SDG SERIES: SDGs Adopting a Rights-based Approach to Human Trafficking

SDG Goal 8: Good Jobs and Economic Growth
SDG Goal 8: Good Jobs and Economic Growth

Angela Duger


The proposed 2030 agenda for sustainable development, likely to be approved later this September, contains 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets.  Three of these targets contain references to trafficking in persons.

Human trafficking, forced labor, and exploitation are now at the forefront of human rights and development discourse, so it is no surprise that targets on human trafficking and exploitation, while not included in the Millennium Development Goals, are present in the new sustainable development agenda.

SDG 8, which includes promoting full and productive employment and decent work for all, includes target 8.7 on labor trafficking and exploitation: “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labour, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms.”1

This target is comprehensive, using internationally recognized terminology from the Palermo Protocol, ILO Protocols on forced labor, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child.2 It is also aligned with common approaches to labor trafficking and exploitation.3

The other two targets addressing trafficking and exploitation (5.2 and 16.2) focus on women and children, and include sexual and other types of exploitation. Women and children do indeed make up the majority of victims of trafficking and exploitation, but the SDGs overlook men and transgender persons trafficked and exploited for purposes other than labor. This oversight may divert funding away from these vulnerable populations.

Goal 5, on gender equality, contains a target on eliminating violence against women and girls, “including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.” This SDG posits trafficking and exploitation as a form of violence against women and therefore a violation of the prohibition of discrimination on the basis of sex, an approach supported by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.4 It is encouraging that the SDGs make use of the violence against women approach rather than solely the traditional transnational criminalization approach taken by the Palermo Protocol. Focusing solely on a criminalization approach has been criticized by human rights advocates who call for incorporation of human rights protections in combination with a criminal justice response.5

Lastly, Goal 16 addresses the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development. This seemingly catchall goal includes the end of “abuse, exploitation, trafficking and all forms of violence against and torture of children.”6 This language is derived most heavily from the Convention on the Rights of the Child, but is aligned with the child protection approach utilized by UNICEF, which focuses on protecting children from violence, exploitation, and abuse.7

Goals 5 and 16 use the frameworks of child protection and violence against women to address trafficking and exploitation. These frameworks are also aligned with a human rights-based approach rather than solely a criminalization approach.8 Their adoption reflects the primacy given to human rights in the SDG approach to the trafficking of women and children, which is to be applauded.

The human rights-based approach to trafficking will have positive ramifications for the creation of appropriate indicators. Because traditional approaches to trafficking and exploitation rely on criminalization, success is measured by factors such as number of instances of trafficking identified, number of arrests or prosecutions executed, and number or amount of resources or services made available for victims.

The human rights-based approach focuses more on the human rights violations that occur, examining both vulnerabilities and discrimination, as well as methods of protection. The child protection and violence against women framing of trafficking and exploitation in the SDGs would suggest that the indicators to measure progress will be inclusive of human rights standards.

Angela Duger, JD, is a former Research Associate at the Harvard FXB Center and is currently serving as an adjunct lecturer at Northeastern University School of Law and in the Sustainable International Development Program at Brandeis University, USA


1 Transforming our World: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Finalised text for adoption, August, 2015. Available at:, p.16

2 Palermo Protocol, available at, ILO Protocols on forced labor, available at;–en/index.htm, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, available at

3 G MacNaughton and D Frey, SDG SERIES: The SDG on Decent Work: Human Right or Business as Usual?, available at:

4 CEDAW, General Recommendation 19, available at:

5 A Duger, “Focusing on Prevention: The Social and Economic Rights of Children Vulnerable to Sex Trafficking”, Health and Human Rights Journal, 17/1, (2015) pp 114-123, available at; and A T Gallagher, “Two Cheers for the Trafficking Protocol”, Anti-Trafficking Review, Issue 4, 2015, pp. 14—32,

6 see note 1, p21

7 See Convention on the Rights of the Child, note 2, Articles 19, 32-34, 37 and UNICEF, available at

8 For a description on a human rights based-approach to trafficking, see Recommended Principles and Guidelines on Human Rights and Human Trafficking: Commentary, UN Doc. HR/PUB/10/2 (2010).

Recent publications in the Health and Human Rights Journal by this author:

Focusing on Prevention: The Social and Economic Rights of Children Vulnerable to Sex Trafficking, Health and Human Rights Journal, 17/1, (2015) pp 114-123