Fragile States, Vulnerable People: The Human Trafficking Dimension

Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Center for Strategic and International Studies
Washington, DC
January 13, 2015

(As Prepared for Delivery)

Good evening and thank you, Sarah, for this opportunity to sit down with you and members of the Human Rights Initiative to discuss human trafficking. It is apposite to be here at CSIS because trafficking touches on so many elements of our foreign and security policy and CSIS has long been home to a multi-dimensional understanding of international security. It is a real honor to be in a room full of trafficking experts, people who have been a central part of this extraordinary movement to protect human rights. My thoughts are shaped by my role as “J” – the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, who supports the work of the State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (or TIP) Office. My goal is to offer my perspective on how far we have come in a fight in which the State Department and entire Administration are working hard. I also want to discuss what I see as the next layer of challenges facing those committed to ending human slavery.

President Obama has again proclaimed January as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention month. 2015 as a year is important because it marks the 15th anniversary of both our anti-trafficking legislation, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (or TVPA), as well as the United Nations Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, which is known as the Palermo Protocol.

Normatively, we have come a long way in the past 15 years: 166 states are now party to the Palermo Protocol. Human trafficking has moved from a misunderstood, secondary issue to an international priority regularly raised by the highest officials and leaders throughout the world, including President Obama and the current Pope. Practically, more than one hundred countries have passed anti-trafficking laws, and many have established specialized law enforcement units, set up trafficking victim assistance mechanisms, and launched public awareness campaigns aimed at combating this worldwide crime. And yet, we have a considerable way to go before human trafficking is eradicated around the world.

Congress and the American people also have much of which to be proud. The TVPA – and the annual State Department Trafficking in Persons or TIP Report it mandates – have played a major role in raising global awareness of human trafficking and galvanizing international action to address both labor and sex trafficking crimes. The Report analyzes the efforts of 188 countries and territories – including the United States – to confront this global scourge.

Fueled by the dedication of the team in the State Department’s TIP Office, as well as officers at every U.S. mission around the world, the TIP Report plays an important role in confronting this lucrative transnational crime. Secretary Kerry calls it “a gold standard in assessing how well governments – including our own – are meeting that responsibility” of confronting human trafficking.

As many of you know, the TVPA lays out a set of criteria by which the State Department assesses foreign government responses to human trafficking. Countries and territories are ranked by tiers based on their compliance with these standards enumerated in the law. The report not only provides an annual snapshot of the problem, but also, through its rankings and its associated sanctions regime and norm-setting, helps hold governments accountable in their efforts to fight human trafficking. It motivates governments to develop policies and structures to fight this serious crime. Researchers have documented the impact of the Report on states’ responses to trafficking, including the correlation between tier ranking downgrades and subsequent enactment of anti-trafficking legislation.

The TIP Report also provides a list of specific recommendations for how each country and territory can better prevent this crime, prosecute its perpetrators and assist its victims. These recommendations are the heart of the Report. They guide U.S. diplomacy and engagement on human trafficking issues – both publicly and privately. They serve as a roadmap to better address the problem – not for the sake of improving a tier ranking, but rather for making institutional changes that will put additional traffickers behind bars, help victims get assistance, and prevent the vulnerable from being exploited.

The State Department’s TIP Office has increasingly sought to combine TIP diplomacy with complementary programming to help countries achieve results. For example, last year the TIP Office funded Free the Slaves, the International Association for Women Judges, and the Warnath Group to help Haiti enact a strong anti-trafficking law and initiate its first trafficking prosecution. These efforts are especially significant given Haiti’s chronically weak institutions and ongoing political deadlock over the scheduling of overdue local and legislative elections.

In Burma, three years of intensified diplomatic engagement has galvanized significant anti-trafficking reforms, including the repeal in 2012 of two British-era laws that explicitly allowed officials to subject citizenry to forced labor, and the enactment of a new law prohibiting all forms of forced labor. President Obama’s historic trip to Burma in 2012 saw the forging of the “first of its kind” U.S. – Myanmar Joint Plan on Trafficking in Persons, and the initiation of a standalone bilateral TIP dialogue between our two countries. We continue to work closely with the Burmese government to support implementation of its laws and tangible steps to address long-standing human trafficking issues.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, USAID is supporting an assessment to measure the scope and nature of human trafficking in the artisanal mining industry in South Kivu and Katanga provinces. The results will inform the design and implementation of a new program to combat trafficking and labor exploitation in the Congo’s mining sector. In Nigeria, USAID is providing psycho-social counseling and healing for women and young girls abducted by Boko Haram from Chibok, Borno State. A Training of Trainers program teaches local Christian and Muslim women to use their capacity and skills to help traumatized individuals from Chibok and the wider communities.

As Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, almost every issue I touch has implications for human trafficking. Whether working with the Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT); Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL); Population, Migration and Refugees (PRM); International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL); Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO); or other offices in J, so often there is a trafficking angle. This highlights something we live at J – the reality that security and human rights are closely interwoven and that promoting security is often a key means of supporting human rights. Crises often cause a spike in trafficking as people are displaced, lose income sources, and seek security for themselves and their families. The breakdown of social and government structures leave populations vulnerable as protections are reduced and options for recourse disappear.

