Thursday, September 23, 2004

Speaking to the United Nations on Tuesday, President Bush renewed his call made at the opening of last year’s General Assembly to fight the special evil of trafficking in persons, which he described as a “modern form of slavery.”

Victims of trafficking are often forced into prostitution, factory work and other involuntary servitude. This is no small problem: 14,500 to 17,500 people—mostly women and children — are trafficked into the United States each year. Worldwide, the annual number of people trafficked across international borders is estimated by the CIA to be 600,000 to 800,000. A stunning number of people around the world are living in virtual chains.

Trafficking typically involves coercing or misleading victims to leave their homes and communities to work under slave-like conditions. A common example: Women and children who are poor or displaced by conflict are ensnared with promises of relatively good pay as nannies, maids, waitresses or factory workers abroad. When they arrive, they are forced into prostitution or other dangerous and degrading work. They face the threat of violence to themselves or their families should they try to escape.

Beyond the harm caused to its victims, this nefarious trade also contributes to additional lawlessness. It grosses some $7 billion a year for organized crime groups, and it could surpass the trade in illegal guns and drugs within a decade. The trade supports criminals expert in fabricating travel documents, laundering money and corrupting officials — a network that is also useful to other criminals and worse, terrorists.

With bipartisan support from Congress and cooperation across U.S. agencies, we have raised awareness of this issue around the globe. We have taken serious action against those that permit flagrant human trafficking and collaborated with scores of countries to curtail this trade.

As a result of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, the State Department has issued an annual report on trafficking in persons for the last four years. In June, the latest edition assessed 141 countries on a series of clear indicators and placed 42 nations on a special watch list. These 42 countries have begun to act, but must do more. We will continue to work with them for further results. Ten countries were placed in the worst of three tiers, due to the prevalence of trafficking and their failure to take action on the problem. Under the law, low-rated countries can lose non-humanitarian and non-trade related assistance unless they show immediate action and improvement in their anti-trafficking efforts.

On Sept. 10, the White House announced that four countries acted to avoid these possible sanctions, while six failed to take significant steps to combat trafficking or help those who have suffered from it. These six countries — Burma, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, North Korea, Sudan and Venezuela — are subject to sanctions.

Sanctions are not the goal of our laws or our report. The objective is to encourage action to end the scourge of trafficking, and to rescue and assist victims. In fact, the sanctions came after a three-month period in which countries at-risk were given a chance to demonstrate a willingness to fight this trade through prevention of the crime, prosecution of traffickers, and protection of their victims. Bangladesh, Ecuador, Guyana and Sierra Leone rose to the challenge, and joined numerous others in responding to trafficking in persons. The governments facing sanctions did not.

Bangladesh is a good example of how quickly efforts can achieve measurable results. Since June, the government has taken notable action — prosecuting 17 trafficking-related cases, convicting more than 30 criminals and rescuing more than 100 victims. Bangladesh also has appointed a senior official to oversee trafficking cases, and has raised the priority of prosecutions throughout the country. The nation has rapidly transformed a weak approach to fighting human traffickers into one that is more systematic and supported by political commitment.

In Guyana, as well, the government is responding to its trafficking problem, and has been working with the State Department to confront the issue. Since June, the government has raided trafficking venues and rescued victims, the police have started to keep statistics and an anti-trafficking law is moving through the national assembly. The government has named a czar to coordinate its anti-trafficking initiatives and it also has conducted a public awareness campaign. It will redirect resources to a shelter for victims.

Through energetic diplomacy — backed up by inescapable international condemnations — we will work to reduce the number of trafficking victims to zero. Slavery has no place in the modern world.

Paula J. Dobriansky is under secretary of state for global affairs.

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