At the Protection Project’s Embassy Luncheon entitled “Department of State Trafficking in Persons Report 2012: Findings and Recommendations,” Ambassador-at-Large to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons Luis CdeBaca referred to an impulse to view the modern fight against trafficking as a relatively new fight. This impulse can be explained by how recent many of the major developments in the struggle against human trafficking are. The Palermo Protocol Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, which set minimum international standards for prevention, prosecution and protection in cases of trafficking, was only adopted by the United Nations in 2000; the United States’ Trafficking Victims Protection Act was first passed in 2000; and the State Department issued its first Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report in 2001. But as we draw close to the 150th anniversary of the Empancipation Proclamation, it is important to remember that human trafficking is, as CdeBaca said, “an issue that has been present as long as human history,” and the struggle against it has been going on just as long.
CdeBaca encouraged taking the fight against trafficking out of isolation. Activists and governments can take from work previously done to combat other issues, such as domestic violence and marital rape, which have in play many of the same power issues that affect people who are being trafficked. Countries can also learn from each other and from what practices have worked best in similar cultural contexts. With the annual release of the TIP report, countries should not just look at their own narrative in the report, but at the narratives of other countries: countries in the same region, countries with the same tier ranking, and even countries who have achieved a Tier 1 ranking. The TIP report is not just a ranking exercise; it provides guidance and advice on best practices, it creates a sense of competition among countries and spurs further action, and it draws attention to issues in trafficking that might otherwise not have been recognized.
Taking trafficking out of isolation means we can’t continue to isolate the types of trafficking. CdeBaca noted a gap, which is gradually decreasing, in addressing sex trafficking and labor trafficking, neither of which, he said, “is trafficking by itself … It’s two sides of the same coin. It’s the same fight.” Recognizing that labor trafficking is as much human trafficking as sex trafficking is means recognizing that labor trafficking cannot be treated merely as a labor violation. As a means of addressing labor trafficking, labor inspections alone are insufficient; criminal inspections and criminal tools are needed. Otherwise, businesses will view fines for trafficking as simply a cost of doing labor. We also cannot just view trafficking as a matter of prosecuting traffickers; we also need to address the consumers that drive the demand. The consumer demand is often a result of willful ignorance, a refusal to consider what exploitative forces allow for low produce prices and cheap, but fashionable, clothes.
I was also grateful that CdeBaca encouraged the ambassadors, embassy representatives, government officials, and workers at NGOs in the audience to move away from an all-too-common notion that people who have been trafficked “are waiting helplessly behind closed doors like Rapunzel.” These are individuals who have survived being enslaved, who have developed coping mechanisms, and whose autonomy we need to respect. We should “not infantilize them or act as though we’ve rescued them.” We should allow them instead the freedom to make their own decisions, including the freedom to make their own mistakes.
With the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation approaching, it is important to remember that the fight against human trafficking “is the American legacy. It is who we are as a country.” It is a fight that both deserves and requires our continued attention and our continued efforts.
Read the Protection Project’s review of the 2012 TIP Report.