While human trafficking is a problem in every country, we have seen how traffickers take advantage of conflict, the collapse of state institutions, allied criminal networks, and even natural disasters to prey on and exploit vulnerable civilians. Pope Francis highlighted this connection in his recent World Day of Peace message. As he said, “Further causes of slavery include armed conflicts, violence, criminal activity and terrorism. Many people are kidnapped in order to be sold, enlisted as combatants, or sexually exploited, while others are forced to emigrate, leaving everything behind: their country, home, property, and even members of their family.”

Terrorism’s nexus to trafficking is not new – the so-called language schools that sex traffickers used as visa mills were the institutes that provided visa paperwork to the 9/11 hijackers – but the connection between terrorism and trafficking has been brought to the fore by ISIL and Boko Haram. These groups have proudly professed practicing slavery, justifying their actions with a perverse interpretation of Islam. In early December, ISIL even published a list of rules on how female slaves, both adults and children, should be treated once captured. This pamphlet instructs that it is “permissible” to have sexual intercourse with, beat, and trade non-Muslim slaves, including young girls. In my meetings with Yezidi leaders, I have seen firsthand the psychologically devastating effect of knowledge that a close relative is being enslaved.

Fortunately, when governments are prepared and strong enough to confront traffickers, vulnerabilities can be reduced. The 2013 Super Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines left large segments of the populations vulnerable to traffickers. The Philippine government’s previous investments in addressing human trafficking enabled it to quickly react. It immediately cooperated closely with international and local NGOs to provide security and screening checkpoints at evacuation centers, in tent cities, and at major transportation hubs; these preventative measures helped to protect vulnerable populations as they migrated en masse to other parts of the country and resettled in temporary shelters or private residences. On-going activities to raise awareness and prevent human trafficking among those communities affected by the typhoon continue through TIP Office funds to the International Organization for Migration.

In the fight against human trafficking, I see enormous value in looking at the challenge from a more holistic foreign policy perspective. In the “J” Under Secretariat, where we look at foreign policy through the lens of people – not simply through the lens of states – international instability and state weakness are coming into focus as the next phase of the struggle against human slavery.

The reality is that we need peace and we need effective states to win this fight. This is the State Department and USAID’s core work. The U.S. government works diligently to prevent and stabilize conflicts, and, where it cannot, to help refugees and the internally displaced. These activities are not always recognized as part of a comprehensive approach to fight human trafficking but without them, more tailored interventions will not be sustainable.

In Jordan, USAID integrated counter-trafficking activities into a broader human rights program combating sexual and gender based violence, early marriage, and child labor among Syrian refugees and host communities affected by the Syrian crisis. With State Department funding, the International Centre for Migration Policy Development is assessing the impact of the Syrian war on trafficking in persons in Syria and the surrounding region (Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey). This information informs our humanitarian assistance at a time in which, according to UNHCR, more people were forcibly displaced – as refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people – than at any time since World War II.

Even where states are not directly challenged by conflict, they may still be fragile and corrupt or simply poor and weak. But all our normative progress against slavery matters little when states cannot uphold their laws. Where the U.S., foreign partners, and civil society can help address state weakness, we can provide a more stable and effective platform for protecting citizens. Poor enforcement of labor laws, discrimination, and restrictions on freedom of association and on other human rights and labor rights leaves many workers at risk of exploitation, including trafficking.

This is where the rest of “J” comes in. The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor promotes internationally-recognized labor rights, including for migrant workers, as part of its core mandate. The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs has some of the Department’s strongest tools for strengthening rule of law and helping governments prevent and combat corruption. Its anti-corruption and law enforcement programming provides training to law enforcement officers and the judiciary on investigating human trafficking and corruption cases. Border control is another state function critical for anti-trafficking work and INL and our Counterterrorism Bureau are active there too.

Interagency training at U.S. missions overseas, including Brazil, Cambodia, the Philippines, Togo, and Hong Kong, has enabled State Department, DHS, and FBI agents to pursue domestic trafficking cases through international cooperation and engagement in foreign countries. Our agencies have trained more than 1,700 law enforcement and consular officers, as well as locally employed staff, at overseas posts.

And finally I would just say that since the crimes of enslavement and sexual slavery may in certain circumstances constitute crimes against humanity or war crimes, our Office of Global Criminal Justice works to deter those crimes in ongoing conflicts across the globe by promoting documentation, advocating early implementation of judicial mechanisms, and – once tribunals have been established – working with those bodies to make sure those who have committed atrocity crimes are brought to justice.

This is just the “J” Under Secretariat’s part in a huge and comprehensive line of effort.

For the last 15 years, the United States and our partners have led efforts to end this crime. We will continue to do so in the wake of evolving threats. Our work is cut out for us. Respect for human rights, domestic and international rule of law, strong democratic institutions, and partnerships with civil society are keys to not only to preventing political crises but also to enabling the state to act quickly and efficiently when they occur.

In my recent trip to India, I had the opportunity to meet with Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi, who has dedicated his life to ending child labor and working with young victims of trafficking. In his acceptance speech in Oslo, Kailash stated, “I refuse to accept that all the temples and mosques and churches and prayer houses have no place for the dreams of our children. I refuse to accept that the world is so poor, when just one week of global military expenditure can bring all our children into classrooms. I refuse to accept that all the laws and constitutions, and judges and police are not able to protect our children. I refuse to accept that the shackles of slavery can ever be stronger than the quest for freedom. I REFUSE TO ACCEPT.”

Americans and their government also refuse to accept. And this is not simply a question of decency but also a matter of self-interest. In working for justice, we will not only begin to eradicate human trafficking, but also make the world a safer and ultimately more prosperous place.

Thank you.