Remarks at the Release of the 2014 Trafficking in Persons Report

John Kerry
Secretary of State
Ben Franklin Room
Washington, DC
June 20, 2014

SECRETARY KERRY: Ambassador Lou CdeBaca, thank you very, very much. Thank you for your leadership, primarily. You’re a visionary on this and a relentless advocate on behalf of human rights. We are all deeply grateful to you for your leadership. And Sarah Sewall, thank you for your leadership and for being part of this great effort.

And thank you all for being here. This is an assembly of people who have come here out of concern, a group of advocates, many of you part of law enforcement, many of you members of NGOs, advocacy groups, human rights activists – all of you deeply concerned. And I want to emphasize this report, the Trafficking In Persons Report, June 2014, this is not just a book, it’s not just a report filled with stories that will touch you. This is a call to action. It’s a call to conscience. It is a reminder of what happens in many dark places that need light. And we have a responsibility to try to bring that light to these individuals and to these places.

I’m very grateful to the heroes who are here. You’ll hear in a little bit about each of them as we hand out the awards. Their stories are inspiring. I’m very grateful also to all of our distinguished guests from the diplomatic corps, a number of ambassadors here. We are very, very grateful to them for coming. In fact, all of you are a testimony to the fact that trafficking in persons is one of those rare issues that could bring everybody together, whatever their politics or their ideology. I’m particularly grateful that one of the strongest advocates in the United States Congress, Congressman Chris Smith, is here and I thank him for his presence as well as for his leadership.

If the cries of those who are enslaved around the world today were an earthquake, then the tremors would be felt in every single nation on the continent on every continent simultaneously. For years, we have known that this crime affects every country in the world, including ours. We’re not exempt. More than 20 million people, a conservative estimate, are victims of human trafficking. And the United States is the first to acknowledge that no government anywhere yet is doing enough. We’re trying. Some aren’t trying enough. Others are trying hard. And we all need to try harder and do more.

At our last meeting of our all of government, President Obama has charged us with the responsibility of creating an all-of-government response. So when we sit down on this, every single Cabinet officer who has a responsibility, whether it’s DHS, Department of Justice, they’re all there, all coordinating. And I, as the chair, instructed this year that none of us should travel anywhere in the world and fail to raise this issue with our interlocutors, no matter what meetings, no matter where we are. This has to be on the agenda. (Applause.)

Whether it is a young girl trapped in a brothel or a woman enslaved as a domestic worker or a boy forced to sell himself on the street or a man abused on a fishing boat, the victims of these crimes all have names, all had families. And they each have been robbed of the right to lead their lives the way that they might choose to for themselves. All of us in this room are really all too aware that there’s perhaps no greater threat to human dignity and no greater assault on basic freedom than the evil of human trafficking, which is – as Sarah and Lou have said, this is a form – not a form – it is slavery, even in the 21st century. Now, I know that sometimes it’s difficult to see how or where somebody might be able to make a difference, but nothing should give us more hope than the courage of those who stand up and say loudly and clearly: We’re going to stop this. No more, never again.

So let me begin by thanking Under Secretary Sewall. Because time and again, Sarah has proven that when all the instruments of American power complement one another, when they do come together, we can find a way to tackle the most difficult challenges. She helped to get the nuclear testing moratorium passed when everybody said it’s impossible. She helped to reinvent counterinsurgency at a time when our force in Iraq was nearly broken and our efforts were at the precipice. And she convinced the U.S. Government, including the military, that it needed to think differently about genocide and how to act. She is a very, very welcome addition to our team here at the State Department.

I also want to thank our outstanding Ambassador-at-Large, Lou CdeBaca, for everything he has done these past years. Part conscience, part prosecutor, Lou has made it his mission to relegate human trafficking to the history books where it belongs. And he’s changing the way businesses – (applause) – he’s changing the way businesses root out abuses in their supply chains – from government contractors to private sector partners. And for Lou, the supply chains are not just product lines. They represent lines of responsibility. And we each have a responsibility to make sure that the goods we buy, we buy free of forced labor.

