What Human Rights Law Obscures: Global Sex Trafficking and the Demand for Children

Sara Dillon, Suffolk University Law School


This article deals with the increasingly prominent issue of child sex trafficking, a worldwide phenomenon without geographical or cultural limits. Through various forms of fraud, deceit and violence, human trafficking in general, and child sex trafficking in particular, has become a hugely profitable industry. Given its prevalence and scale, child sex trafficking cannot be dismissed as an unusual occurrence. Along with the explosion in sex tourism and child pornography, the global presence of commercial child exploitation is undeniably massive. The empirical reality of the situation is shocking, and challenging to our basic notions of humanity. While there are clear links between human trafficking in adults and children, the sex trafficking of children is particularly daunting at the conceptual level.

Despite these facts, the international human rights community continues to mobilize most readily around issues relating to state violence, post-conflict justice and war crimes. Feminist writers have long argued that traditional human rights law and discourse takes as its focus the “public” realm of political repression, while ignoring the “private” realm of women and children, despite the fact that it is in the private zone that their human rights violations are mostly to be found. Recent years have in fact seen the proliferation of anti-trafficking laws at the international and national levels; but these have taken as their conceptual framework the prosecution of “traffickers,” leaving out of the equation the issue of state complicity with the difficult to grasp, yet ever-expanding, demand for children to exploit sexually.

In light of this, my article sets forth two main propositions.

The first is that human rights law is only comfortable and responsive when it can perform a two-step process; (i) to identify the “enemy of humanity”, usually someone whose behavior has been distorted by saturation in a perverse political ideology (Nazis, Serb nationalists, etc); (ii) to make all others feel purified by the identification of the evil ones, the “enemies of mankind”, among us. I cite the Nuremberg Tribunal as the archetype of this legal/psychological process.

To the extent that child sex trafficking, involving the most heinous exploitation of children, and occurring in every country and culture in astonishingly large numbers, makes us wonder about humanity itself, and particularly about the nature of male demand, it does not offer that “purification” potential so beloved of international human rights law. To that extent, it is shunned at the highest levels, and remains relegated to the margins as a “niche” concern, despite the huge quantum of preventable suffering it represents.

My second main proposition is that recent anti-trafficking laws have sought to deal with human trafficking definitionally as a totality; a modern day version of “slavery.” To some extent, this unitary approach has been illuminating. But to the extent that it too obscures the reality of the unique and particularly cruel matter of child sex exploitation, it has had the effect of numbing the general public, rather than energizing it to take action against this phenomenon.