Working With the Vatican Against Modern Slavery

John Kerry
Secretary of State
The Boston Globe
April 20, 2014

Last month, I traveled to Rome with President Obama, where I was honored to meet His Holiness Pope Francis. As an altar boy six decades ago, I never imagined that I would find myself crossing the threshold of the Vatican to see the Bishop of Rome.

My wife, Teresa, and I took our own pilgrimage three years ago at Easter to Assisi, and traveled to Porziuncala to see the chapel which St. Francis restored out of the rubble, one of his own special ways of acting upon the prophecy visited upon him to “repair my house.” Two years later, Teresa and I sat in Mass at Georgetown as our priest shared the moving story of the moment Pope Francis decided to take Francis for his name as the Holy Father – after the Cardinal from Brazil shared his caution not to “forget the poor.”

Today, all the world knows that this was more than a symbolic statement by Pope Francis, but rather the start of a mission that is now an example to the world.

Today, as the first Catholic Secretary of State in 33 years, I find special joy and pride in the way that the United States can partner with the Holy See to help meet some of our greatest global challenges.

Among those challenges, we find perhaps no greater threat to human dignity, no greater assault on basic freedom, than the evil of human trafficking — what we call modern-day slavery and what Pope Francis himself denounced as “a crime against humanity.”

Whether it comes in the form of a young girl trapped in a brothel, a woman enslaved as a domestic worker, a boy forced to sell himself on the street, or a man abused on a fishing boat, the victims of this crime have been robbed of the right to lead the lives they choose for themselves.

For years, it has been apparent that this crime affects every country in the world. As many as 27 million people are victims, and the United States is the first to acknowledge that no government anywhere is doing enough.

But as we dive deeper, we begin to see that modern slavery, like so many other 21st century challenges, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It’s interconnected with so many of our other foreign-policy concerns, from environmental sustainability to advancing the lives of women and girls to combating transnational organized crime. Wherever we find poverty and lack of opportunity — wherever the rule of law is weak, where corruption is most ingrained, and where populations can’t count on the protection of government and law enforcement — we find not just vulnerability to trafficking, but zones of impunity where traffickers can more easily prey on their victims.

A major zone of impunity is beyond the border and jurisdiction of any single country. Research shows us that people laboring on the high seas are subject to brutal abuse and enslavement. This fact cannot be separated from our other concerns about the ocean: if we want to secure safe and free trade routes, bolster global food security, or curb environmental degradation, we ignore the oceans at our peril.

Trafficking sits at the intersection of all these issues.

Do we think that a ship’s captain who beats and murders his crew will respect his fishing quota? Do we believe he’ll respect laws against smuggling drugs, weapons, and people? Do we think he’s helping conserve the environment for future generations? The answers are self-evident, and so is the need to address this problem head-on.

We are starting to make progress. I’ve instructed the Trafficking in Persons Office at the State Department to zero in on the way modern slavery entangles with economic and environmental concerns. This is one powerful example of how we are engaging with faith communities to solve a range of global issues of mutual concern, in partnership with the new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives at the State Department, led by Dr. Shaun Casey, whom I recruited from Wesley Seminary.

A key partner in these efforts will be the Apostolate of the Sea, a Catholic organization with a world-wide network of clergy and lay religious serving workers in the fishing fleet and their families. Working together, we feel confident we can improve the way we uncover modern slavery, identify its victims, get them out of harm’s way, and bring their abusers to justice.

As Christians the world over celebrate Easter, this is a fitting place to fix our gaze. Christ found his earliest followers off the shore of the Sea of Galilee. He brought them off their fishing boats to become his apostles, to spread his message of love and compassion. Particularly at Easter, this is a message that can guide people of all faiths. When we embrace our common humanity and stand up for the dignity of all people, we realize the vision of a world that is more caring and more just — a world free from slavery.