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Policy Responses to Human Trafficking in Southern Africa: Domesticating International Norms

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Human trafficking is increasingly recognized as an outcome of economic insecurity, gender inequality, and conflict, all significant factors in the region of southern Africa. This paper examines policy responses to human trafficking in southern Africa and finds that there has been a diffusion of international norms to the regional and domestic levels. This paper finds that policy change is most notable in the strategies and approaches that differ at each level: international and regional agreements emphasize prevention measures and survivor assistance, but national policies emphasize prosecution measures. Leaders across the region have adapted these policy norms to fit regionally specific conditions, including HIV/AIDS, conflict, traditional leaders, and prostitution. Yet, national policies often fail to incorporate preventative solutions to address gender inequality, human rights, and economic development. Until appropriate funding and preventative measures are introduced, the underlying issues that foster human trafficking will continue.

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  1. We wish to thank the Institute of Policy and Social Research at the University of Kansas for their financial support for this study. We especially thank Larry Hoyle of IPSR for his assistance in the use of Atlas.ti. We also wish to thank Alexandria Innes for her assistance with the French translation. We are grateful to the helpful comments from members of the Continuity, Change, and Credibility of Institutions (CCCI) Working Group at the University of Kansas, Taylor Price, Alesha Doan, Don Haider-Markel, Dorothy Daley, and Elaine Sharp for their careful reading and suggestions on previous drafts.

  2. For the purposes of this paper, norm diffusion is the transfer of international norms from the international to the regional and national levels of governance through international treaty accession, ratification, approval, or acceptance. Norms can also be diffused through the adoption of new policies aimed to compliment or expand upon these international treaties. Although these norms have diffused and countries have adopted new policies and ratified international treaties, this does not mean that the norms have been localized. Norm localization is defined by Acharya as the “contestation between emerging transnational norms and preexisting regional normative and social order” (2004: 241). This localization occurs when “norm-takers perform acts of selection, borrowing, and modification in accordance with a preexisting normative framework to build congruence between that and emerging global norms” (Acharya 2004: 269).

  3. The United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime included three protocols the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children; the Protocol against the Smuggling of Migrants by Land, Sea and Air; and the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition.

  4. The authors would like to thank the comments by the anonymous reviewers for this observation.

  5. SADC member states include Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Seychelles, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

  6. According to the Palermo Protocol “‘Trafficking in persons’ shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs” (Palermo Protocol).

  7. The ranking methodology utilized in the TIP report is based on the “minimum standards of government action” and adherence to legislation on human trafficking adopted in the United States called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which the report states are consistent with the Palermo Protocol (US Department of State 2013). A Tier 1 ranking indicates that the country has made efforts to address the problem and meets the TVPA’s minimum standards. Tier 2 are countries that “do not fully comply but are making significant efforts to do” so, while Tier 2 watch list countries have the same problems with non-compliance as Tier 2 but also have a severe form of trafficking with a significant number of victims, and the national government cannot demonstrate that it has made efforts to combat it or will do so in the next year (US Department of State 2013). Tier 3 countries do not comply with the minimum standards and are not making efforts to fight human trafficking (US Department of State 2013). The minimum standards that a country needs to comply with include laws combatting severe forms of trafficking, implementation of these laws through prosecution of traffickers, proactive victim identification measures, government partnerships and funding to NGOs, assistance to victims, and prevention of human trafficking (US Department of State 2013). For more information about these standards, see the TIP Report, US Department of State 2013.

  8. Countries that do no enact national legislation do not have de facto legislation on human trafficking as a result of their accession to the Palermo Protocol because the agreement is non-binding. The AU and SADC are thus pushing countries to adopt their own national legislation.

  9. This is similar to other policy areas in which international norms are localized, such as with the norm of a security culture (Williams 2007).

  10. Recent TIP reports from the US Department of State are including a fourth “P”—partnerships, to stress the value of partnerships across government sectors and between government and civil society in addressing trafficking.

  11. Despite the explosion of research on this topic, most of the literature on trafficking policy has been descriptive of particular policies or the policy process and has not taken a systematic evaluative approach of the actual policies with policy comparisons across countries. Therefore, our study utilizes an empirical content analysis to systematically compare themes and variables in policies across a number of countries and levels of governance. Most other policy comparisons have been limited to two or three policies where the authors have described the content and comparison of the policies. Instead, our study compares ten policies on the international, regional and national levels. Additionally, to our knowledge, none of the previous comparisons involve the continent of Africa not to mention the region of southern Africa. Therefore, this research both theoretically and empirically adds to the literature on comparative human trafficking policy.

  12. Zambia’s policy was a bit contradictory. The policy states: “a person who smuggles another person into or out of Zambia, participates in smuggling or who consents to being smuggled commits an offence and is liable, upon conviction, to imprisonment for a term of not less than fifteen years and not exceeding twenty years” (14), but later states it is not a defense if a victim consents (18). Even in Zambia’s policy, then, consent is irrelevant.

  13. This is recognized in the trafficking literature (Lobasz 2009; Munro 2008; Hoyle et al. 2011 O’Brien 2012) and very similar to a shift to another avenue of gender-based violence policies in South Africa and Namibia, specifically rape laws. In recent anti-rape acts in the two countries, the legal burden is moving away from proving the survivor did not consent and moving to discussing ways the survivor was coerced. These ideological and legal shifts are in line with making gender-based violence policies ‘victim-centered,’ which is critical when so many survivors come from vulnerable populations.


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Correspondence to Hannah E. Britton.

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Britton, H.E., Dean, L.A. Policy Responses to Human Trafficking in Southern Africa: Domesticating International Norms. Hum Rights Rev 15, 305–328 (2014).

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