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The Hub Q & A: Rahel Gershuni



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UN.GIFT works to increase knowledge and awareness of human trafficking bringing together all stakeholders to foster partnerships for joint action against trafficking. The UN.GIFT.HUB provides a platform for global dialogue and is now introducing The Hub Q & A Blog, a UN.GIFT knowledge product to voice the views and perspectives of those working on the frontlines, of this fight against human trafficking.


Sophia Papadimos, UN.GIFT Secretariat, spoke to Ms. Rahel Gershuni in Vienna during the recent UNODC Working Group on the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons.


Rahel Gershuni is Israel's National Anti-Human Trafficking Coordinator. She has served as an advocate in the Israeli Ministry of Justice for over 15 years in various capacities and as National Coordinator, officially since 2006, and in hoc capacity since 2002.  In July of 2006 she was recognized as one of nine heroes acting to end modern day slavery by the U.S. State Department Report on Trafficking in Persons. She has a B.A. in Ancient Studies from Columbia University, an L.L.B. from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and an M.A. in Public Administration from Harvard University.


How do you define human trafficking in your area of work? How do you define it vs. slavery?

We see trafficking as a constellation of offences which objectify the human being. In Israeli law there are a few core crimes which reflect this common value. First, is the trafficking offence which requires a transaction in a human being for a purpose of exploitation; it doesn't require movement and it doesn't require foul means, such as deception.


Then we have a slavery offence, which requires that the suspect act towards a person as if he or she is property which can be done by means of limiting his or her freedom, or dominating him or her.


Another part of the constellation is forced labour.


Then we have abducting for the purpose of trafficking. That is the crime that is exactly analogous to the crime in  the UN Protocol, it requires movement of a person, it requires foul means, it requires purposes of exploitation.


We see all of these as trafficking offences because they reflect common protected values.


In Israel, how do different organizations cooperate amongst each other?

In combating trafficking for prostitution representatives of  government and NGOs have cooperated wonderfully. As far as combating slavery and forced labour, this cooperation is a work in progress. This is a function of  the general reality by which government and NGOs are uneasy bed fellows, but in addition, changes in the structure of various government offices may create confusion which can hamper good cooperation. Since good relations between NGOs and Government, are crucial, we are constantly working to improve them and are planning a one day seminar on this subject in the near future [1].


According to the Ministry of Justice's Trafficking in Persons Report for the State of Israel, between 2009 and 2010 not one victim of trafficking for the purpose of sexual exploitation entered Israel, whereas in the past, police estimated there were 3000 victims per year. Do you think this is because of the 2006 legislation [2] ? Why has Israel seen a decrease?


There are several reasons for this radical decrease in victims. The most important message is that comprehensive anti trafficking measures work. In Israel the most important of these were the following:


First and foremost, the crime was heavily prioritized by the government in the realms of prosecution, protection and prevention. An expression of this may be found in yearly decorations awarded by the government to a government agency, an NGO and an individual who contributed substantially to the fight against trafficking. The ceremony takes place in the President' s House in the presence of the Prime Minister, the Minister of Justice and the Vice Minister for the Advancement of Women. This sends a message that the highest echelons of government view this subject with utmost importance.


Beyond this formal expression of prioritization - the government took active steps.


In the realm of prosecution, the police created a special unit of Russian speaking policemen who were able to infiltrate the criminal organizations and also work very well with other police in the countries of origin. The State and District Attorney's Offices developed broad interpretation of the crimes and pushed for convictions and heavy sentences; courts meted out severe sentences of incarceration, thus creating a disincentive to commit such crimes.


The comprehensive legislation was also important, as it gave a clear message that trafficking and slavery are severe crimes with a maximal sentence of 16 years of imprisonment. It also placed these crimes in the chapter which deals with crimes violating human freedom, which made a clear break with the view that these are "mere" crimes of prostitution, which may be dealt with lightly, as a vice crime. Once you give law enforcement a new context of trafficking as a human rights offence which violates basic human freedoms, whether it is committed for the purpose of prostitution, slavery, forced labor or organ removal - it allows them to think differently and to view the crime in a far more severe way.


Protection measures were also of the essence. In Israel there is a trinity of rights for victims: shelter (with psycho social and medical services), free legal aid, and work visas. None of these rights is contingent upon the victims' cooperation with law enforcement. Not only do they provide support, assistance and safety, but they also give the women the opportunity to recover some dignity and consider if they are ready to cooperate with police. Thus, these rights assist the women and the cause of enforcement, alike.


Prevention measures were also important, and for example, the Ministry of Interior tightened controls over the borders, a coordination mechanism was established which served as a conduit to pass information, to identify problems before they grew, to press for common policies among government agencies, and to build bridges between government and NGOs. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs distributed leafelets in countries of origin, warning young women of the dangers of being trafficked to Israel.


In addition, the U.S. State Department's Trafficking in Persons Report played a role. When the report was initially released in 2006 Israel was in the lowest tier and this was a real force for change.


And of course, there are always the people behind the changes. We had an Attorney General and a Director General of the Ministry of Justice who sincerely cared about this subject. Their doors were open any time of the day or  night, they were ready to help in every way. They made it a matter of priority, including by means of initiating and pushing through government resolutions.  The message was given clearly -we are determined to put a stop to modern slavery and will work hard to achieve this. We had an active and zealous chairman of a special Parliamentary Committee on Trafficking in Women who called public attention to the scourge and served as a watchdog on government. We had courageous NGO representatives who pioneered in identifying the phenomenon and refused to surrender to the luxury of despair. All these were people of passion who brought about social change.

[1] A seminar in which NGOs and Government can work together and be trained in cooperative techniques to fight against human trafficking.

[2] Israel has enacted a comprehensive anti trafficking law entitled Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (Legislative Amendments) Law, 5767 - 2006. The law came into force on October 29th 2006. The new legislation reflects an attitude whereby combating trafficking in persons requires the integration of a series of tools and actors. It also places emphasis on the primacy of victim protection and on the dignity of the human personality.



The following are presentations Ms. Gershuni has presented at various events regarding human trafficking.


OSCE Alliance against Trafficking in Persons Conference on National Rapporteurs and Equivalent Mechanisms


"From Equality of Rights to Empowerment"- Dialogue U.S. and Israel


The Response to the Israeli Government to Trafficking in Persons: A Study in Shifting Institutional Attitudes



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