Protecting Women from Trafficking & Abuse: Here. There. Everywhere

Stephen Keim, reviewing Elaine Pearson’s Chasing Wrongs and Rights” ….

Elaine Pearson was born in Sydney but grew up in Perth and completed her law degree at Murdoch University in November 1998.

A graduate job with a leading law firm on the Esplanade or St George’s Terrace was not for Pearson. She found and applied for a volunteer job funded by the Australian government with a small anti-human trafficking NGO based in Bangkok, Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. She was successful, but part of the deal turned out to be that, if she could pay her own way to Geneva, she could take part in an activists’ side meeting being held at a United Nations conference taking place in Geneva at the same time.

So, Pearson’s first real day at work was not working on document disclosure for a huge piece of litigation but, rather, to listen, transfixed, to activists debating the correct approach to human trafficking, namely, whether all sex work is bad and should be prevented (including, if necessary, restricting the rights of trafficked women) or whether solutions should be addressed from the perspective of the trafficked woman including respect for her right to remain in sex work if she so chooses.

So began Pearson’s, by no means, finished career as an international human rights activist. Chasing Wrongs and Rights follows Pearson’s career for the next two decades. Chasing Wrongs and Rights has merits as a personal memoir and a story of adventure punctuated with her experiencing arrests and other personal dangers. However, Chasing Wrongs and Rights is also a study of the international human issues on which Pearson has worked over those years; the difficulties in overcoming human rights abuses; the long time-spans over which work must be done to achieve success; and the careful approach to methodology, a human rights worker must use, to avoid making bad situations worse. And it teaches how important it is to treasure the victories when they happen.

Chasing Wrongs and Rights also pays homage to very many admirable men and women with whom Pearson has worked. These people include her colleagues in various organisations but, also, include victims of human rights abuses who have been sufficiently brave to stand up and fight for their own rights; the rights of their families; and the rights of others.

After two years with Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Pearson obtained a position with a larger (and much older) organisation, Anti-Slavery International. While still working on human trafficking and slavery issues, Pearson got to investigate the problems, first-hand. Her work involved conducting interviews in Africa and Europe looking at the problems, both, in the places from which women are trafficked with false promises of opportunities for good jobs and good pay and at the destinations at which these women arrived where their passports were taken from them and they had no choice about where they lived or the work they did.

The world of international human rights abuses continued to expand for Pearson and, in 2007, she was appointed Asia Deputy Director at Human Rights Watch working out of New York.

Many of the issues on which Pearson worked at Human Rights Watch are issues which have concerned and fascinated me over the last decade and a half. Pearson charts her work on human rights abuses in Sri Lanka, occurring both before and at the end of the civil war. She, particularly, focuses on the Sri Lankan government’s actions in disappearing people. Pearson, poignantly, relates her conversations with mothers of the disappeared, who continue to protest every day for accountability and justice.

Pearson discusses HRW’s work in the Philippines documenting and reporting upon now former President Duterte’s extra-judicial murders in the that country. Pearson describes Duterte, up close, but her most personal writing is reserved for the courageous Leila De Lima, one of the few politicians to oppose Duterte. The amazing and fearless de Lima continued to issue press releases and campaign from her place of pre-trial detention on trumped up charges. And Pearson paints an amazing word picture of the equally brave Clarita Alia, of Davao City, who lost four sons to Duterte’s killing squads in that city. Pearson, herself, gave evidence against Duterte in a hearing in the southern Philippines.

Pearson also deals with her visits to Manus Island and her conversations with Kurdish writer and refugee, Behrouz Boochani. She discusses her research into the failure to provide proper care and support for mentally ill prisoners in Queensland and Western Australia.

One of the most fascinating chapters deals with Pearson’s work to save Bahraini soccer player, Australian permanent resident and political refugee,[2] Hakeem al-Araibi. Hakeem was facing being deported by the Thai government to Bahrain to face imprisonment and likely torture. The incident is notable as an example of the Australian Federal Police contributing to endangering the life of an Australian in circumstances where an informed assessment would have led to very different action. The AFP, acting on an Interpol red notice issued by Bahrain, notified Thai authorities of Hakeem’s travel to Bangkok (with his wife for their honeymoon). The AFP also advised Thai officials that Hakeem was wanted by Bahraini authorities.

The incident is also notable for the contribution of former Socceroo, Craig Foster, to saving Hakeem’s freedom and, possibly, his life. Foster travelled to Bangkok and then to Europe to raise the alarm with football fans and football authorities across the world. Pearson credits Foster’s contribution as pivotal and none would doubt that it was. Foster’s continuing work for human rights[3] must have him well on the way to becoming a living national treasure.[4]

Chasing Wrongs and Rights is a book for our times. In a world where so many bad things happen, empathy fatigue is a constant threat. It is important to remember that things can be done and that people, like Pearson and the many people discussed in Chasing Wrongs and Rights, are doing things. We can help a little where we choose. Indeed, as Pearson’s life and writings show us, there may even be a lifelong career in it. It may mean spurning those long sought after offers from our most admired law firms but, as Chasing Wrongs and Rights and Pearson’s experience shows, taking the path less travelled can, sometimes, lead you a long way.

Stephen Keim, ……….  Clayfield, ………..12 November 2022


[1] Now, an imprint of Simon & Schuster but with an interesting past:

[2] Hakeem had been granted asylum as a political refugee in 2014. This had allowed him to progress to a permanent residency visa.



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