Human Trafficking’s Usable Past

By by Jean Allain. International Co-Investigator.  Professor, Faculty of Law, Monash University, Australia; Professor of International law, Wilberforce Institute, University of Hull, UK.

I’ve always said that grants do two things: they are a catalyst, moving one’s research forward; and second they allow the researcher to do things they might not otherwise be able to do.

A component of our Arts & Humanities Research Council Large Grant on Antislavery Usable Past allows me the opportunity to write a monograph about the legal regimes surrounding antislavery.  That book will capture various areas of the law under the umbrella of human trafficking.

As part of that research I had an opportunity in 2015 to travel to the League of Nations Archives in Geneva, Switzerland, to go gather material around the League’s activities related to trafficking, including the negotiations of the 1921 and 1933 Traffic in Women conventions.  I also visited the United Nations Library in Geneva where I collected the relevant United Nations material including that of 1949 trafficking in Persons instrument.  That material, which I photographed, will keep me busy over the next year or so, as I sift through it to drawn out its relevance.

Jean next to portrait

At the League of Nations Archives in Geneva beside a portrait of the
US President Woodrow Wilson, the architect of the League of Nations

But as they say in French, one must ‘reculer pour mieux sauter’, that is: I had to backup to better leap forward …and I did!  In July through August 2016 I stayed in Paris, where I visited the diplomatic archives – Les Archives diplomatique – of the French Foreign Ministry.  Those Archives, are a research’s delight. The collection, having been moved from the majestic Quai D’Orsay to purposely build holdings in La Courneuve; what they may have lost as a place to do research in grander, they more than make up for in the infrastructure allowing for research to transpire. Accessibility of material, historical artefacts on display, a cafeteria with good food, and a quiet reading room; all catering to a limited number of interested researchers. It was serene.

jean Archives Diplomatique

Les Archives diplomatique of the French Foreign Ministry at La Courneuve,
on the train line, midway between Charles de Gaulle Airport and Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

My backing up before taking on the analysis the League of Nations and United Nations material, was so as to tackle of pre-League of Nations trafficking instruments: negotiations of the 1904 International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic and the 1910 International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic.

My stay in Paris was monastic: my tiny room at the Centre Culturel Irlandais – The Irish Cultural Centre which is situated in the shadow of the Pantheon, and has existed since 1578 – was ideal for my trip, with the basic amenities allowing me to get on with the work at hand. That said, I was rather curmudgeonly towards the others around the Centre as I was single-minded in wanting to take advantage of the limited time I had, with no distractions from my research agenda.

The outcome of some of that research has now been published as the lead article in the very first volume of an exciting new peer-review journal: the Journal of Trafficking and Human Exploitation.  The research has given me scope for optimism as I move forward into the League of Nations and United Nations material, because much was revealed in the primary material I consulted.  Where the international agreements related to white slave traffic are concerned, the scholarly writings to date have been ahistorical.  Where mention of the 1904 or 1910 White Slave Traffic instruments has been made in scholarly journals, it has simply been to note certain provisions and provide what appears to be ‘analysis’..  But such so-called analysis has no basis in the historical record, and thus lacks academic rigour and fails to provide context in understanding the currents and calculations which were at play in bringing these agreements into existence and what was sought to be achieved in combating the white slave traffic.

What did my research reveal? Well you are welcome to read the piece, as it is available here as an open source publication entitled: “The White Slave Traffic in International Law”. But in short, some of what the research reveals is that both instrument were negotiated in 1902, with most of the emphasis being place on a proposed treaty – what would become the 1910 International Convention for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic.  Yet, that instrument would languish for eight years and would ultimately require a further hastily arranged diplomatic conference to iron out the legal technicalities to allow it to become operational. By contrast, the administrative afterthought of those 1902 negotiations produced the 1904 International Agreement for the Suppression of the White Slave Traffic.

From my perspective what was the most interesting element of the White Slave Traffic material I consulted was that it not only set out an historical record of the birth of the international regime which today exists as human trafficking, but it also raised a number of challenging and interesting legal questions which allow me to engage my craft, to consider substantive issues of international law in regard to treaty interpretation, including that of ancillary documents agreed to by the parties forming part of the negotiation process of 1902; and the essence of these instruments: what was being outlawed – was it the prostitution of others or the exploitation of the prostitutions of others?  The answer to that question is, as you will see by turning to the text of my article, not simple.  While diplomatic manoeuvres and use of language sought to paper over differences between those countries that licenced brothels and those which made prostitution illegal, the outcome was a text which at first blush appears to say one thing, but in fact – and in law – says another. Ultimately what these instruments address is the exploitation of the prostitution of women over the age of twenty, and all prostitution of those under that age of majority.

The optimism I now feel in leaping forward in my research is to be found in the fact that archival work is not simply setting out the historical record of regime of human trafficking. Rather, legal analysis and scholarly engagement appears to be fundamental to bringing to light a fuller understanding of human trafficking.  As a result, there is much usable past to be found … and as yet to emerge, from the academic pursue of seeking to understand the currents, calculations, and contexts, which have led to our contemporary understanding of human trafficking.

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