Do We Truly Want to Deter Human Trafficking and Protect Its Victims?

2018-10-22    |   

Do We Truly Want to Deter Human Trafficking and Protect Its Victims?

Lebanon’s anti-human trafficking law constitutes a check on the various servile or neoliberal practices that give free reign to all forms of exploitation. The largest and most important change caused by this law’s adoption in 2011 was the addition of articles punishing acts of exploitation to the Penal Code for the first time. These articles take into consideration the disparity in power or wealth between the people addressed by the law when assessing their criminal liabilities. In some cases, this law alters the status of people prosecuted for a given crime, such as women working in prostitution and the beneficiaries of their prostitution. While the Penal Code had considered them to necessarily be partners in a moral offense to be punished with similar sentences, the anti-human trafficking law, when its conditions are met, changes the game completely by rendering the beneficiary of another person’s prostitution a felon facing increased punishment and rendering the woman practicing prostitution a “victim”, which is also a new concept in the Penal Code.


The Anti-Human Trafficking Law: What was Behind its Adoption?

A former Lebanese minister states that when the government hastily referred a bill on combating human trafficking to Parliament, there was a belief among all the ministers that it could not be applied and the great benefit in adopting it was that it would please international actors, particularly the United States. The public parliamentary debates on 3 August 2011 – particularly the statements by Yassine Jaber, Michel Moussa, Ghassan Moukheiber, and Boutros Harb – affirmed the need to adopt the law for international considerations and to preserve Lebanon’s image and deflect accusations without placing any importance on the need to curb the forms of exploitation prevalent in Lebanon and protect victims. The statements of then Minister of Justice Shakib Qortbawi were very telling: “The eyes are on us”, “It is said that we’re a country that has paid no attention to this issue”, and the law’s adoption is “a very important message to the international community”. On the other hand, the debates were devoid of discussion about the forms or manifestations of trafficking. And while Qortbawi stressed the need for intensive work after the law’s adoption and suggested that a joint committee involving the Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Justice, and Ministry of Labor could be formed to “help people in this issue and work to prevent it”, no such action occurred.

The weak political will to enforce the law was also confirmed by the lack of subsequent examination of all the laws and practices that facilitate or allow this kind of exploitation, such as the system applying to “artists” [i.e. foreign women working in adult entertainment] and the sponsorship system (both overseen by General Security), as well as the system applying to women working in bars (overseen by the Anti-Human Trafficking and Morals Protection Bureau). Of course, we cannot forget the Prostitution Law, which remains in effect but has been suspended in practice because the state refuses to grant licenses. Because these laws have not been revised, the responsibility of reconciling between them and the anti-human trafficking law falls on the judiciary’s shoulders.

But the international pressure did not cease with the mere enactment of the law. Rather, it continued via the United States’ periodic follow-up. Since 2001, the United States has published periodic reports on the commitment of countries around the world to combating human trafficking. Hence, the Ministry of Justice began periodically collecting data on the issue, not to publish it (none has been published) but to supply the American embassy with it to show that the law is actually being applied.

Training courses for the judges who might apply the law were also held, as were lectures in the Institute of Judicial Studies in order to sensitize trainee judges to the importance of applying it. Following the exposure of the Chez Maurice ring in 2016 and the subsequent rise in public attention and awareness of the gravity of human trafficking practices, the security forces – particularly the Anti-Human Trafficking and Morals Protection Bureau – took several measures. Thus, the legal texts that were never expected to find their way into practice did so via various factors, some international and some related to the interplay of public opinion with scandals such as the Chez Maurice ring.

But has this law really been enforced? And to what extent and in what way? Have the state authorities taken sufficient measures to ensure that work to detect this crime, or at least to thoroughly investigate any complaint submitted to them, is carried out? Or have they been content to follow the usual procedures for investigating complaints referred to them? Do the cases referred to the courts today faithfully reflect the social situation? In other words, do the cases brought before the courts relate to the types of exploitation that field and academic studies indicate are widespread in Lebanon, a destination and transit country for human trafficking networks? If not, is serious research being done into the deficiencies preventing the most prevalent forms of trafficking from reaching the courts? In this case, the problem is not limited to the application or non-application of the anti-human trafficking law; rather, it concerns the justice system as a whole and the right of people (from the most vulnerable groups) to access justice.

Finally, how has the judiciary – be it the Public Prosecution, the investigating judiciary, or the trial courts – handled the cases brought before it? How has the judiciary approached the concept of human trafficking and the concept’s game-changing effect on the status of those concerned? Has it broadened this concept or narrowed it? Has it afforded the victims sufficient protection in accordance with the spirit of the law and thereby allowed them to actively participate in the trial, whether by granting them legal aid, by granting them (if they are foreigners) the ability to stay in Lebanon to pursue their cases, or by at least exempting them from prosecution and punishment? Subsequently, has this law played an important role protecting the most socially vulnerable groups from being exploited by criminal practices – whether organized or perpetrated by individuals – because of their vulnerabilities?

These are the questions The Legal Agenda deemed most important for forming an accurate image of the extent to which the law has been enforced and for understanding the statistics presented by the security agencies or the Ministry of Justice. Without these questions, quantitative evaluation of the law’s application (i.e. the statistics) could produce misleading conclusions, namely that the law is being applied while its application actually remains marginal or at least selective such that it is hard to produce the results originally envisaged.

We deemed that the best way to answer these questions was to work on the cases pending before the courts. To this end, our study sample consisted of all 34 cases pending before the criminal courts in Beirut and Mount Lebanon during the period of the study (2016-2017). While we are preparing to publish a detailed study on these cases, we thought it important to publish concise articles about the study’s most important conclusions, as well as several research articles or field investigations on this subject.


