Luis CdeBaca
Ambassador-at-Large, Office To Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
John F. Kennedy, Jr. Forum, Harvard University's Institute of Politics
Boston, MA
February 18, 2010

As prepared

Good evening. I am proud to be able to come to Boston tonight to talk with you. There are many walking tours of historic Boston, and I and many others have enjoyed walking in the footsteps of the founders. But as we think about how we can live up to the legacy of freedom left by such giants as Abigail and John Adams, I would suggest taking a look at these historic streets through another lens. Because it was through these streets that U.S. marines, acting on the orders of a federal judge, marched Thomas Sims, who had made it North to freedom, to a navy ship that took him back to his owner in Georgia. But only 10 years later, in the wake of the Emancipation Proclamation, these same streets saw a very different scene, as the men of the 54th Volunteers marched off to battle for a Union that had finally cast off the mantle of slavery.

It was through these streets that women too marched, insisting on equal rights and an end to domestic violence. They persuaded a young Middlesex County prosecutor named John Kerry to get a federal grant to start the first victim-assistance unit in the country, creating a new way of looking at how law enforcement could serve the powerless.

And a few years ago, it was through these streets that a woman named Veronica Pedroza, running away from the woman who was holding her in domestic servitude, found a good Samaritan who helped her escape. She found her way to a non-governmental organization, and eventually to me. When federal agents went to the home in Winchester, we found two women who had been brought in to replace her, and in a locked safe, their passports. Their boss pled guilty and was deported in disgrace; her victims are carving out new lives in America. And so our version of the Freedom Walk ends happily, but with a burden that we owe all of those who walked this path before.

It has now been 10 years since the passage of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Ten years since the adoption of the United Nations Protocol that guides our response to modern slavery by mandating that human trafficking must be confronted by working for more and better Prosecutions, increased victim Protection, and ultimately, Prevention of this heinous crime – the “3P Paradigm.” Of this approach, which has become the global standard, we are rightfully proud.

The “3P” approach allowed us to ensure that, when we found those women in Winchester, there were non-governmental organizations and trained people in law enforcement agencies to whom we could turn for help. It is an approach that applies the lessons of the domestic violence movement, that fought for a victim-centered solution to a hidden crime – an approach that would not replicate or mimic the stigma and abuse of the batterer, but would look to women’s’ experiences and strength to fight against the violence. It is an approach that seeks to deliver, every day, on the promise of Emancipation; to honor the glory achieved by those who fought for freedom; and to guarantee the promise made by the 13th Amendment that never again would “slavery or involuntary servitude … exist in the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” A framework, to be sure. A bold proposition. A sharp turn of a phrase. But what do these “3P’s” mean, once they are taken from the page and applied to the real world?

Over the last 15 years, we have built the “3P’s” into an interlocking paradigm. It stands for the proposition that it is not enough to catch the bad guys, if we do not also provide for the survivors and work to ensure that no one else is victimized. It is not enough to run a modern underground railroad (caring for the survivors anonymously and in the shadows), if law enforcement cannot also put the traffickers out of business. And it is not enough to merely raise awareness of human trafficking as another “issue of the month,” if that awareness is not harnessed to link those who need help with those who seek to help them.

So we have the paradigm, and we have the policies that follow. One hundred thirty six countries are parties to the UN Protocol. New laws have come online around the world. Thousands of victims have been helped, and we have seen thousands of arrests and prosecutions that would never have been brought without the legal and policy achievements of the last decade.

But still, the promise of our Constitution, the mandates and protections of the UN Protocol, and the cutting-edge American anti-trafficking laws have, to date, only been applied to a subset of the victims about which we know. The lowest estimate is that of the International Labor – 12.3 million people toiling in bondage around the world, representing a profit to the abusers of $32 billion and an additional loss to the victims of $20 billion. And in a world with millions of victims, success stories in the thousands account for an unforgivably low percentage. Some of that is because of the global value that is put on fighting human trafficking – both in terms of money and power that Ben alluded to in his introduction. But I think it’s also due to a sort of “root cause malaise”.

