NGOs' Power of Definition: The Construction of Legitimate Representatives in the Human Trafficking Discourse

A case study of the process by which non-governmental organizations and their representatives were constructed as legitimate speakers during the negotiations for the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, paying special attention to the attribution of (victim) "identities." The study explores whether the approaches of Bourdieu and Foucault can play meaningful roles in investigating the construction of legitimate speaker positions and identifying mechanisms by which particular actors are excluded.

In the 1990s NGOs were emphatically welcomed as "the conscience of the world" (Willetts 1996) and guardians of the common good, also in academic scholarship. But since then the legitimacy of these actors has been vigorously challenged, especially their claim to represent those who are unable to speak for themselves. Against that background the project investigates the relationship between NGOs and groups of "affected persons" in the political field of the fight against human trafficking, which – especially because of its historical entanglement with the issue of prostitution – represents an "ideological minefield" (Friesendorf 2007). One fundamental line of conflict runs between "abolitionist" NGOs, which morally condemn all prostitution as basically human trafficking and seek to ban it, and self-organized groups of sex workers who demand legal recognition of prostitution and its professional regulation.
Drawing on the concept of capital and habitus developed by Pierre Bourdieu, this project will investigate why abolitionist NGO actors were perceived as "legitimate speakers" by state representatives at the UN negotiations, whereas the prostitute activists and their positions found no hearing there or in the public sphere. Further, the construction of subject positions in the NGO discourse, in terms of the attribution of "victim identities" and the ways those affected respond to such attributions, will be analyzed using Michel Foucault's theory of power, along with the question whether such attributions and categorizations have a "political effect" (Hacking 1999) that the NGOs amplified through their portrayal of those affected during the negotiations for the UN Protocol.