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Trafficked children should not be prosecuted, says Europe’s top human rights Court

In V.C.L. and A.N. v. the United Kingdom, the European Court of Human Rights (“ECtHR”) examined for the first time the compatibility of the prosecution of victims of trafficking with Articles 4 & 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Although it ruled that such prosecution would not per se violate Article 4 of the Convention, the ECtHR found that the UK authorities had failed to present clear reasons consistent with the definition of trafficking, contained in the European Anti-Trafficking Convention, to continue the criminal proceedings against the applicants. As the appeals stage did not cure the initial shortcomings, the applicants did not receive a fair trial, in violation of Article 6§1 of the Convention.

The case concerned two Vietnamese nationals who were minors at the time they were arrested working at cannabis farms in the UK. Both were charged with drug offences and received prison sentences after they pleaded guilty on the advice of their initial lawyers, despite strong evidence and concerns raised by the UK Border Agency, social services and an NGO that they were or may have been victims of trafficking. The Court of Appeals subsequently rejected their appeals.

GRETA made a third-party submission to the ECtHR in the case of A.N. GRETA stressed that to protect and assist trafficking victims, it was of the utmost importance to properly identify them in a timely manner. GRETA considered that the prosecution of identified victims of trafficking in human beings for offences which they were compelled to commit in a trafficking context may amount to violation of the “non-punishment principle” enshrined in Article 26 of the Anti-Trafficking Convention. This principle aims to safeguard the human rights of trafficking victims and avoid further victimisation. Criminalisation of victims contravened the State’s obligation to provide services and assistance to them, and discouraged them from coming forward and cooperating with the investigation into those responsible for their trafficking.

The ECtHR awarded the applicants 25,000 euros each in respect of non-pecuniary damage, and 20,000 euros each in respect of costs and expenses.


The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings entered into force on 1 February 2008, following its 10th ratification. While building on existing international instruments, the Convention goes beyond the minimum standards agreed upon in them and strengthens the protection afforded to victims.

The Convention has a comprehensive scope of application, encompassing all forms of trafficking (whether national or transnational, linked or not linked to organised crime) and taking in all persons who are victims of trafficking (women, men or children). The forms of exploitation covered by the Convention are, at a minimum, sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude and the removal of organs.

The main added value of the Convention is its human rights perspective and focus on victim protection. Its Preamble defines trafficking in human beings as a violation of human rights and an offence to the dignity and integrity of the human being.


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