Let me be clear: human trafficking is sexist, racist, environmentally degrading, and economically destabilizing. Its presence undermines the rule of law and its perpetrators are guilty of the most heinous human rights abuses any of us could imagine. But human trafficking around the world is not something we can address only by ridding the world of sexism and racism, of poverty, conflict, corruption or human rights abuses. Nor is it a cultural phenomenon that can only be tackled with education and awareness building.

To put it bluntly, trafficking in persons is a crime. It is a crime akin to murder and rape and kidnapping. We have to confront it not just by addressing root causes that are so far away from the realities of the trafficker and those they enslave, but by using all of our tools. And so the UN Protocol mandates criminalization of trafficking in persons, and the U.S. laws are very focused on law enforcement, because a policy solution to a heinous crime problem must involve freeing the victims and punishing their tormentors.

As long as there are only 3,000 prosecutions worldwide every year, society is sending a message that despite movies and advertisements and conferences, somehow the injustice the victims suffer is not really a national or an international priority. That may be because the victims of this crime are perceived to be throwaways – runaways, poor, prostitutes, or “illegals.” We should not be measured by how well we protect the “deserving victim” – the innocent who is deceived and kidnapped. Rather, we have to stand for everyone’s entitlement to justice. Traffickers should not be assessed by who their victims are, but by the heinous crimes they commit. Otherwise, we’re sending a message that the traffickers are not hurting people who matter.

We need only to look at our own history to know the moral depravity of failing to protect some in society. African-Americans who were once held in legal slavery were the most obvious inhabitants of a zone of impunity – an alternative America where those who burned them alive, beat them in their jail cells, or held them in debt bondage could do so because society ignored the Constitutional promises of freedom and equal protection. Later, crimes against women were often dismissed as family matters, or events that she “should have seen coming.” Native Americans and undocumented immigrants, street children and prostitutes have also been left at times to fend for themselves.

The people who are on the farthest margins of any society have as much right as anyone to the protection of the criminal law. Indeed, they need the protection more than those who legal establishments would like to favor. They have a right to see their abusers brought to justice. They have a right to have their voices heard in the legal process. It is because of this that I strongly believe that compassionate and smart prosecution is the foundation to the victim-centered approach of the “3P’s.” And yet, as sure as we cannot wait for every societal ill to end before we free people, we will never effectively combat modern slavery through prosecution alone. Prosecution alone cannot provide victims with the compassion and patience that meets their immediate needs and long-term potential alike.

A victim-centered approach does not mean patching up a potential witness long enough to get their testimony; it means obligations that extend well beyond the confines of a criminal case. It means partnerships between law enforcement and service providers, not just to win the case, but as colleagues sharing the responsibility of letting the survivors’ voices be heard. It means policies that allow these things to happen, with the best interest of the victims in mind. Like counseling and certain forms of immigration relief. An umbrella of services that surround the survivor, but also extend to their children and family members who are in danger or feel peril. It means access to educational and economic opportunities and a conception of justice not as a winning percentage of court cases but instead as a process that recognizes and reinstates the power of the survivor. At its best, victim protection is a series of laws and policies – broadly funded, understood and implemented – with adaptability on the ground and always taking into account the needs of the victim.

The sad truth is that we have a long way to go here. In my travels (as I have today) I speak frequently about the “3P’s” of prosecution, protection, and prevention. But all too often, when it comes to protection, policies and practices are at best unhelpful and at worst harmful. In the failure of many countries to adequately protect their victims, a new alliterative paradigm emerges: the “3Ds” of victim mis-protection – Deterrence, Detention, and Deportation – as countries jail and repatriate victims without screening or protection, deterring NGOs from bringing their clients to government's attention. If we are to deliver on the promise of freedom, we must confront what happens to the victim when liberated from their trafficker.

