Why anti-human trafficking advocates should reflect on the death penalty today

Oct 10, 2021

By: Laura Skadhauge Bloom, CHRI, SDG 8.7 Programme

The abolition of the death penalty is not only in line with international human rights standards; it is closely intertwined with the practical realisation of a world without human trafficking. Unfortunately, this crucial link is often overlooked.

As we strive towards the eradication of human trafficking, there is often a heavy focus on the punishment of perpetrators. Are the punishments levied proportional to the abhorrent crime of human trafficking? While the identification and proportional punishment of perpetrators is integral to the redress that victims and survivors are entitled, the answer to this question must avoid inadvertent promotion of the death penalty - which is currently debated in the context of trafficking legislation in India and the Philippines.

On 10 October 2021, the World Day Against the Death Penalty, those who work in the space of human trafficking and contemporary forms of slavery must reflect on where the issues of capital punishment and human trafficking intersect and evaluate their own advocacy practices to ensure they are abolitionist in practice.

Abolitionism and the non-punishment principle

First, the abolition of the death penalty supports the important legal principle of non-punishment which protects both victims and potential victims of human trafficking from being punished for unlawful acts committed as a result of their being trafficked. This seminal principle is a necessary precursor to the realisation of rights that victims and survivors are guaranteed under international law, such as the rights to rehabilitation, protection, and assistance. Nonetheless, victims of human trafficking still face the death penalty globally for crimes stemming from their own exploitation.

Notably, some countries contravene the non-punishment principle by applying the death penalty for drug offenses where instances of human trafficking and exploitation are rife. Look for example to the Philippines case of Mary Jane Veloso, a woman on death row for the last decade for being deceived into carrying drugs for her traffickers. While her lawyer was able to raise the issue of her being trafficked 30 minutes before she was due to be executed, it was never considered at her trial which sent her to death row where she remains today.

Another example of the intersection of the non-punishment principle in trafficking and the death penalty can be found in the detention camps of North East Syria. Despite evidence that hundreds of women, girls and boys were potentially deceived or trafficked into ISIS territory, many of their countries of origin refuse to repatriate them. As a result, they face threats of transfer to Iraq or Assad-controlled Syria where the death penalty or torture is a serious threat.

Anti-trafficking organisations and states committed to the eradication of trafficking should consider how to mobilize and support victims who are facing punishment for the crimes caused by their exploitation at the hands of others. This is especially important in the context of the death penalty - the most final and brutal punishment trafficking victims can face.

Protecting victims and survivors from execution

Even when a crime might not directly stem from trafficking, anti-trafficking advocates must push to include criminal defendants’ histories of exploitation and trafficking during criminal sentencing, especially when the death penalty is a concern. Supporting victims of trafficking should not be a discriminatory or piecemeal endeavor; it should extend to the rehabilitation and reintegration of all victims, even those who may become alleged perpetrators and criminal defendants following their extreme traumas and who may be facing the death penalty as a result.

For example, the recent execution of Lisa Montgomery in the United States despite her history of being trafficked as a child and facing repeated rape and torture, is an injustice that should not have been relegated to the fringes of the global anti-trafficking community. Gathering mitigation evidence and supporting abolition advocacy are integral to realising the rights of human trafficking victims, such as Lisa Montgomery.

Concerns for trafficking victims facing the death penalty are particularly prevalent among migrant workers, many of whom are exploited and working in conditions of contemporary forms of slavery. Low pay, restrictions on mobility, embedded discrimination in criminal justice systems, language barriers, and lack of access to representation and support generate skewed legal systems. As a result, a migrant worker who is accused of a crime - from a drug offense to a violent one - is particularly vulnerable to capital punishment.

While providing support to the most vulnerable who may be facing capital punishment is important, it must also be acknowledged that it is primarily the world’s most vulnerable and exploited who end up on death row. These individuals face not only death, but the severe mental trauma and physical deterioration of death row which can amount to degrading, cruel or inhuman treatment, or even torture.

The death penalty in the cycle of exploitation

The UN recognizes that death rows are disproportionately populated by those experiencing poverty and those who are most economically and socially marginalised from society. The communities that are most likely to face the death penalty are the same communities that are  most vulnerable to exploitation and who most need the support of anti-trafficking and anti-contemporary forms of slavery advocates.

In Bangladesh, research by the Death Penalty Project reveals that 72% of death row inmates were ‘economically vulnerable’ and 87% had not attended school beyond the secondary level. Nearly a quarter of the death row inmates surveyed were the sole breadwinners for their households and, upon their sentencing, they left their families with few ways to survive and therefore vulnerable to exploitation.

A capital sentence has reverberating impacts through families and communities. It is a deadly structure that targets the most vulnerable and enforces cycles of abuse, violence and exploitation. Its very existence is antithetical to combating human trafficking and other forms of exploitation today.

A time for reflection

Despite the links between abolitionism and trafficking, the circles of anti-human trafficking and anti-death penalty advocacy can feel worlds apart. In fact, a sectoral focus on punishing traffickers may even inadvertently perpetuate the death penalty. Instead, the loudest voice from the sector should not revolve around punishment of perpetrators, but rather support for victims and survivors. When important conversations are had around accountability for traffickers and redress for victims, they should be carefully tempered to ensure that we, as a sector, never implicitly or explicitly promote capital punishment.

The gulf between anti-trafficking and anti-death penalty advocacy is also felt in the silence when trafficking victims are later accused of being perpetrators of serious crimes. These cases should not be the sole responsibility of defense organisations - they are also an obligation of the anti-trafficking community. The hundreds of families at risk of the death penalty in North East Syria, the droves of migrant workers facing death row in the Gulf, and the very existence of the death penalty globally are human trafficking concerns.

Finally, ending the death penalty helps stymie cycles of abuse and exploitation. Anti-trafficking advocates have an important role in protecting those most marginalised in society from wayward businesses and criminals. Abolition advocates similarly stand up for those most marginalised by challenging criminal systems rigged against those with the least power and representation. In other words, abolishing the death penalty and supporting anti-trafficking initiatives are both practices which fight the exploitation of the vulnerable and bring us closer to a world without trafficking.