NEW YORK — President Obama called on nations Tuesday to end the modern slavery of human trafficking and, in the process, got his U.S. Civil War history a bit garbled.
In making an impassioned plea for the international community to crack down on trafficking, Mr. Obama pointed out that his speech at the Clinton Global Initiative was taking place a few days after the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln issuing the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862.
“With the advance of Union forces, it brought a new day — that all persons held as slaves would thenceforth be forever free,” Mr. Obama said.
Actually, the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in 10 Southern states who were, at the time, mostly beyond the control of the federal government. And the document didn’t free an estimated 500,000 slaves in four slave-holding border states — Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland and Delaware — that were loyal to the Union. Slavery was ended in those states by various state and federal actions later on.
But Lincoln’s goal was indeed to end slavery, and Mr. Obama said ending human trafficking is “one of the great human rights causes of our time.”
“It ought to concern every nation, because it endangers public health and fuels violence and organized crime,” the president said. “I do not use that word — slavery — lightly. It evokes obviously one of the most painful chapters in our nation’s history. But around the world, there’s no denying the awful reality. When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed, that’s slavery.”
The speech and executive order earned praise from advocacy groups such as the evangelical Christian-aligned International Justice Mission, as well as the Polaris Project, a D.C.-based group that runs a national hotline to help victims of trafficking.
The Polaris Project’s Bradley Myles called Mr. Obama’s remarks “a turning point in the fight against human trafficking which clearly signal that this is a real problem here in our country.”
“Today President Obama rightly declared that fighting modern slavery is one of the great human rights battles of our era in a speech detailing a number of concrete measures to help identify victims of human trafficking and reduce this crime and human rights abuse throughout the United States and globally” said Mr. Myles, the group’s executive director.
But some other human rights advocates have criticized Mr. Obama’s efforts to control human trafficking. Just last week, Mr. Obama gave seven countries listed by the State Department for poor records on controlling human trafficking — including Libya and Saudi Arabia — a pass on government-mandated sanctions and a loss of foreign aid, citing national security concerns.
The president said it was in the “national interest” not to punish the seven countries ranked by the State Department as among the worst when it comes to combating human trafficking and to give partial waivers to six other countries.
The move earned a sharp rebuke from Rep. Chris Smith, New Jersey Republican and an ardent human rights advocate, who called Mr. Obama’s actions both “unconscionable and indefensible.”
The president on Tuesday issued an executive order to strengthen protections against trafficking in persons in federal contracting. It prohibits contractors from engaging in misleading or fraudulent recruitment practices, charging employees recruitment fees, and destroying or confiscating an employee’s identity documents such as a passport or driver’s license.
“The bitter truth is that trafficking also goes on right here in the United States,” Mr. Obama said. “We can’t ask other nations to do what we are not doing ourselves. Nations must speak with one voice — our people and our children are not for sale.”
The administration said there are an estimated 20 million victims of human trafficking worldwide.
Rep. Darrell Issa, a Republican from California who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Mr. Obama’s executive order borrows heavily from bipartisan legislation in the House and Senate and does not expand the criminal code to encompass slavery for work performed outside of the U.S.
While it cracks down on contractors with the U.S. government, it also does nothing to address violators who receive government grants, Mr. Issa added.
“If [Mr. Obama] is going to find time to go before the cameras and the international community to announce a half-measure policy, President Obama owes it to victims of human trafficking to commit himself to personally engage in the legislative effort to enact actual changes to the criminal statutes,” Mr. Issa said in a statement.
Mr. Issa credited Rep. James Lankford, a Republican from Oklahoma, with leading the legislative effort in Congress to strengthen the law and for holding hearings he said expose a lack of administration action to enforce existing laws.
Mr. Lankford’s legislation passed the House as part of the Defense Authorization Act earlier this year. The Senate has a companion bill co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, among others.