Here’s how the Obama Administration is delivering on the promise of freedom. We’re making linkages between NGOs who run shelters with openness and flexibility and their partners in those countries who still think that a women’s shelter means a cleaner jail. We’re advocating for legal changes so that exclusionary policies are taken off the books and victim protections are put in place: Like laws which required guest workers to get permission from their employer – even the one who may have beaten or raped them – in order to switch jobs or leave the country; laws that only recently we got rid of in our Pacific territories; or laws that require a victim win his or her case in court before being granted immigration status. We’re working with governments to ensure that the way they register births and care for at-risk youth prevents people from becoming victims, rather than shunting them off into a zone of impunity where they are fair game for the predators. Changing these policies doesn’t just protect victims; they keep people from being victimized in the first place. For as far as we have to go on protection, we must go still further on prevention.

Fighting trafficking is about fighting modern slavery, not cleaning up after the traffickers who practice it. I have been accused throughout the years of using some fairly inventive language, often reflecting my family’s ranching background. And the reactive approach to combating trafficking that is seen in so many places brings to mind a particularly apropos saying about closing the barn door after the horses have run off. At its core, combating trafficking in persons is about prevention, and to be clear, strong prosecution and victim protection are critical to effective prevention. But we can and must do more.

In the past 10 years, we’ve seen a lot to talk about prevention. Every time we talk about the “3P’s”, there it is. But when it comes time to include it in policies, or legal instruments, the concept of prevention seems to have become, at best, an afterthought; a feel-good throwaway to ease the hard-edged work of arresting traffickers and the stressful reality of victim service provision. It is time to move past naivety to reality when it comes to prevention efforts. Ten years ago the world’s comfort zone around prevention limited it to public awareness campaigns or the big structural fixes of alleviating poverty, gender discrimination – root causes so enormous that anti-trafficking imperatives got lost in the development response.

A decade later, we are expanding our understanding of prevention to include policies and practices that cut it off at the source. This is where government, corporations and consumers come together on this issue. It’s about looking at our demand for cheap goods and how we ensure that free trade means free labor rather than labor for free. About a hospitality industry that facilitates tourism and business, rather than panderers and pedophiles. To paraphrase President Obama’s speech in Tokyo, it’s about society valuing a girl not for her body, but for her potential. A cultural change that is then reflected in what government and business do on a daily basis. Because at its best, prevention is not just about poster campaigns; it’s about implementation and results.

Implementation and results matter, or we will have a lot of public condemnation, with interesting documentaries and advertisements to show for our efforts, but will not have changed the fact of this crime. If public awareness without policy implementation is the legacy we leave, this fight can and should be again dismissed as a “moral panic,” just as the White Slavery hysteria and weak laws of the early 1900s that effectively lost us a century. Therefore, in the Obama Administration, we are looking for ways to reduce the demand for commercial sex and forced labor through stronger enforcement, better reporting, and the development of government-endorsed business standards for supply chain monitoring.

The 2008 Trafficking Reauthorization law that then Senator Biden sponsored gave us important new tools that stand for the proposition that ignorance is not an excuse. The strip club owner who looks the other way as “talent agents” enslave women is no longer just a bystander, he is an accomplice. So too for the grower who looks the other way as farm labor contractors use force and threats to get in the crops. To those who have turned a willfully blind eye to the exploitation in front of them, the new law puts down a marker: whether you partake or profit, you’re accountable. Period. And in that spirit, we need to hold ourselves accountable as well. To hold countries, including our own, accountable for policies and practices that either create or further endanger populations vulnerable to trafficking. This year, we will rank the United States in the annual Trafficking Report for the first time and encourage other countries to undertake honest self-assessments.

But when I say we, I don’t just mean governments, I mean us. Each of us should take personal responsibility for our own contribution to this crime. Just as we know to think about our carbon footprint, we must each pause to assess our modern slavery footprint.

There is a campaign in Latin America that routes victims to a hotline so that they can “call and live.” What we can do – each of us – is “ask and act”:

  • Was the cotton that made my shirt picked by a trafficked woman?
  • Was the shrimp I ate for dinner last night caught by a man enslaved on a fishing boat?
  • Did my Valentines’ Day chocolate come from children enslaved on cocoa farms?

