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An Interview with Professor Michel Veuthey

Article published on Catholic Profiles website on 06/09/2020 by Gordon Nary

Gordon: What initially interested you in studying International Law and where did you study?

Professor Veuthey: I had initially been tempted to study theology, the laws of the Creator and of creation. In the end, I decided to go to law school to understand the relationships between individuals and nations. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on links between “Guerrilla Warfare and International Humanitarian Law,” in order to find out whether common fundamental humanitarian restraints could be found and respected between regular armies and resistance movements.

At the time, many politicians and lawyers had been saying that in asymmetric warfare there are no rules. I had (and still have) an interest in showing that all sides actually share common interests to limit the damages of violence in an armed conflict. I strongly believe that the true nature of any law is the common interest.

For my Ph.D. research, I visited libraries and met people in different parts of the Western world: Geneva (Switzerland), Munich (Germany), The Hague Academy of International Law (Netherlands), as well as, in the U.S., the International Legal Studies Library in Cambridge and the Library of Congress. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, I also went to Africa and the Americas, Asia, and in the Near East, and there I met officers from both sides of various conflicts

Gordon: What was the most challenging course that you took and why?

Professor Veuthey: Criminal law. At the time of my studies, I found that for the most part criminal law was simply not interested in the rehabilitation and reinsertion of criminals. Criminal law seemed like a monster to me. A beast with no interest in any form of mercy and reconciliation. At the time, criminal law in the 1960s seemed like some sort of an accounting exercise, where crimes were weighed and repressive punishments dished out. Many years after, as Delegate of the ICRC in South Africa, I discovered truth and reconciliation commissions. Today, restorative justice receives more attention in university courses and in the practice of justice.

Furthermore, more than any academic courses, I found the most interesting challenges where in my field missions and humanitarian diplomatic assignments for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). Each time, I met the unexpected: my first assignment in 1968 was visiting political detainees in Greece’s military dictatorship. I realized that international law, especially international humanitarian law, is the result of a permanent process of negotiation, adaptation to local contexts, specific situations and that the respect of humanitarian law is promoted or hindered by the human factor more than by legal arguments.

Gordon: Where did you study International Humanitarian Law and what courses had the greatest impact on your life?

Professor Veuthey: Again, the contact with actors of contemporary conflicts was more influential than university courses: working at the ICRC headquarters in Geneva during the preparatory works of the 1977 Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions on the protection of war victims, having exchanges/dialogues with both sides, in Geneva, Algiers, Dar-es-Salam, Brussels, Oslo, with Africans, Latino-Americans and Vietnamese having taken part in wars of independence.

Listening to American, German and Portuguese officers having fought against guerrillas as well as their guerrilla opponents was a living demonstration that, on the battlefield, even enemies can find a common ground on humanitarian restraints for the protection of wounded and prisoners, as well as of civilians, because there is a common interest (not always shared by political leaders) of combatants of all sides to agree on limitations of sufferings.

Gordon: When did you join the Swiss Association of the Order of Malta, what is their mission, and what are your primary responsibilities?

Professor Veuthey: I joined the Swiss Association in June 1986, after my first pilgrimage to Lourdes. I was a Member of the Council of the Swiss Association for 9 years, then a Member of the Board of Communications at the Grand Magistry. I then joined the Permanent Mission in Geneva as Deputy Permanent Observer in 2011, and then, in 2017, in addition to that role, I was also appointed as Ambassador to monitor and combat trafficking in persons.

Gordon: When were you appointed Vice-President of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law and what are your primary responsibilities?

Professor Veuthey: After 33 years of service with the ICRC, I was elected to the Council of the San Remo Institute. From 2007 to September 2019, I was Vice-President of the International Institute of Humanitarian Law (IIHL). The Institute is headquartered in San Remo (Italy) and constitutes a platform of humanitarian dialogue for the codification and training of humanitarian law. Since 2000, I am the Director of the Summer Course on IHL. During two weeks every summer, this course brings together humanitarian workers, diplomats, civil servants, and military officers. For the first time, this year, the Summer Course is taking place online. Registration is open until the 29th of June.

Gordon: What initially interested you in human trafficking?

