Last Saturday, 10 Asean leaders signed an important document in Kuala Lumpur where they gathered for the 27th Asean Summit. That document, known as the Asean Convention Against Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (ACTIP), establishes a clear and precise legal framework for the Asean region to address the complex issue of trafficking in persons.
ACTIP is the second convention signed by the Asean countries, after the Asean Convention on Counter Terrorism was signed by them in Cebu, the Philippines on Jan 13, 2007.
Trafficking in persons is a transnational crime and, according to popular belief (attributed to an estimate made by the International Labour Organisation or ILO), it generated approximately US$32 billion (RM134.3 billion) per year in global revenue.
According to the latest information contained in a portal which I visited recently, the ILO in 2012 estimated that some 20.9 million people around the world were in conditions of forced labour, which the organisation defines as largely equivalent to human trafficking.
A 2014 ILO research indicates that the related illegal profits were in excess of US$150 billion, making human trafficking one of the largest criminal industries in the world.
The Asia-Pacific region alone records an estimated 11.7 million trafficked people, by far the highest figure of any region in the world.
In late May this year, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak was quoted as saying that he had asked Foreign Affairs Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman to study the possibility of Malaysia convening a mini-summit on human trafficking, so that “we can find solutions to the issue at the Asean level”.
He made that statement in the aftermath of the discovery of death camps and graves of victims of human trafficking in southern Thailand and Perlis.
Local media reports in late May this year stated that 35 bodies, believed to be victims of human trafficking activities, had been exhumed since the discovery of graves in Bukit Wang Burma, Wang Kelian, Perlis earlier that month.
The bodies were exhumed from 139 graves discovered by the authorities at 28 transit camps set up by human trafficking syndicates along the Perlis-Thailand border.
Najib added: “We must find solutions to this issue at the Asean level as well as at the international level. The international community should also play its role. This is not a responsibility of one country alone. It should be tackled collectively.”
On Aug 23, Perlis police chief Senior Assistant Commissioner Shafie Ismail informed the media of the discovery of another 24 fully shrouded human skeletons from 18 graves at Bukit Wang Burma in Wang Kelian.
Police believed these to be also the victims of human trafficking syndicates operating on both sides of the Malaysia–Thai border. Shafie said these graves were older than those found in May and were located almost at the top of a hill.
Police later confirmed that of the 139 graves discovered at the 28 transit camps, a total of 106 skeletons of victims were recovered.
The Kedah religious authorities, aided by the National Security Council, buried the remains of these victims at the Kampung Tualang Islamic Cemetery in Pokok Sena, Kedah.
According to the 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report issued by the US State Department (which rates 188 countries on their efforts to stamp out trafficking in persons), Malaysia has been upgraded from Tier 3 (in 2014) to Tier 2 Watch List.
Last year, Malaysia fell to Tier 3 (an automatic downgrade) due to what has been described as “two consecutive years of failing to do enough to address the issue”. Thailand remains at Tier 3 this year.
In view of the discovery of these mass graves of trafficked victims on both sides of the Malaysia-Thai border, many quarters were puzzled how the US State Department upgraded Malaysia to Tier 2 Watch List but still retained Thailand at Tier 3.
Eleven years ago, on Nov 29, 2004, Asean leaders signed the Asean Declaration Against Trafficking in Persons Particularly Women and Children in Vientiane, Laos.
That document, which is non-binding and only declaratory in nature, states in paragraph 8 that all the Asean countries will “take measures to strengthen regional and international cooperation to prevent and combat trafficking in persons”.
ACTIP, signed by them in Kuala Lumpur last week, is a fulfillment of that promise, a second step in the right direction.
The difficult task facing the Asean leaders now is to make the ACTIP work. The three principal objectives of ACTIP are:
PREVENT and combat trafficking in persons, especially women and children;
PROTECT and assist human trafficking victims with full respect for their human rights; and,
PROMOTE cooperation among the relevant parties.
For the officials in the Asean countries who will be carrying out the actual work in achieving the objectives of this new convention, my suggestion is that they take a close look at the “Progress Report on Criminal Justice Responses to Trafficking in Persons in the Asean Region”, a very lengthy document published in July 2011.
In his foreword, Asean secretary-general Surin Pitsuwan said the document describes the achievements of the past decade and examines the challenges that lie ahead.
It sets out the essential ingredients of an effective criminal justice response to human trafficking, namely:
Strong and comprehensive legal frameworks;
Specialist investigative capacity to investigate trafficking cases;
Front-line capacity to identify and respond to trafficking;
Prosecutorial and judicial capacity with regard to trafficking cases;
Victim identification, protection and support;
Provision of special support to victims as witnesses; and,
International legal cooperation in trafficking cases.
Only time will tell whether the 10 Asean nations have the commitment, backbone and muscle to execute the principles and purposes of this new convention.
The writer formerly served the Attorney-General’s Chambers before he left for practice, the corporate sector and, then, the academia