The United States’ greatest shame is that slavery was allowed to exist for so long. Slavery was a contradiction of the very principles upon which the United States was founded, and our bloodiest war was fought to eradicate slavery from our country.
Today, a new global abolition movement again fights the evil of slavery and the United States is at the fore of a push to eliminate human trafficking and forced labor both domestically and internationally. While wars in Iraq and nukes in Iran captivate media headlines, human trafficking and forced labor leaves millions enslaved in brothels, dead from HIV or stuck in a life of debt bondage that they can never escape. By assessing countries’ progress in eliminating contemporary forms of slavery the State Department’s 2006 Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), released this month, is a powerful diplomatic tool that encourages governments to take meaningful steps to eliminate one of the world’s worst human rights problem.
Recently, the world’s attention has been riveted by Germany’s promotion of sex trafficking to accommodate the “needs” of millions of male World Cup attendees– it turns out that along with selling beer and schnitzel they will be selling women.
While shocking, Germany’s magnet for sex trafficking is only the tip of the problem. Trafficking in human beings is a contemporary form of slavery– the U.S. government estimates that over 800,000 people are trafficked annually. Out of the 800,000 trafficked victims, 80 percent of them are females and 50 percent are minors. Often poor women are lured under false pretenses of real job offers in other countries only to find themselves sex slaves in a brothel or in forced domestic servitude. In addition, the International Labor Convention reports that millions are enslaved in forced labor where people are legally recruited for jobs only to find miserable working conditions, no pay and confinement in factories; as most of these workers take on large amounts of debt to secure the job, they are obligated by debt to stay.
The keystone to the United States government’s response to this modern day form of slavery is the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which requires federal agencies to combat trafficking domestically and work with other nations on a global level to ensure that all countries take steps to eliminate these crimes. As part of the TVPA, the State Department issues its annual Trafficking in Persons Report (TIP), which ranks countries according to their efforts to combat trafficking. Countries that do not satisfy minimum standards or show an effort to combat trafficking can be subject to sanctions.
Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Uzbekistan and Cuba, along with seven other countries, are among the world’s worst offenders, according to the 2006 TIP report. John Miller, the head of the State Department, described why Iran’s grade had fallen since the last report: “[W]e have received a number of reports that Iran imprisons or executes a significant number of trafficking victims.”
But there are signs of progress that show that the global community is responding to U.S. pressure. As a significant portion of US foreign assistance is contingent on whether countries meet certain standards, forty-one countries in the last year passed tough new laws against human trafficking. There were also 4,700 trafficking related convictions world wide alone, up from 3,000 last year. The president’s initiative to combat trafficking in persons has yielded innovative campaigns: Brazil uses the media and public awareness campaigns to deter U.S. sex tourists; and a local NGO in Cambodia launched an initiative to reintegrate trafficking victims by providing shelter, counseling and vocational training.
Critics of the administration’s efforts claim that politics play a role in determining some country’s rankings in the TIPS report and protest the administration’s requirement that aid groups declare their opposition to prostitution before they can get anti-trafficking funds. But these critics ignore the big picture: this administration has put more resources and expended more political capital to combat human trafficking than any previous administration. In so doing, they have put the issue of human trafficking squarely on the top of the international agenda. As a result, other countries are responding with positive action.
As the president said in his 2005 inaugural address, “No one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave.” The treatment of humans as disposable chattel is unacceptable whether it is through debt bondage or sex slavery. The United States can be proud of being at the forefront of this new global abolition movement even though there is a long way to go.
A. Yasmine Rassam is the Director of International Policy for the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF). She recently gave a lecture about “Women’s Participation in the Democratization Processes in Iraq and Afghanistan: Achievements and Challenges.”