Case Study: Effective Advocacy Against Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking

Case Study: Effective advocacy against law on suppression of human trafficking By Umakant Singh, Freelance Consultant of HACC Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister Sok An called for anti-trafficking laws to be implemented in a way that did not affect HIV prevention efforts during the closing ceremony of the 3rd National AIDS Conference in Phnom Penh on 12 September 2008.

On 3 March 2008, the Cambodian government passed the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation to comply with US policies. The same month, a number of sex workers were arrested and brothels closed across the country.

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The sex workers were sent to rehabilitation centres where they were held in communal cells without bathrooms or running water. They received little food and some reported being beaten or raped. Those living with HIV were reportedly denied antiretroviral drugs (ARVs).

Aside from the more obvious human rights issues involved in such cases, critics of the trafficking law argue that the criminalization of sex work has had a negative impact on the policy of 100% condom use, signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen on 14 October 1999. In response to the law, a UN theme group on Donor and Civil Society in Cambodia issued a statement on 5 May titled, ‘Protecting Cambodia’s HIV/AIDS Gains: The Public Health Effects of the Kingdom of Cambodia’s Trafficking Suppression Campaign and Law on the Suppression of Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation. Prepared in consultation with civil society groups and donors, the statement said “We support the Kingdom of Cambodia’s anti-trafficking efforts and zero tolerance for trafficking of vulnerable persons and sexual exploitation.

” “However, recent anti-trafficking efforts being implemented in Cambodia are having serious negative public health consequences and threaten Cambodia’s remarkable success in cutting HIV prevalence from 2% in 1998 to 0. 9% in 2007. “

Many people, including Dr Tia Phalla of the National AIDS Authority, Tony Listle, Country Representative UNAIDS and Dr Kem Ley, Executive Director of the HIV/AIDS Coordinating Committee, were against the anti-trafficking law and a number of activists and sex workers have called for guidelines for its implementation. On 4 June, the Women’s Network for Unity, the Cambodian Prostitutes Union and the Cambodian Network for Men and Women’s Development came together to launch a day of action against anti-trafficking raids and called for the law to be repealed. Don’t be fooled by talk of rescuing ‘sex slaves’ until you have heard our testimonials and seen video evidence of the brutality and misery the new law is causing,” the groups said. Civil society groups met with the National AIDS Authority (NAA) to discuss future courses of action and a workshop was organized at the World Vision Cambodia office.

During the UN High-Level Meeting on HIV and AIDS in New York from 10 to 11 June, sex workers and rights advocates from around the world protested outside the Permanent Mission of the Royal Kingdom of Cambodia to the United Nations.

On 16 June, some sex workers gathered at a Buddhist temple to protest against police crackdowns and pray for the government to end the raids. The documentary ‘Caught between the Tiger and the Crocodile’ was shown at the 2008 AIDS Conference in Mexico to draw attention to the issue. A round table discussion on ‘Violations against entertainment workers’ was held on 1 September and three days later, the National Assembly invited key stakeholders for a half-day meeting to discuss the law.

During the meeting senior members of the interior and justice ministries were also shown a documentary on the human rights issues raised by the anti-trafficking law and they later promised to investigate the issue further.

On 19 September, the NAA discussed a draft Strategic Plan for Entertainment Workers. The result of all these efforts is that the police have released some sex workers and several brothels have reopened. This has allowed peer educators and NGO workers to reach the workers and continue promoting 100% condom use.