Strengthening anti-trafficking protocols in the Caribbean

Evangeline Arethwala

25 September 2023

This is an article from the CSC Development Theme: Strengthening global peace, security and governance

I have always known that my life is meant to be a life of service. Service has always been my motivation. Law was a way to use my passions and my talent to serve, to be able to make changes for people that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to make those changes.

Cherisse Francis

Approximately 50 million people are trapped in modern slavery today. Modern slavery encompasses many forms, including human trafficking, forced labour, and those born into slavery. Over 180 nations have ratified or acceded to the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons (the UN TIP Protocol). The Protocol seeks to prevent and combat trafficking in persons (TIP), protect and assist victims, and promote global cooperation in this area.

In 2013, the Belize government enacted the TIP Prohibition Act which prohibits all forms of trafficking and seeks to prosecute offenders. However, in the seven years since its implementation, only two cases have resulted in prosecution. To address this issue, in 2018 the government signed a formal agreement with the Human Trafficking Institute (HTI) to enhance the capacity of the Belizean criminal justice system to combat trafficking in persons.

In 2019, Commonwealth Alumnus Cherisse Francis joined the HTI team as the Judicial Research Assistant (JRA) for the Designated Trafficking in Persons Judge in the Supreme Court (now called the High Court) of Belize. This role was created to improve Belize’s anti-trafficking laws and implement a model for the judicial system to work in partnership with key stakeholders.

Identifying factors leading to human trafficking

Human trafficking awareness blue ribbon Cherisse shares that Belize’s geographical position is an important factor in the type of trafficking that takes place. Although classified as a middle income Caribbean country, it is located in Central America and shares its borders with Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. As such, trafficked persons are often lured to Belize from these countries on the promise of better economic opportunities, but are subsequently exploited as labourers in the agriculture, fishing, and service sectors, or are victims of sexual exploitation.

Cases of familial trafficking are on the rise, where families facilitate the trafficking of a family member who is then forced into unpaid and/or underage labour. Victims may also be sexually exploited. Cherisse notes that cases of familial trafficking often go unreported because the traffickers are relatives of the victims.

“They [victims of familial trafficking] are underage and are sent with traffickers under the guise that they’ll be sent to school and will be taken care of as one of the children of the household. But they end up taking care of the other children and are mistreated. But the society doesn’t necessarily view this as trafficking. That’s something that is very historical to us [the Caribbean]. Because of which nobody reports it.”

Unfortunately, due to limited resources, law enforcement officials are ill-equipped to identify TIP victims or carry out investigations when cases are reported. This is compounded by the fact that victims are often unwilling to come forward or testify against traffickers for fear of retribution, meaning investigations often fail due to a lack of evidence.

Developing a SWOT analysis framework to support anti-trafficking laws

To address these issues, part of Cherisse’s role as JRA was helping the judge streamline   TIP cases wherever possible to improve the provision of judicial justice to victims and increase the number of prosecutions.

To support this objective, Cherisse conducted a SWOT analysis to identify the stakeholders and actors connected to anti-trafficking work and identify gaps. The SWOT analysis highlighted a lack of budget to effectively conduct anti-trafficking law enforcement and loopholes in the laws which benefitted traffickers, such as the failure to consider cultural practices and the lack of witness protection compounded by poorly managed media coverage which compromised TIP prosecutions.

“One of the things considered in the SWOT analysis was whether trafficking cases should be open to the public or whether they should remain closed. This is because we had some instances during a trial where the media inaccurately reported things and released information that they shouldn’t have released.”

The analysis further identified specific ways in which limited financial resources impact the ability to successfully bring TIP cases to court. English is the official and primary language of Belize. However, trafficked persons from neighbouring countries may not speak English, and different variants of Spanish are spoken in Guatemala and Honduras. The cost of translators to enable these cases to be effectively investigated is not provided within the judicial budget, and, as such, these cases may not make it to court.

The SWOT framework Cherisse developed has subsequently been used as a tool to train judicial officers and other anti-trafficking stakeholders on how to assess TIP cases. In doing so, the SWOT analysis has been helpful to identify gaps and create partnerships to strengthen judicial systems.

To support the Designated Trafficking in Persons Judge to effectively and efficiently process TIP cases, Cherisse also devised a system to summarise lengthy case files into short synopses and included relevant research on TIP to assist with the court hearings. This ensured that the judge was more easily able to recount the relevant facts, arguments and legal elements of the over 100 cases on her docket. Consequently, the judge was better able to organise her case load in a way that was practical and efficient.

