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Organ trade convention

Heimo Fischer / al
November 22, 2013

Europe's multi-national human rights organization, the Council of Europe, is discussing a draft convention banning the trafficking of human organs. Still, the criminal practice could take years to stop around the world.

A container holding a human organ is held by the handle. (Photo: Frank May/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Organ trading is a worldwide phenomenon. In Bangladesh, rural villagers are known to sell their kidneys for between 1,400 euros and 1,900 euros ($1,891 - $2,567). On the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, refugees from Africa are reportedly subject to organ theft. In China, the kidneys, lungs and hearts of executed death row inmates are used for transplants. In the Balkans, the trade in human organs is also well established.

Exactly how many organs around the world that were taken out of donors' bodies against their will is hard to determine. But, one thing is clear, the illegal trade in human organs has risen in recent years across the globe.

"The demand for transplant organs is much higher than what is available," said Manfred Nowak an international lawyer from Vienna, who formerly served as the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. "The organ trade is the type of organized crime that is growing very quickly."

An important first step

In order to stop this criminal practice, the Council of Europe has decided to take an important step: they have suggested a draft convention against trafficking in human organs. The permanent committee of the Council's parliamentary assembly has met on Friday (22.11.2013) in Vienna to approve the convention. The agreement could come into power by next year.

The former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak (Photo: EPA/SALVATORE DI NOLFI dpa)
The former UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Manfred NowakImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Often confused with the European Council, the Council of Europe is the leading, multi-national organization for human rights on the European continent. A total of 47 countries belong to it, including all 28 European Union members. The organization has its headquarters in Strasbourg.

The draft convention foresees punishments for those who force people to part with their organs or who pay them for their body parts. It also tackles the problem of transplant tourism. At the moment, wealthy patients are often able to travel to clinics in China, Pakistan or India to receive transplant organs. It's often unclear where these organs come from.

Middlemen and corrupt surgeons are those due to be targeted toughest by the convention. Individual states will be free to determine how they deal with people who are selling an organ themselves due to financial need.

Four Pakistani men show off their scars after having their kidneys removed (Photo:Olivier Matthys/EPA dpa)
Selling their own health: these men i Pakistan have sold their kidneys for moneyImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Convention as a leading example

The rules of the convention, when it comes into force, won't be binding in every European state however. Each country will have to adapt the agreement to match its domestic laws.

Wenzel Michalski of Human Rights Watch called the Council of Europe's initiative is a milestone in the area. "A European convention could become a leading example for a worldwide convention on this issue in the future," Michalski said.

There has already been legal action against illegal organ trafficking in Europe. At the end of April of this year, an EU-led court in Kosovo convicted five men of buying human organs for customers from Israel, Germany, Canada and Poland. During the court case it came to light that the donors received 12,000 euros per kidney. The organs were sold on to patients for ten times that amount.

Boosting the rights of the poor

Whether the convention will really slow down the trade in human organs, is hard to know. But, that's not the point, according to law professor Manfred Nowak. "It's about human dignity," he told DW. And, he said, it's about protecting the rights of the poor, who sell parts of their body due to financial pressures.

Internationally, trading in human organs is tolerated. In Iran, for instance, the practice is legal. In China, the government confirms that executed death-row prisoners often have their organs harvested and used for emergency transplants. Regularly, there were claims that the organs don't come from detainees but, for example, from murdered members of the Falun Gong movement. But there is no official evidence for that Nowak said.

At the start of November a government spokesperson said that from 2014 onwards, China would not be transplanting organs of prisoners. The spokesperson did not stipulate an exact date however. Human rights expert Wenzel Michalski doesn't believe anyway that the practise can be quickly stopped.

Wenzel Michalski takes part in a talk show in Berlin
Wenzel Michalski says the Council of Europe has a leading role to playImage: imago

"An entire industry has built up around the selling of organs," Michalski said, adding that security, police, transport companies and hospitals are all earning money from the trade. The central government of the country doesn't have the power to change the behavior of the influential provincial governors, Michalski said.

China would also be able to sign up to the Council of Europe's proposed convention should it choose. The framework isn't just for countries in Europe: any state is welcome to sign it.

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