Speech by the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Stef Blok, to kick off a lunchtime session on ‘Action against Human Trafficking: Sanctions, Accountability and the Rule of Law’

Ladies and gentlemen,

Welcome, and thank you for joining us in our efforts to end human trafficking along the central Mediterranean migration route, and more specifically through Libya. I am grateful to see key players gathered together around the table today. National, international, governmental, non-governmental and media. From the region and beyond. I believe if there’s one thing Libya has shown, it’s that we can only succeed if we work together. Today, I’d like to highlight our achievements so far. But I also want to underline the enormity of the challenge ahead. And to ask for your cooperation and sustained commitment in the weeks and months ahead.

Let me start by taking you back to November 14th, 2017. That day, a report by CNN’s Nima Elbagir shocked the world. In a warehouse near Tripoli, human beings were auctioned off as merchandise. Horrifying images showed us armed gangs who specialised in torture, slavery and rape. Their merchandise: children, women and men. Their assets: camps, prisons, vessels, and even entire ports. Their competitive advantage: ruthlessness and greed. It was instantly clear to the world: human trafficking poses a threat to peace and security in Libya – and beyond. The outcry was broad and unanimous: action had to be taken.

What many people didn’t know was that, behind the scenes, action was already being taken. By many players, from journalists and NGOs to governments. Several kingpins had already been investigated.

Back in February 2017, Nancy Porsia, an investigative journalist, had published a damning article on Abdurahman al-Milad. Italy had already issued arrest warrants against Ermias Ghermay. The UN Panel of Experts on Libya was reporting on serious human rights abuses by the al-Dabbashi criminal network.

But for UN sanctions to be imposed, this wasn’t enough. These criminals had to be linked - beyond any reasonable doubt - to behaviour sanctionable by the UN Security Council. Cases were prepared by the Dutch Public Prosecution Service and foreign ministry, jointly collating information on individuals from public sources (news articles, NGO reports, and legal cases) and confidential sources (UN and Europol reports, legal cases and intelligence reports). A rock-solid case was built. Sanctions were prepared and proposed jointly by France, Germany, the US, the UK and the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Thanks to these efforts, on June 7th this year, the UN Security Council agreed to impose sanctions on six human traffickers in Libya. As I’m sure everyone in this room knows: these hard-fought measures were one of a kind. Never before had UN sanctions been imposed on individual human traffickers. As a result, they can no longer operate in the shadows. They are no longer allowed to cross borders. Countries must deny them entry and freeze their assets.

But, of course, to make these measures truly bite, we need to realise that their adoption was only the start. A first step. The real work starts now. But having said that: three months on, I do see encouraging first signs that they are having an impact. And today, I invite this expert audience to use this meeting to share your thoughts on the impact you’ve seen. 

For the Netherlands’ part, let me say this. The positive impact of the new measures lies partially in their deterrent effect. We know these individuals feel that they’ve been exposed, and backed into a corner. Other human traffickers are now feeling the pressure too. Their business model has suddenly dropped in value. Sanctions are simply bad for business. Of course, it’s still early days. To be successful, we need to stay the course. So I’d like to take this opportunity to urge everyone concerned to redouble their efforts to make sure these sanctions truly bite.

To that end, allow me to call on all the different players to do their part:

To all governments, I would like to say this: ensure you deny entry to these individuals. Do not allow their ill-gotten gains to find sanctuary on your territories. Verify pro-actively whether banks have indeed frozen their assets. Encourage your law enforcement to use their investigative powers to hunt down financial assets.

To the Panel of Experts, I’d like to say this: continue monitoring the implementation of sanctions and report thoroughly, including when countries do not meet their obligations.

To Security Council members: when we gather in November, let us include an obligation for UN member states to report on national implementation to the sanctions committee, in the Resolution extending the sanctions mandate for Libya.

And to NGOs and journalists: follow the money and inform the Panel of Experts about your findings. Continue reporting on the situation independently and thoroughly, monitor the impact and make recommendations when necessary.

Only by working together will we be able to give these measures teeth. Only by working together can we make sure they serve as a true deterrent to other human traffickers – in Libya, and possibly in other places as well.

The Netherlands would like to focus its attention on three areas of action:

  • Hunting down financial assets.
    We are working to establish an international network of diplomats and law enforcement agents to locate financial assets more quickly and encourage countries to freeze them.
  • Expanding the sanctions list.
    We are looking into listing additional human traffickers in Libya. And we want to involve other countries in this process.
  • Replicating similar initiatives in other contexts.
    One example is the sanctions regime for Mali, which now enables specific targeting of those who engage in human trafficking and migrant smuggling. 

Of course, we also need to realise that these sanctions are only part of a larger process. A broader effort by the international community to address human trafficking.

This effort consists of three main elements: imposing sanctions, ensuring accountability and strengthening the rule of law.

Speaking of accountability, I’m glad that Fatou Bensouda from the ICC is present here today. Because the sanctions are indeed sending a clear message to the traffickers: no one is above the law. But the victims deserve more.

We must put the networks’ top brass behind bars, and I believe that, with patience and perseverance, we will get there.

The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court in The Hague is already investigating whether their crimes fall within the jurisdiction of the Court. And several European countries, including my own, are exploring ways to have them brought to justice. Libya has issued numerous arrest warrants already. And UNODC is helping African countries build capacity for the investigation and prosecution of human traffickers.

This brings me to my final point, and I’m delighted to have our colleague from Niger here to elaborate further on the vital importance of the rule of law. Because if we want national implementation of sanctions to work, and to hold criminals accountable, we cannot do without it.

In some cases, the rule of law needs to be strengthened. This is not an easy task, but Niger’s example shows us that it is possible. Niger’s 2015 law against human trafficking is proving effective. Vulnerable migrants are now better protected against violence and exploitation. And, together, we are exploring ways to improve border security.

In closing, I would like to express the hope that this meeting will give us a renewed sense of urgency and a clear roadmap for fighting and defeating human trafficking in the months ahead.

As of 2019, the Netherlands will no longer be serving on the Security Council. So we hope other members will take over this task. We, for our part, will continue to play our convening role. Both behind the scenes – through the international network I mentioned – and through public events like these, aimed at encouraging a broader group of stakeholders to take action.

Because the work is only beginning. On June 7th, an important step was taken. But now we need to stay the course. We owe it to all the victims of human trafficking worldwide.

Thank you.