As there had been few TIP cases which had reached the Supreme Court under the 2013 legislation, there was limited data available on TIP in Belize. To address this lack of historical data and background, Cherisse compiled resources on anti-trafficking laws and gathered data on ATIPs across the Caribbean. Some of this data has been utilised by the HTI and other entities to provide important background on Belize’s efforts to reduce anti-trafficking.

Reflecting on her contributions to anti-trafficking in Belize, Cherisse notes her major accomplishments as a JRA were to assist the judge in drafting the first set of jury instructions for TIP cases in the country. Jury instructions allow the judge to indicate to the jury what elements of the crime they are looking for and how they could potentially be established from evidence. This is important because as members of the public without legal training, the perceptions of trafficking from popular culture are somewhat different to the legal requirements.

She also delivered training to strengthen practice amongst various anti-trafficking stakeholders in identifying trafficking victims and working with relevant stakeholders at the local, regional and international level to report cases.

To support the next generation of criminal justice practitioners, she planned and executed the first TIP moot trial in the Belize Supreme Court. The training enabled 17 undergraduate criminal justice students interning with the Belize government on TIP and legal procedures to conduct a TIP moot trial before members of the judiciary, other government officials and university representatives.

“Out of that experience some of these students have gone onto further studies in related areas and a few of them got jobs in this field. This was the first time that something of this nature had been done in Belize.”

Reforming juvenile justice laws

Prior to her role as a JRA, following her Commonwealth Scholarship at the University of Aberdeen, Cherisse returned to her home country, Barbados. She then interned at the United Nations Resident Coordinator’s Office for Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean and was a part of team planning and implementing the Regional Mobile Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Gallery.

Here, she assisted the National Human Rights Advisor at the UN in drafting human rights reports for Eastern Caribbean countries. Cherisse feels her LLM in Human Rights and Criminal Justice was instrumental during this time in enabling her to work with children and young people to promote human rights and the SDGs.

Young girl's hand on wire fenceWhilst a JRA, she further explored the importance of promoting the role of youth in developing and raising awareness of child and human rights. During this time, she drew on her LLM research thesis which explored juvenile justice and human rights in the Caribbean, to implement a human rights and empowerment programme for at-risk youth through which they could interact with representatives from the Belize Judiciary and share their stories and experiences.

Through the programme, a number of Supreme Court Judges delivered sessions on various topics relating to human rights and the criminal justice system. The programme also included a more informal element which allowed these members of the judiciary to be a part of a Christmas party for the young people, singing with them, playing games and making crafts. The participants shared that the experience helped change their perspectives on issues facing young people and how to manage juvenile justice proceedings.

Cherisse also sat on the committee seeking to reform Belize’s juvenile justice laws and provided inputs on recommendations and considerations to make laws more responsive to the Belizean context.

Advocating for human rights as a youth ambassador 

Cherisse has continued to support young people through various voluntary roles with human rights groups across the Commonwealth. In 2020, she was made the Barbados U-Reporter for U-Report, a tool run by UNICEF and local partners for community participation, designed to allow young people to engage in and address social issues which concern them. Here, she used social media to highlight human rights matters affecting young people.

“In 2021, there was a situation concerning the government industrial school for youth offenders in Barbados and I utilised my platform as a U-Reporter to educate Barbadian youth on the juvenile laws.”

She was also on the Executive Committee of the Commonwealth Youth Human Rights and Democracy Network (CYHRDN), one of the many communities of youth across the Commonwealth which engage on specific topical issues. In 2022, she served as a youth facilitator and represented CYHRDN at Commonwealth Youth Forum (CYF), a side event to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Kigali, Rwanda.

Cherisse loves to share her expertise on human rights with young people and has run training courses on gender equality, international treaties for human rights, forced marriage, and trafficking across the Commonwealth. She is also a Trustee for the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, London Office and a Global Advisor for the Young Feminist Fund (FRIDA) Caribbean region.

Leading the way from court room to academia

Inspired by her work on Belize’s anti-trafficking efforts, she is currently pursuing doctoral studies in anti-trafficking in the Anglophone Caribbean at the University of Warwick, UK.

Recounting her Commonwealth Scholarship experience, Cherisse values the opportunity her studies provided to interact with colleagues from across the globe and to understand criminal justice systems in different contexts.

“I learned much more about culture and customs in various parts of the world. The diplomacy, tolerance and ability to articulate my opinions respectfully has served me well both personally and professionally after my LLM. The learning from this Scholarship also opened professional doors which eventually led to my PhD research and several endeavours which I have undertaken over time.”

Cherisse Francis is a 2017 Commonwealth Scholar from Barbados. She completed her LLM in Human Rights and Criminal Justice from the University of Aberdeen.