So you see, prevention shouldn’t be seen as the weakest of the "3P's," reduced to an afterthought or a rhetorical flourish, but instead can become the most interesting, most exciting and, yes, most challenging, part of this fight. A year ago, when President Obama took office, people around the globe were hopeful for a new day where America would lead the world through positive change. Today, we have seen the early stages of positive change take place, with the pursuit of improved human security policies and practices that better the daily lives of trafficking victims. And while fighting involuntary servitude has been a priority for such Administrations as those of Ulysses Grant, Franklin Roosevelt, Bill Clinton and George Bush, never before have we seen an Administration with such a wide array of senior officials with such depth of experience on the frontlines of this fight. Indeed, if you were to take a walking tour of the people behind the President, you can’t help but be struck by their understanding of trafficking victims as real and innocent people.

On my part, I can tell you of some of the survivors who I’ve been lucky enough to know. The man who dove over a fellow sweatshop worker to protect her with his own body, only to suffer permanent nerve damage in his arm and his jaw as the guards’ clubs rained down. The maids who furtively looked up English words in their bosses’ dictionary over the course of weeks to write a note which they threw over the backyard fence in the hope that someone would come for them. The woman who ran up to a police officer in a Dollar Store to point out her pimps and beg “arrest me; it’s the only way I’ll get away from him.” These are not people who are weak, or powerless, or lack an understanding of what is right or wrong. They are just people who need for us to listen to them, and walk with them on the path to freedom.

I’m not the only person in the Administration with these kinds of experiences. We now have a Secretary of State that brought America’s antislavery fight to our modern policy agenda in the 1990s when nobody but a few civil rights lawyers and immigrant advocates knew it still existed. Her memory of comforting a victim who lay dying lives on in our dedication to this fight. We have a Secretary of Labor who cares about this issue not because it is in her organizational chart, but because as a Congresswoman, she helped stop a deportation of a trafficking victim who had been failed by the system for more than 20 years. We have a Vice President who is passionate about ending Violence Against Women; the last bill that he passed in the Senate was the path breaking 2008 Trafficking law that provided so many critical tools for our work. We have Assistant Secretaries like Tom Perez, Harvard’s own Juliette Kayyem, and Arif Alikhan, who convened the first task forces, advocated for the first laws, and tried some of the first cases under the "3P" approach. Across the agencies, the President has appointed people who fought modern slavery as victim advocates, human rights researchers, and prosecutors. He has called upon us to view the fight against modern slavery as a shared responsibility; to see how, working together, “we can and must end this most serious, ongoing criminal civil rights violation.” So you see, this is an Administration comprised of individuals who earned their place at the table by fighting traffickers. Not all of us work on trafficking full-time, but all of us carry with us the strength of the survivors with whom we have walked.

And we don’t just walk with those who we know. We walk in the footsteps of those who have fought for their own freedom. Of Thomas Sims, whose court case roiled the abolitionist community here in Massachusetts. Of Anh Sou, who brought a habeas petition in 1904 to try to keep from being deported after escaping from those who had enslaved her in prostitution. Of Dora Jones, whose mistress brazenly walked into a police station in 1946 and scared the escaped maid so much that she quietly returned to servitude.

Why am I telling you stories of people whose suffering was so long ago? Because they are why we need a “3P” approach. It is for them, and those we do not yet know. Without laws and legal training, the police in California didn’t think to keep Dora Jones’ mistress from reclaiming her slave. Without victim protections such as the modern “T-visa,” the church group who was trying to help Anh Sou could not prevent her from being deported back to China. And without a Constitutional provision to banish slavery from our shores, the only thing the military could do was enforce the judgment of the court and send Thomas Sims back into bondage.

People sometimes ask me how I can work on something as horrifying as modern slavery; how I can resist the secondary trauma and the seemingly intractable challenge? At the end of the day, I think that I can continue to do this because these are not stories of despair, but of hope. The hope is in our history. If in one short decade, Boston can go from witnessing American troops dragging a slave back to his master to cheering freed slaves as they marched off to fight for freedom, surely, with the new tools and new paradigms of the last decade, we can deliver on the Constitution’s living promise of freedom at home and around the world.