Now, I want to pay a special tribute to all of Lou’s team and everybody in the Trafficking in Persons Office. There’s an enormous amount of work that goes into this. This isn’t just a report churned out in a few days when there’s a deadline looming. This is not a week-long, it’s not even a month-long affair. This is a year-long effort that requires an enormous amount of focus and energy and ambition. And the Trafficking in Persons Report is common sense, it’s conscience, it’s conviction – it’s also facts – all rolled into one. And it’s a call to action to governments and citizens around the world to uncover modern slavery and hold it accountable to identify the victims, and bring their abusers to justice. There cannot be impunity for those who traffic in human beings. It must end. (Applause.) So that is the standard that we intend to hold ourselves to.

And when we put out a report like this, I want to say something. I have received calls from different parts of the world, from ministers and others who are concerned about this accountability and kind of want to push back a little, suggest it should be otherwise. This is not an act of arrogance. We hold ourselves to the same standard. This is an act of conscience. It is a requirement as a matter of advocacy and as a matter of doing what is right.

And the fight against modern slavery should matter to all of us. I know that it matters to this Department, and I’m proud to lead a Department that cares about it. When I was a prosecutor outside of Boston in the 1970s, I worked to put people behind bars for rape and for sexual assault, among other crimes. We were actually one of the very first jurisdictions in America to establish a witness-victim assistance program, in order to make sure that people weren’t twice victimized – once by the crime, and then by the system.

And my time as a prosecutor seared in me a very simple lesson: In the fight for justice and equality, all of us are really interconnected. And modern slavery does not exist in a vacuum. It’s interconnected with so many other 21st century challenges, from narcotics trafficking to all of the criminal enterprises that traffic in arms or other efforts – even global international crime creates the channels and frameworks which are used to be able to abuse these kinds of processes. And I learned that back when I was uncovering the Noriega drug connections and the banking system that gave into it and the willingness of people to entertain people, including Usama bin Ladin, who was part of the clientele of a particular bank that we uncovered. That’s what happens. Other criminal activity is empowered, and it all rips and tears at the fabric of rule of law and of viable states remaining viable.

So we have to combat this. Obviously, there is no denying that we face big challenges. Big countries tackle big challenges every single day, and that’s, I think, what defines us. So even as we know that Iraq is in trouble and we’re dealing with conflicts still in Afghanistan and other places, that’s no reason to back off. It’s no reason to turn away. There is no excuse for not pursuing all of these things. We have the ability to multi-task, we have the ability to stay focused, and in the end, they’re all connected because the networks that fund terrorists are the same networks that permit people to move this kind of money illicitly around the world.

We are talking about real people – men and women, boys and girls, transgender individuals – whose lives have been abandoned to the most depraved instincts. Because on this World Refugee Day we are especially mindful of our common responsibility to care for the most vulnerable, for the displaced, and for those who migrate in search of a better life.

Now, I know in today’s world with all of the hurly-burly of everyday life, with massive amounts of media coming at everybody, it’s pretty easy to miss the human faces behind the statistics. So I just want to share with you a few stories, if I can, to put faces to this crime – a few ways that you will see how modern slavery is a stain on the conscience of the world.

Abeo is a young woman from Nigeria. And one night, she was abducted from her home – from her home – and forced into prostitution. She suffered unspeakable crimes – from beatings to rape to forced labor. And after learning that she was pregnant from one of the many rapes that she had endured, her traffickers sent her by boat to Spain. Her traffickers told her that she owed them tens of thousands of dollars for the cost of the journey, and they planned to force her into prostitution there in order to pay for it. Her situation was horrific by any standard. But Abeo did not just persevere. She reported the threat to Spanish authorities, when she found a place that she was able to go to where there was a system of law. And thanks to her courage and thanks to the commitment of the authorities in Spain, the human trafficking ring that abused her was broken up and its leaders were brought to justice.

