It’s been a pretty good decade, but we have a heck of a lot more work to do. That was the core message Luis C. deBaca, Ambassador-at-Large for the U.S. State Department Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, presented at the annual Freedom Network Conference this week. And he’s right. We know a lot more about and have done a lot more to fight human trafficking than back in 2000. But we still don’t know or do nearly enough. The coming decade, the State Department says, will change that.
Arguably, the anti-trafficking movement is little more than a decade old. Many people claim it originated in 2000, with the passage of the first anti-trafficking law in the U.S. and the signing of the Palermo Protocol in the UN. But several NGOs were addressing this issue in the mid-to-late 90s, and people have been fighting against human trafficking under other names for much, much longer. In 2000, much of the global understanding of human trafficking was extremely limited, mostly to the highly visible sex trafficking of young women from the former Soviet Union to Western Europe and the U.S. in the 90s. Since then, we’ve learned a lot.
As Ambassador deBaca pointed out, we now know that modern-day slavery happens in every country, including here in the U.S. We understand that it is driven by demand, empowered by poor legislation and enforcement, and catalyzed by poverty and inequality. “Trafficking” has come to mean “slavery,” not “transportation,” and we recognize both domestic and international trafficking. And as more people are tricked and coerced into forced labor and commercial sex, we know that kidnapping is not the most common way for traffickers to find victims.
But perhaps most importantly, we have learned that we — as citizens, activists, individuals, families, and communities — can end human trafficking. And we can do it with simple, every day choices about how we live and what we buy. As Ambassador deBaca said in his speech, “Do we value cheap lettuce more than we value the hands that picked it?”
He also stated that we need to hold ourselves accountable, meaning the U.S. government. And the State Department will, for the first time ever this year, rank itself in the annual Trafficking in Persons Report, on how well it complies with the minimum standards of its own law. But as we move forward into the next decade of fighting human trafficking, I’m going to ask us to hold ourselves accountable as individuals as well.
As individuals, we have done amazing things to fight human trafficking in the past decade. We have rescued thousands upon thousands of victims from a life of slavery. We have prevented the exploitation of who knows how many more. And we have brought justice to the perpetrators of this crime. But we have also bought clothes and eaten chocolate and used cell phones made by slaves and children. We have patronized strip clubs that hire minors and turned a blind eye to sexual violence. We have contributed to the demand that drives the market.
But starting today, we can throw off the shackles that bind us and our brothers and sisters in slavery. It’s a new decade, and it’s our chance to be the dawn of a brighter era.
Photo credit: audreyjim529