To fulfil obligations in international law State parties have to take the issue of human trafficking seriously. The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) provides General Recommendations (GR) to member states on the interpretation of the Women’s Convention. In 2018 the CEDAW Committee started to develop a GR on trafficking in women and girls in a process planned to conclude in 2020. The first stage towards this was through the publication of a Concept Note to serve as a basis for dialogue during the two-year international consultation period. The Concept Note is a vital link in a textual chain because it frames the policy problem and actively constructs its own ‘documentary reality’. This article provides a critical analysis of the CEDAW Concept Note on the grounds that such analysis provides an understanding of its discursive construction of trafficking, migrant labour and sex work, by an institution responsible for international jurisprudence on human rights. Analysis of the Concept Note explores the documentary constructions including narratives that merge adult women with girls, the symbolism of exploitation, the silencing of scientific research, the elision of sex worker voices, and sex work as work. The analysis leads us to conclude that the General Recommendation should define what counts as ‘exploitation’, and ‘forced labour’, and address the growing international recognition of best evidence on the wider impact of sex work laws, in order that legal framing and constructions of sex trafficking are not erroneously used to curtail rights of sex workers.
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