So here’s the lesson that Abeo teaches us: Wherever rule of law is weak, where corruption is most ingrained, and where populations can’t count on the protection of governments and of law enforcement, there you find zones of vulnerability to trafficking. But wherever rule of law is strong, where individuals are willing to speak out and governments willing to listen, we find zones of protection against trafficking. And that is what is possible if we double down on dignity, which is what we are doing here today.

But if you dive deeper, you’ll see that some of the worst abuses happen in places that we rarely think to look – within the supply chains of logging and mining industries, on board fishing vessels, and in processing plants.

Oscar, a young boy from Peru. His cousin worked in the mining region and he told him stories about being paid in chunks of gold. So Oscar left home at 16 for Peru’s forests with the dream of finding a job. But those dreams became his nightmare the moment he arrived at the gold mine. The owner told him that he had to work 90 days just to repay the fee his cousin got for recruiting him. Oscar thought about running away, but the owner controlled the river traffic. Escape was simply not an option. So he stayed. He toiled in deplorable conditions. He contracted malaria and was left to die in a hut. After eight months, Oscar returned home only to come down with yellow fever. He had to borrow money from his family to pay for a doctor. He fell into debt and returned to the very forests he’d worked to escape just months before.

Here’s what Oscar teaches us: Exacting profits from exploiting people often go hand in hand in illegal, unsustainable, and unregulated industries – the very things we’re trying to fight: unregulated, unsustainable, exploited outside of the law. And they destroy all of commerce, because they undermine the legitimacy of the rest of the business world. From Latin America to Africa to Asia, to other parts of the world, there are illegal mining and logging that can create not only environmental degradation because it operates outside of the law and regulatory concepts, but zones of impunity where trafficking can prey on their victims. So we need to bring these industries and these people that they exploit out of the shadows. And we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.

Now obviously, it’s not just illegal mining and logging where you find this kind of a problem. And how do I know that? Because of the story of a woman named Flor.

Flor was a seamstress from Mexico. She worked two jobs just to support her young children. One day, she heard about a sewing opportunity in the United States. Her recruiter told her that she’d make a lot more money if she – than she did in Mexico, and therefore she’d be able to give her kids a better life. So she headed for the border. When she got there, the woman who arranged her trip stripped her of her identification documents and her belongings. She was taken immediately to a sewing factory and put to work – from four in the morning until late at night. She was beaten, abused, and prevented from leaving the factory. After 40 days of this hell, she managed to escape to a local church. And they got the help she needed, and today, she is a leader in the national survivors’ caucus in the United States.

So here’s what Flor teaches us: We need to integrate anti-trafficking efforts into all areas of our diplomatic and development work. Trafficking is a criminal enterprise, plain and simple. The profits alone exceed $150 billion a year. No company can compete with another company that’s willing to inhumanely commercialize its workforce. And if we want to have our legitimate businesses compete on a fair playing field, then we need to end the climate of impunity behind these hidden sectors of the economy.

And that is why the State Department is working with civil society to prevent corporate and federal dollars from abetting this crime. That’s why we’re partnering with –[1] – in order to develop a risk assessment tool that will help business leaders weigh the risks of trafficking throughout their supply chains. And that’s why we’re teaming up with Verite, an award-winning labor-rights NGO, in order to develop a range of resources for businesses committed to eradicating this scourge, from trainings and awareness programs to plans for recruitment and fair wages and housing.

So my friends, in summary, the lessons here are as clear as they are compelling: 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. That is the vision that inspired generations of abolitionists who have preceded us. William Wilberforce spent a lifetime fighting to end slavery throughout the British Empire. Standing before parliament, he said: “Having heard all of this you may choose to look the other way but you can never again say that you did not know.”

Today, thanks to Abeo, Oscar, Flor and so many other survivors, thanks to the 10 that we will honor today, we all know about the horrors of modern slavery. And we are determined, we will not look the other way. That’s what this year’s report is all about. That’s our cause of action now, and together, I am convinced that we can and we will make a difference.

Thank you all. (Applause.)