The Politics of Human Trafficking

Ursula Plassnik is a current member of Austria’s Parliament and is a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Politics. She was instrumental in managing Austria’s 2006 EU-Presidency.
Harvard Political Review: What is your personal definition of human trafficking?

Ursula Plassnik: Legal definitions in various countries seem to be very different, and that is part of the problem of addressing human trafficking on the international scene. We should never forget that human trafficking is one of the most lucrative businesses. … It is particularly a problem in Europe with regard to the eastern and southern part of the continent. … So the first step, in my mind, is to raise awareness in our own societies because we know people who have been subject to human trafficking. Sometimes we want to close our eyes rather than to face the problem.
HPR: How do the Vienna Forum and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe come together to work against human trafficking or more broadly, human rights?
UP: The UN office against crime, which is based in India now, and the international community altogether is quite active. There is a director-general Antonio Maria Costa who has organized two years ago the UNODC conference to mobilize the international community against trafficking in human beings and they are doing extremely valuable work. They have, for example, now made studies in each and every country that belongs to the UN – 192 countries – where they have tried to see how the problem of trafficking is defined and what is being done in these countries. This is the first time ever that such an inventory has even been attempted. Of course it cannot be a perfect job at first, but I think it is an important step to mobilize public opinion and governments in various parts of the world. There has also been a valuable contribution made by civil society to this subject matter. Books are written. Films are produced. Celebrities in pop or music or in the film industry have taken a stance and given visibility to the issue, which I think is very important. So this is going to contribute to this raising of awareness in our world.
HPR: Why does modern-day slavery seem to be hidden from everyday life? Is there something about the form of modern-day slavery that disconnects it from historical slavery?
UP: That might be part of the problem that we have to address, because slavery is something that we like to relegate to the history books. We like to think about it as something that we have worked our way out of through the years. … We have this impression, this idea of ourselves as being countries that no longer have anything to do with slavery. So these modern day forms of slavery are very hard to get across to people. It’s very hard to open their eyes and make them aware that even among the people they personally know, there are likely to be victims of human trafficking. This is part of the problems we face in public opinion.
HPR: There are several issues that transcend borders, such as human rights and peace agreements. Is the EU the most adept organization at addressing these issues? Does the EU function as a policy-forming group of countries or is it just simply motivation and support for its countries?
UP: It’s a combination of both. There are areas of competence in the European Union where we have defined a common policy. One good example is the Common Agricultural Policy. That is the policy that applies to all twenty-seven with the same rules and the same financial mechanisms. And then there are policies where the member states keep their sovereignty or part of their sovereignty fully untouched and where they are cooperating in an intergovernmental way. An example of these would be to a large degree the foreign policy of the EU. We continue to have twenty-seven countries with their sovereign foreign policies and yet there will be more and more of a European voice on the global scene. There will be more and more of European common action in foreign policy.
Photo Credit: Sebastian Zwez, Creative Commons

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