Conclusions of The Legal Agenda’s Study on Human Trafficking Cases Before the Courts

The most important conclusions that the study produced and that we will explore in this issue include:


1) Little Change in the Nature of the Exploitation Combatted

Most cases (32 of 34) related to two types of exploitation: exploitation of women in prostitution and exploitation of children in begging. The law’s application to such cases appeared to be a continuation of previous penal practices with one difference, namely that benefiting from prostitution or begging performed by others had turned from a misdemeanor into a felony. In other words, in practice the law intensified the prosecution of certain crimes without changing which crimes of exploitation are being prosecuted.

In contrast, the sample contained no case of forced labor despite the abundance of indicators that the sponsorship system has become a key corridor for human trafficking. Similarly, the sample contained no case pertaining to prostitution regulated, albeit implicitly, by the security agencies (women working in bars or “artists”). This conclusion shows that the state is still unable to prosecute the gravest cases of trafficking.


2) Little Work to Detect Human Trafficking

Contrary to what the concept of organized crime demands, the cases revealed an absence of in-depth investigation. The security and judicial authorities seem content with the complaints and information that comes to them, opting not to delve deeply in order to uncover the exploiting party’s connections or the exploitation. Consequently, most of the cases targeted individuals who were close to the victim and belonged to the same section of society; rarely did they target organized networks.[1] The absence of thorough detection and investigation may provide a twofold explanation for the lack of prosecution of cases involving domestic workers, “artists”, and bar workers: firstly, women subject to the sponsorship system face difficulty accessing justice (as we will explain in a separate article),[2] and secondly, the security forces are inclined to avoid investigating any area of exploitation that it oversees, as in the case of the system applying to “artists” or bar workers. While General Security took the initiative to catalogue the investigations pertaining to domestic workers and “artists”, to date none of these investigations have resulted in a human trafficking charge, at least as far as the study sample shows.


3) Insufficient Protection of the Victims

Besides the fact that the Ministry of Justice has – in breach of its obligations under the anti-human trafficking law – made no agreement with any rights organization to provide shelter, the victims’ fund, which is meant to be financed by the proceeds of crime seized by the judiciary, has not yet been established even though seven years have elapsed since the law’s issuance.

The situation is no better on the level of the judiciary: while the law gives investigating judges the ability to grant victims permission to reside in Lebanon to enable them to attend their cases’ proceedings, so far we have seen no such decision. Similarly, none of the rulings in the sample ordered compensation for the victims. Even more importantly, in most of the decisions the Indictment Authority issued against criminals in cases of exploitation in prostitution, it also indicted the victims for misdemeanors they committed in the course of their exploitation. It did so on the basis that the law authorizes the trial judge (the Criminal Court) to exempt the victims from punishment but does not allow them to be exempted from prosecution. In several cases, the victims’ indictment led to them being arrested and tried alongside the criminals.[3] Even in the cases where the victims were not charged, this decision was implicit and went unexplained, so it could not become jurisprudence that could be applied systematically.

Even graver, some courts showed that verifying victimhood requires verifying the victim’s credibility, morals, and past conduct before verifying her vulnerabilities and susceptibility to exploitation. When the court discovered that the victim was practicing prostitution or using drugs, it decided not to accept her statements, to deny her the label of victim, and to drop proceedings for the felony of human trafficking against those accused of exploiting her.[4] The court thereby seemed to be reviving preconceptions about prostitution workers and once again giving them precedence over the concept of exploitation, with a view to rendering these workers partners in a moral offense with the beneficiaries of their prostitution. Hence, the victim usually seemed very close to being held responsible for participating in the crime of her own exploitation.


4) Inconsistency in the Definition of Human Trafficking

While some organizations working on victims’ rights (such as KAFA – Enough Violence and Exploitation) are calling for the concept of trafficking be expanded to include all instances of exploitation of prostitution, the study showed that the courts are cautious in this regard, strictly ascertaining the means of exploitation used.[5] On the other hand, a different trend is evident in the cases of exploitation via begging: isolated instances of children begging where their parents stood accused of exploiting them were considered trafficking, though this approach was rejected by some judges who expressed dissenting views.[6] In reality, this debate is not simple. On one hand, the bodies defending exploited people can be expected to work to expand the scope of the crime of trafficking given that these people are criminalized (i.e. prostitution, begging, and violating the laws on residency and work are criminal offenses) and lack any protection outside of instances of trafficking. On the other hand, deeming the crime of trafficking a felony necessitates narrowing its scope to cover only crimes of exploitation that bear a certain gravity pursuant to the principle that punishment should be proportional to the gravity of the crime. Perhaps the legal characterization of acts of exploitation will remain hostage to this tension until a comprehensive review of all legal provisions and practices concerning them is carried out and, in particular, until the protection of exploited people (even those who do not meet the description of trafficking victims) is codified.


Do we truly want to combat human trafficking? Do we truly want to protect its victims and rectify the harm done to them? In this regard, the conclusions of The Legal Agenda’s study are discouraging. Much effort is still needed to achieve these goals.


This article is an edited translation from Arabic.


Keywords:  Lebanon, Human Trafficking, Shakib Qortbawi, Legal Agenda


[1] Ghida Frangieh, “Human Trafficking Crimes Before the Courts: In the Shadow of Prosecution”, published in this issue.

[2] Nizar Saghieh, “The Sponsorship System: State Exploitation”, published in this issue.

[3] Ghida Frangieh, “Human Trafficking Victims Marginalized Before the Courts”, published in this issue.

[4] Ghida Frangieh, “Preconceptions Once Again Eclipse Sexual Exploitation”, published in this issue.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ghida Frangieh, “Tasawwul al-Atfal fi al-Shawari’: Mu’aqabat al-Istighlal aw al-Istirzaq?”, published in this issue.

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