Human trafficking has shifted from a marginal international issue to a central and urgent one. But trafficking is not in and of itself a “new” problem. Why did the UN Trafficking Protocol adopted in 2000 lead to significant international activity when a similar UN trafficking treaty in 1949 had little to no effect? Contributing to world-cultural theories of social change, DoCarmo draws on content analysis of over 300 UN documents and first person accounts to argue trafficking did not reemerge and institutionalize as a global social problem in direct response to trafficking getting worse, shifts in geopolitical interests, or the framing strategies of social movements. Rather, each treaty was initiated and given institutional meaning via global bureaucratic processes. The 1949 treaty failed because macro-cultural transformations both during its drafting and subsequent decades made trafficking’s initially perceived harms or “wrongs” obsolete. Decades[ Struggling with making it clear that this was unforeseen; it’s not like participants rationally knew that they would create meaning around trafficking] later, UN conferences and forums during the 1990s served as sites of bureaucratic meaning-making and knowledge production where delegates, NGOs and activists had institutional space to haphazardly air ideas, negotiate, and assign new solutions and meaning to old problems for a variety of social issues including trafficking. The UN then declared trafficking a growing form of transnational crime in 2000 and the majority of countries adopted domestic counter-trafficking laws. 

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