liberties that have previously been denied throughout history. Although more people enjoy more liberty than ever before, unfortunately, men, women and children are currently living in slavery in every country throughout the world. Human trafficking is considered to be modern slavery, and includes forced labor, sex trafficking, debt bondage, child labor and sexual exploitation, and organ trafficking. It is an extremely profitable, but low risk crime.

The extent of human trafficking and reported numbers range from only a few thousand to several million. Because human trafficking is closely linked to organized crime networks, arms and drug trafficking, it is part of both developed and developing nations’ shadow economies and there is not accurate data as to the number of victims. In 2012, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimated that an astounding 20.9 million people were victims of human trafficking worldwide. The 2014 report published by the Walk Free Foundation, an anti-trafficking NGO (nongovernmental organization) estimated that 35.8 million men, women and children are living in modern slavery. Because it is so difficult to accurately measure the extent of human trafficking, NGOs have frequently been accused of artificially inflating the number of victims. Whether the number of victims are only a few thousand or several million, most victims are never identified and never receive justice.

Despite most countries being signatories to the United Nations’ protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (2000), which is also called the Palermo Protocol, human trafficking continues to be one of the fastest growing and profitable crimes in the world. Under the protocol signatory nations agreed both to criminalize trafficking in all forms and to provide assistance and protection to victims.

There are several reasons that trafficking is one of the fastest growing and lucrative crimes. Some of these reasons include abject poverty, the demand for low cost goods and labor, porous borders, and government complacency and complicity. Although many governments, police forces, NGOs and individuals relentlessly work to end the travesty of human trafficking, some governments, officials and individuals profit from buying and selling people as if they are commodities rather than human beings.

Government complacency and complicity is a serious hindrance in the fight against human trafficking. Traffickers are able to accrue enormous profits while destroying the lives of others with little fear of prosecution and conviction. Complacency and complicity also undermines the efforts of those on behalf of the victims because it shatters victims’ trust in those who should be protecting society’s most vulnerable citizens.

When profits and economics are involved, governments are more likely to turn a blind eye to certain industries where human trafficking is prevalent. The sex industry in Europe where prostitution is legal and provides tax revenue is one industry where governments are likely to overlook possible sex trafficking. Spain is one of the countries within the European Union struggling with government debt and economic recession. While the rest of Spain’s economy struggles, prostitution is considered a profitable business. Prostitution is legal, but unregulated in Spain, which draws tourists and business men from the European Union and throughout the world. In 2010 the State Department reported that of the 200,000-400,000 women engaged in prostitution in Spain, 90% of them had been trafficked from various countries.

The chocolate industry is another area where governments both in Africa and throughout the world are likely to overlook. The multi-billion dollar industry has a long history of human trafficking, forced labor, slavery and child labor. Ghana and the Ivory Coast supply about 75% of the world’s cocoa supply, which is sold to some of the world largest multinational companies. In 2001 two U.S. lawmakers proposed legislation known as the Chocolate Protocol to stop child labor and human trafficking, but the chocolate industry, led by multinational firms Nestle, Hersheys and Ferrero strongly opposed the legislation. Although it passed, it has made little impact on the labor practices in the chocolate industry.

The 2014 State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report details several instances of outright complicity in several countries. In many countries it is common for off duty police officers to provide security for brothels and other establishments where suspected victims have been held, making it difficult, if not impossible for law enforcement officials to conduct unbiased investigations into trafficking allegations. Police officers will sometimes warn brothel owners of raids and accept bribes from known traffickers. In Argentina, the former head of the anti-trafficking police was accused of running brothels and a deputy police commissioner was accused of holding four sex trafficking victims captive after their “rescue.” The report also found that Argentinian police officers were complicit in 40% of sex trafficking cases investigated.

Other examples of complicity included judges accepting bribes from traffickers, police officers and government officials frequenting establishments known for sex trafficking, and a refusal to even investigate allegations of trafficking within their countries. A prominent government official in Angola is suspected of running an elaborate international prostitution ring that spans through Angola, South Africa, Austria, Portugal and Brazil.

Another way that governments throughout the world unintentionally assist traffickers is when they treat victims of human trafficking as criminals rather than victims. Because many victims are smuggled illegally into countries or have their travel documents confiscated, they are considered to be illegal migrants by many governments. Traffickers tell the victims that as illegal migrants, they will be arrested, deported and subjected to other harsh treatment by law enforcement officers and government officials. Because many of the victims are from developing countries where corruption and serious human rights abuses are common, these threats are both valid and very effective. Even if victims have the opportunity to escape or are rescued, many either stay in their abusive situation or even lie to law enforcement officers. When governments arrest and deport victims of trafficking, not only do they reinforce to the victims what the traffickers had told them, but it also serves as a warning to victims contemplating escape.

Many of the governments, police forces and NGOs throughout the world are working to combat the horrors of human trafficking, but we as consumers of products, such as chocolate and other goods also have a responsibility to ensure that our governments are not complacent as to how these products are produced. Educating government officials, law enforcement and citizens of the signs of human trafficking will help to prevent treating victims as criminals, and ensure that they will receive the assistance and protection that they so desperately need. One common problem among government officials, law enforcement officers and military personnel throughout developing nations is that in order to feed their families, they have to solicit and accept bribes. By paying these public employees a livable wage, government complicity in human trafficking would decrease.

Anna Fletcher is a is a JD Candidate, Class of 2016. Fletcher’s entry to the GlobalJusticeBlog is part of an assignment for the course International Criminal Law, taught by Professor Wayne McCormack.




Cohen, Lisa, (2012, June 29) Nestlé advances child labor battle plan, CNN Freedom Project, Retrieved from


Daly, Suzanne (2012, April 6) In Spain, Women Enslaved by a Boom in Brothel Tourism, Retrieved from


Escobedo, Tricia, (2012, January 16) The Human Cost of Chocolate, CNN Freedom Project, retrieved from


Food Empowerment Project, (2013) Slavery in the Chocolate Industry, Retrieved from


International Labour Organization (2012) ILO Global Estimate of Forced Labour-Results and Methodology International Labour Office, Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour


U.S. State Department 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report


U.S. State Department 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report, Retrieved from


Walk Free Foundation, The Global Slavery Index 2014, Retrieved from