Professor Veuthey: When I was asked by the Order of Malta if I would be ready to accept this mission, I immediately accepted, realizing that human trafficking, as a contemporary form of slavery, is a collection of massive – and often ignored – violations of fundamental human rights. In many cases, it amounts to a war crime or to a crime against humanity. In other words, it is a challenge to my life’s work with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the International Institute of Humanitarian Law (IIHL).

Gordon: Please provide an overview of the human trafficking challenges globally.

Professor Veuthey: Human trafficking constitutes modern-day slavery. There are more slaves today than ever in history, probably between 40 to 100 million, women, children, and men.\For criminals, victims of trafficking are merely a commodity that can be used – and even sold – for financial gain. It is a total disregard for human rights and dignity. It is said to generate USD 150 billion for traffickers each year. Sex and labor trafficking industry is second only to drug trafficking as the world’s largest criminal industry, according to the International Labour Organization and the nonprofit Polaris Project.

In addition to the UN, the European Union, the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), as well as other regional organizations such as OAS or the African Union and ASEAN. The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie also contributed to raising awareness by publishing reports and adopting resolutions.

Individual Governments take an active part in monitoring and combating human trafficking: The Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report is the U.S. Government’s principal diplomatic tool to engage foreign governments on human trafficking. It is also the world’s most comprehensive resource of governmental anti-trafficking efforts.

Every country is affected and it comes in many forms: slave labor, sexual slavery, forced marriage, forced motherhood, sale of children, trafficking of children into armed groups, forced prostitution, forced criminal activities, forced organ removal (« organ harvesting »). There are many forms of human trafficking, but one consistent aspect of it is the abuse of the vulnerability of victims.

People who help the victims of human trafficking need to be trained in order to be able to identify, assist, protect, and rehabilitate victims of human trafficking.

There needs to be training for all who may come across a potential victim, such as immigration officials, police officers, airline staff, medical doctors, nurses, judges, priests, and nuns.

The training can take many forms. It can be done within the same organization, or in cooperation with other stakeholders, including survivors, learning from each other’s best practices. For example, two years ago, a Plan of Action for the Order of Malta on behalf of human trafficking victims listed three priorities:

    • Raise awareness
    • Take action
    • Dialogue with partners in sharing best practices

Another example was in October 2019, when the French Association of the Order of Malta organized in Paris a Conference on human trafficking between Africa and Europe (“How to better fight, together, the sexual trafficking of women in West Africa and to support their rehabilitation?”). 

The Order of Malta is constantly monitoring human trafficking online and in international and academic conferences.

At each session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva, as well as in Vienna and New York, the Order of Malta makes interventions on various forms of human trafficking (or contemporary slavery): forced labor, forced marriages and forced motherhood(surrogacy), sale of children, pornography, forced organ harvesting.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, advocacy and training have to be done mostly online. As Ambassador of Order of Malta to monitor and combat trafficking in persons, with the help of a Swiss foundation, the “Collège Universitaire Henry-Dunant,” I am working with a few friends on an online course against human trafficking for helpers, which is available freely.

We are looking for funding to have it translated into other languages: Arabic, French, German, Russian, and Spanish.

We are constantly monitoring forms of human trafficking and best practices of prevention, protection, and rehabilitation. We are adding these up-dates on the online course as well as on a dedicated website: www.christusliberat.org.

We have started cooperating with the University of Nice (France) on human trafficking: a public conference (February 2020) and a Symposium (20-21 May 2021) is already planned. A new legal clinic composed of students will also start in September to work on the articulation of European law and human trafficking.

We are planning to cooperate with other universities in France, Italy, Switzerland, and the U.S.A., among others for the 20th anniversary of the Palermo Protocol to prevent, suppress and punish trafficking in persons, and, in according to the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church, to address root causes of human trafficking.

In our courses, websites, interventions, conferences we like to highlight the often overlooked contribution of religious congregations[1] in preventing human trafficking, protecting, rehabilitating and reinserting victims and survivors and to promote the cooperation with other organizations. Since 2017, the Order of Malta has participated in the most important meetings against human trafficking organized by the Holy See (Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Migrants and Refugees Dicastery) and Catholic inspired organizations.

