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Civil Remedies for Human Trafficking Victims

Ambassador Mark P. Lagon, Director of the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Remarks at the American Bar Association National Training Institute on Civil Remedies for Human Trafficking Victims
Washington, DC
October 2, 2008

Good morning. It’s my pleasure to be here this morning with attorneys from around the country and, indeed, from around the world. Thank you, Karen, for your kind words. And special thanks to Bill Livermore of LexisNexis, a valued partner and friend in the global fight to combat human trafficking.

Trafficking is a crime that respects no borders. In virtually every country around the world, including the United States, men, women, and children are held in domestic servitude, forcibly exploited for commercial sex, coerced to work in factories and sweatshops. In some, children are forcibly recruited as soldiers. These forms of human trafficking are, in fact, modern-day slavery. Estimates of the number of victims vary widely. According to the U.S. intelligence community, approximately 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. About 80 percent are female, and up to half are minors. These figures do not include millions who are trafficked for purposes of labor and sexual exploitation within national borders.

Just over 200 years ago, the transatlantic slave trade was abolished. While much has changed since then, the same lie which underpinned the transatlantic slave trade of the 18th and 19th centuries, namely that some people are less than human, is the very lie that is at the root of sex and labor trafficking today. Men, women and children are being bought and sold as commodities.

Before we proceed, it is important to clear up any misunderstanding that may exist about the difference between the issues of human trafficking and human smuggling. Human smuggling is the illicit transfer of someone across sovereign borders, often with the consent of the person being smuggled. Trafficking is not chiefly about moving people across borders. Human trafficking involves a defining element of gross exploitation and control over an individual. As recognized in both U.S. law and international definitions of trafficking, human trafficking exists when victims are exploited through the use of force, fraud or coercion, regardless of whether they initially may have given their consent.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed, and the President signed, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), which created the office I now lead. Part of our Congressional mandate is to produce the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report every June. The report is an invaluable tool in drawing the world's attention to the existence of modern-day slavery. It spells out what countries around the world are doing on the three “P” approach: prosecution, protection, and prevention, and what more can be done together between the United States and other countries on all three fronts.

Prosecution includes passing comprehensive anti-trafficking legislation and criminal, not just civil, prosecutions of traffickers. In many countries there is official indifference in the face of labor trafficking, which is too often considered a civil, regulatory offense, rather than being criminalized. It is not just poverty and desperation that make human trafficking possible, but also the extreme greed and sadism of the exploiters and the catalyst of corruption of complicit officials. Governments must have the political will to hold traffickers to fullest account, notably in the form of harsh sentencing reflective of the severity of the crime they have committed. Moreover, in order to fight human trafficking we need an independent judiciary and adherence to the rule of law so that officials “on the take” all over the world stop enabling exploiters. Too often, victims seeking protection under the law from police, judges and immigration officials, find that those who should be their advocate are in fact furthering their degradation.

The second “P,” Protection includes identifying, rescuing, assisting, and rehabilitating victims, as well as encouraging government and NGO cooperation. We noted in this year’s TIP Report that despite increased attention by law enforcement to sex trafficking worldwide, we do not see significant improvement in victim protection or services provided. This trend must be reversed or we will never be able to help significant numbers of victims become survivors– not just rescued but fully restored in their dignity. Additionally, government cooperation with NGOs is critical to effectively helping victims of human trafficking. Government ambivalence or even hostility to NGOs and other civil society actors hinders victim identification and assistance.

We need healthy and free civil society working in partnership with government to identify and help victims. For example, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) launched a campaign called “Look Beneath the Surface,” which targets frontline health care professionals, law enforcement and social service providers to identify victims who are often afraid to come forward. This close collaboration between our own government and the NGO community is commendable. But there’s still room for improvement.

Increasingly, we are seeing a need for intensive case management for U.S. citizens who are trafficked within the country to access the rights and services that are available to them. Also, there is a special necessity to see children treated as victims without pressure to cooperate with law enforcement. If victims are helped and stabilized in their trauma, they will then become more willing and reliable witnesses to support prosecutions of their gross exploiters. I am pleased to highlight the recent signing of New York’s Safe Harbor Law as a model in this regard. That law requires children 15 years of age or younger in prostitution to be handed immediately to NGOs for social services rather than punished by imprisonment.

Of particular note for the legal community is the T Visa, which allows foreign trafficking victims to remain in the United States and assist federal authorities in the investigation and prosecution of human trafficking cases. The T Visa gives victims a place of refuge in the aftermath of severe exploitation. This applies even to individuals who may have originally come here without proper documentation, if it is clear that they were recruited or transported through force, fraud or coercion, for the purpose of exploitation. Our office is working closely with the Department of Homeland Security to establish a path to citizenship, where merited, for these victims.

As for the third “P,” Prevention includes raising public awareness and training law enforcement and first-responders. Our office also believes that success in preventing exploitation, abuse and coercion endemic in human trafficking can be found in our ability to work toward that end in partnership with substantial players outside of government. Secretary Rice aptly noted that, “The solutions to the challenges of the 21st century are not going to be met by government alone. They come from all sectors of American society working together.” Public private partnerships and corporate social responsibility are part of that solution.

Microsoft has a regional initiative in Asia to combat human trafficking, both in the area of forced labor and the sex trade. Columbia Gem House stands out for its assurances that its vendors do not employ child labor, slave labor, or any unfair labor practices to produce the gemstones it sells. My office has worked closely with LexisNexis and I am happy to say they have gone above and beyond by supporting one of the leading anti-trafficking NGOs in Asia. At home, LexisNexis is offering its know-how to develop a database of social service providers to assist the anti-trafficking NGO, The Polaris Project, which manages the National Human Trafficking Resource Center and its hotline. Companies like the ones I have mentioned believe that supporting anti-trafficking initiatives is both ethical and smart public relations. While many of their activities exemplify good corporate citizenship, generally speaking, they are also preventative anti-human trafficking measures.

From the cocoa industry in West Africa to the travel and tourism sector facing the phenomenon of child sex tourism in places from Cancun to Cambodia, our message must be unambiguous and clear; both the public and private sector have zero tolerance for human trafficking of any kind. These partnerships that come in all shapes and sizes can contribute tangibly to not just mitigating but eradicating modern-day slavery.

Lawyers and law firms can play a crucial role as private actors working for the public good. They can support justice and protection for victims, as well as prevention in public-private partnerships. Since the passage of the TVPA, we’ve made unprecedented forward movement in the struggle to prosecute traffickers, protect victims, and prevent human trafficking. In the past five years, foreign governments have passed over 150 acts of new or amended anti-trafficking legislation and more than 30 states have approved anti-trafficking statutes. As a leader in this global effort, the United States recognizes the importance of international partners and has committed more than $528 million for international anti-trafficking programs since 2001, much of which goes to civil society organizations.

Though we’ve seen noteworthy accomplishments in the global anti-trafficking movement, we must continue to work for fundamental principles of democracy, pluralism, and rule of law–what we call in State Department and foreign assistance policy as the central goal of “governing justly.” This goal involves four basic elements: 1) treating victims as full rights-bearers; 2) holding those who would dehumanize them fully to account with criminal punishment; 3) holding to account corrupt officials abetting their exploitation; and 4) fostering partnerships with civil society as crucial assets to government action. I thank you for taking the time to be here this morning and over the next two days. I welcome each of you as a valued partner in this quest for rule of law and governing justly. This is a worthy fight, not merely to regulate or mitigate, but to abolish modern-day slavery.

Released on October 17, 2008

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