Anahita and Heiko Thoms
Anahita and Heiko Thoms (Carmen Natale/ALM)

When a lawyer and a diplomat join forces to battle human trafficking, the result—at least in the case of Anahita and Heiko Thoms—is an initiative that has given nonprofits a platform to raise money and to meet other people who are fighting for the same cause.

United Against Modern Slavery began about a year ago in the home of Anahita Thoms, counsel to Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, and her husband, Heiko Thoms, who has served as deputy permanent representative of Germany to the United Nations. The couple became aware of the growing problem of human trafficking through their work and decided to use their connections and resources to bring together attorneys, leaders of nonprofits and UN organizations and charities who are working to help victims. One of the initiative’s main projects is to encourage collaboration between pro-bono attorneys and non-governmental organizations, known as NGOs.

Anahita Thoms is co-leader of Freshfields’ global sanctions and trade group. She is a member of the law firm’s corporate social responsibility and pro bono group, which advises international NGOs on sanctions against Russia, Iran, North Korea and Cuba. The group, working with other organizations, has provide legal workshops for migrant students in Frankfurt and programs in Berlin to assist children and families and to empower girls.

As an ambassador, Heiko Thoms has represented Germany in the UN Security Council and the General Assembly. Last year, he was elected vice president of the UN’s Economic and Social Council. He is a distinguished fellow at East West Institute (EWI), a New York City-based group that uses international networking and back channel diplomacy to find solutions to global economic and security issues. He previously has served as vice president of UNICEF’s and UN WOMEN’s executive board.

Q: What prompted the two of you to start this initiative?

A: Anahita: Slavery is not an issue of the past. On a global level, there are more slaves today than ever before. Modern slavery exists on every continent, in every country, in our communities, in Europe, in the U.S., even here in New York. For many years we felt the issue of modern slavery did not get enough attention, but it was the refugee crisis that sparked our initiative. Women, children, minors, often on the run without family, are extremely vulnerable and at a high-risk of becoming victims and being exploited. Throughout our careers, Heiko and I have encountered different forms of modern slavery and learned about the magnitude of the problem, Heiko through his work at the UN, in particular as vice president of UNICEF and UN Women, and I through my pro bono work. We have seen firsthand how massive the challenges are.

Q: What do you mean by “modern” slavery?

A: Heiko: There is a debate on whether to refer to the exploitation as modern slavery, human trafficking, or forced labor. In our view, the name United Against “Modern Slavery” gives the clearest idea of what we are dealing with: a severe human rights problem, almost as old as humankind, but never seen on as large as today. This is what we want to draw attention to. We still need much greater awareness of and attention on the issue.

Q: How is your initiative funded?

A: Anahita: We have deliberately decided not to do fundraising. The focus is to support the work of the many NGOs, such as Sanctuary For Families or Equality Now, that already exist—not just to add one that does more of the same. By using our networks, by spreading the word, by hosting events where they can meet and mingle with others in the space and giving them a platform to do fundraising, this is what we want to achieve, and have funded this all ourselves. And of course try to lean in by example, by taking on pro bono cases myself.

Q: How is your approach different from other organizations that work against trafficking, such as Sanctuary for Families?

A: Heiko: We are not an NGO. We bring people together. United Against Modern Slavery gives individuals, charities and organizations a platform to amplify their voice. The spotlight is on the individuals and NGOs, not on us.

Q: How do you add value to the work of other groups?

A: Heiko: To give you one example, we host salons, in small groups and bigger groups. Last month together with Atlantikbrücke, which is one of the most influential German non-profit organizations working to strengthen transatlantic relations, we hosted an event at our residence where the executive director of Equality Now and the executive director of UNODC [United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] spoke about their work against trafficking. Bringing individuals and organizations together that might have otherwise not collaborated, this is what we want to do.

Q: How common is modern slavery?

A: Anahita: The hidden nature of the crime and low levels of victim identification make estimates necessary, but also difficult. However, even the most conservative estimates are mind-blowing. The International Labor Organization estimates that 21 million people are currently subject to conditions of “forced labor.” According to the Global Slavery Index 45.8 million are enslaved worldwide today. Did you know how lucrative the modern slavery business is: The illicit profits estimated by the International Labor Organization amount to 150 billion dollars per year.

Q: Is the issue getting enough attention? Do Americans understand how important this is?

A: Modern slavery may be the most overlooked human rights issue of the 21st century. This holds true on a global level, and certainly also for Europe, the U.K. and the U.S. In OECD countries, estimates speak of more than 1.5 million persons living in slavery. In New York, the scandal around nail studios, where employees work under slave-like conditions, did garner some attention, but it is very difficult to assess whether and how much has changed in the meantime. Some groundbreaking legislative work has been done in California, which served as a role model for other states and countries to follow (i.e., the UK Modern Slavery Act of 2015). And we are seeing lawsuits brought against companies for their supply chain practices and/or related to their supply chain disclosures.

Q: What is it like working together on a cause that, presumably, means a lot to you both?

A: Anahita: I will let the diplomat answer this question (smiles).

Heiko: We really care about this cause and usually have the same view on which steps to take next and how progress looks like. It is good to have two very different perspectives, the legal and the diplomatic one, and we try to combine our skill sets and networks to achieve as much as possible.

Q: What do anti-trafficking lawyers do? Do they go to court?

A: Anahita: We focus on two areas: To file application for T-Visa on behalf of victims so they can stay in the country, and yes, go to court to get compensation for unpaid work and damages for the victims.

Q: Anahita, does your firm support you in this endeavor?

A: Yes, anti-trafficking pro bono work is a very big focus of ours. I am particularly proud that I am in conjunction with colleagues spearheading the anti-trafficking pillar of our U.S. practice. It is a good and efficient way to combine private and professional endeavors and very meaningful to me.

Q: Heiko, is it a priority for the U.N.?

A: The UN is leading the fight against modern forms of slavery. In 2010, the UN launched a Global Plan of Action to Combat Trafficking in Persons. The adoption of the Sustainable Developments Goals (SDGs) at the UN Summit in September 2015 is also an important milestone. The SDGs call for nations to: “Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labor in all its forms.” It is encouraging to see that in the past few years the number of countries seriously implementing the Protocol against Trafficking in Persons has more than doubled. However, the UN can only show the way. Ultimately, progress will depend on each and every country individually. There are still too many countries that lack the necessary legal instruments or political will.

Q: What specific initiatives does the organization have planned in 2017?

A: Heiko: We want to take the initiative to Europe and get other law firms to join our cause.