Every year since 2017, we organize with the Apostolic Nuncio and the Episcopal Vicar in Geneva a Holy Mass on the 2nd of December for the commemoration of the “Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Slavery” and on the 8th of February for the feast of Saint Bakhita. We all need to pray for human trafficking victims, for their helpers, and for the conversion of traffickers.

Gordon: What has the United Nations done to address this challenge?

Professor Veuthey: The United Nations has contributed to monitoring and combating human trafficking,

    • first in treaty-making, specifically on human trafficking and more generally on human rights, rights of children, women, migrant workers, refugees;
    • second in awareness-raising, by publishing reports and recommendations on various aspects of human trafficking and contemporary slavery published reports on various aspects of human trafficking and contemporary slavery.
    • third in promoting action by Governments, international organizations, civil society, including business for the prevention of human trafficking and the protection, rehabilitation of its victims and survivors.

Even if there is a weakening of international cooperation, the UN remains a unique platform for dialogue. Others use this platform for naming and shaming. We use it for advocacy and the sharing of good practices.

The Order of Malta, in cooperation with other Permanent Missions, beginning with the Holy See, and also with international, humanitarian organizations, as well as with NGOs, use the UN to monitor and combat human trafficking.

Gordon: What is your opinion is the responsibility of Catholic parishes to address human trafficking?

Professor Veuthey: The role of Catholic parishes is very important: the Pastoral Orientations on Human Trafficking, published in January 2019 by the Migrants and Refugee Dicastery, under the supervision of the Holy Father, give fundamental explanations and guidelines: Catholic parishes could do more in preventing human trafficking, protecting victims, informing them about remedies. Many Catholic congregations are active at the local and international levels. Their best practices should be better known. A new version of the Pastoral Orientations, on Human Trafficking of Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), was published a few weeks ago.

Since the beginning of my mandate as Ambassador, I have tried to address this key issue to raise awareness and to collect best practices, first with a dedicated website www.christusliberat.org as well as with online courses on human trafficking for helpers. These courses are available, free of charge, on the following website www.cuhd.org

Gordon: What impact has the Covid-19 pandemic had on human trafficking?

Professor Veuthey: As the pandemic – and its aftermath – increases the vulnerability to human trafficking, there is a heightened necessity for more prevention and protection in order to properly assist victims.

The coronavirus pandemic cannot be approached only from a medical and social perspective: we must ensure that the essential rights to life and dignity of all are respected, regardless of their age, sex, or legal status.

As the pandemic paralyzes international meetings, digital platforms must, therefore, be used to their full extent to educated people about the rights, and remind States and civil society of their duties.

The coronavirus pandemic cannot be approached only from a medical perspective: it is necessary to ensure that the rights of all persons to life and dignity are respected, regardless of their age, sex, or legal status. The pandemic certainly increases the vulnerability of potential victims of human trafficking and exposes them to all its forms.

One of the reasons for serious violations of fundamental human rights is the ignorance of standards and the weakness of implementation mechanisms, which is increased in these times of pandemic.

We should all work hard to promote education and training – even if they are online and/or informal – in order to contribute to prevent, protect and help rehabilitate victims of trafficking and support those who help them.

As the pandemic paralyzes international and academic meetings, digital platforms must, therefore, be used to the full to remind people of the rights and duties of States and civil society, expose gaps and publicize good practices. This is also what we do on a daily basis by contributing to the www.christusliberat.org website.

Gordon: What can we as individuals do to address this challenge?

Professor Veuthey: Individuals can do a lot:

    • Addressing the demand as consumers, as businesses, as citizens, to assess that supply chains do respect not only the natural environment but integral ecology, according to the Laudato Si’, excluding slave labor. Consumers need to care about human trafficking in the supply chains, should stop using products and services they know that human trafficking was used to create.
    • Being able to identify victims and to refer them to persons able to provide them protection and assistance.
    • Supporting individuals and organizations providing protection, assistance, and rehabilitation for victims
    • Praying for victims, the people who are helping the victims, and the conversion of traffickers.

Gordon: Thank you for this extraordinary interview and for helping all of us better understand the challenges of human trafficking and our moral responsibilities to address this challenge.


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