Israel has taken two key steps over the past year to improve its rating in the US State Department's annual report on the fight against international human trafficking, Rahel Gershuni, Government Coordinator of the Battle against Trafficking in Persons, told The Jerusalem Post recently.
The first step was her own appointment to the newly created position on May 31, 2006. The second was the introduction of legislation known as the Prohibition of Trafficking in Persons (Legislative Amendments) Law, which the Knesset approved on September 11, 2006.
Both steps were taken in response to State Department demands for Israel and other countries to step up their efforts against human trafficking, and specific criticism of Israel's performance in fighting the phenomenon last year.
The State Department published its first report on the subject in 2001. This report assigned Israel to the lowest status, Tier 3, which includes countries that do not fulfill minimal standards of fighting trafficking and are not taking significant steps to do so. Between 2003 and 2005, Israel was upgraded to Tier 2, which includes countries that do not meet minimal standards, but are taking significant measures to do so. Last year, however, Israel was assigned to the "watchlist," a special category which, in Israel's case, indicated that it might be dropped to Tier 3 if it did not improve its performance.
Until 2003, trafficking referred only to the sex trade. Since then, the State Department has expanded the term to include trafficking in human beings for a wide array of exploitative purposes.
Gershuni said her job is to coordinate the efforts of various government ministries and agencies to fight human trafficking through prevention, prosecution of traffickers and their assistants and protection of victims and potential victims.
Although she is a Justice Ministry employee, Gershuni recently moved into her own offices in a building far from Justice Ministry headquarters. She said it would be easier to coordinate and liaison with other ministries and agencies if she were not completely identified with the Justice Ministry.
Gershuni's office researches matters related to human trafficking, represents Israel in international forums dealing with the problem and is now waiting for the chance to get the state to prosecute traffickers according to the new legislation. Until now, there have been a fair number of indictments and convictions in trafficking for the purposes of prostitution, but none regarding the new forms of slavery recognized by the recent legislation.
"Our first cases must be extreme, so that they will guarantee convictions," she told the Post, adding that the courts will have to learn to discern between slavery indictments and lesser charges of work exploitation.
According to the new law, the punishments for slavery crimes are severe. Section 377A of the new legislation states that, "anyone who carries out a transaction involving a person for one of the following purposes, or in so acting places the person in danger of one of the following, shall be liable to 16 years imprisonment."
The illegal purposes include removing an organ from a person's body, giving birth to a child and taking the child away, subjecting the person to slavery or forced labor and instigating the person to commit an act of prostitution or an obscene publication or obscene display. Other new crimes that have been added to the Criminal Code in the context of the new legislation include holding a person under conditions of slavery and forced labor. This law also increased the punishment for exploitation of vulnerable populations.
The government hopes that the introduction of the law and the establishment of the new government office will persuade the State Department to upgrade Israel's status in its annual report. But, it will have to prove not only that it has established new instruments to fight trafficking in humans, but also that these instruments have the necessary teeth.